Noise /(noun): (a) any sound that is undesired or interferes with one’s hearing of something; (b) an unwanted signal or a disturbance; (c) irrelevant or meaningless data or output occurring along with desired information
It won’t come as any surprise to hear that trying to keep up with email traffic makes it difficult for people to achieve their goals. In this article we consider some practical steps as well as some smart automation to help reduce email noise. It’s not only the obvious time spent on reading, composing or responding to emails (which McKinsey research concluded is around 28% of the working week on average – see our article on email collaboration software) but, according to a report from Loughborough University the situation is made worse by the fact that…
…the mean recovery time from an email interruption is 64 seconds, so with an average of 87 emails a day, employees spend up to 90 minutes a day – or 7.5 hours a week recovering from email interruptions.
Additionally, not only does email activity have an obvious direct link to productivity through time management, employee welfare is also at stake. A report from UCI/Microsoft Research/MIT confirmed the relationship whereby increasing the time that people spend on workday email leads to higher stress levels.
In other words… cutting down on email time will also improve the health and wellbeing of employees.
Research by the Radicati Group predicts that email will continue to grow with over 4.6bn users and 376bn daily emails expected by 2025 (see “Email: still the most popular way for organisations to communicate”). With this being the case, what can be done to mitigate this pressure? How can available time be maximised allowing the focus to instead be on those priorities that generate value for the organisation? The various measures can be divided into two groups, first a series of practical steps, and second those that make use of smart automation.
Practical first steps to consider
Batchers, Consistents or a mix of the two? Is it better to cluster email use in two or three hour periods – to batch them, use email consistently throughout the day – a constant flow – or find a happy medium between the two?
Choosing which of the two is best, or somewhere between the two, will depend on an individual user’s preferences. However, given the time taken to recover from each email interruption it will probably be most beneficial to set aside blocks of time during the day to handle important emails.
In order to reduce the prominence of interruptions turn off email sound alerts and new email dialogue boxes. Each new notification, whether it be on a mobile device or desktop, will not fail to cause a distraction.
Alternatively, some email applications allow a user to adjust email application settings to check for new messages every, say, 45 minutes. Although not strictly “batching” it does encourage dealing with messages together rather than individually, reducing the daily cumulative interruption recovery time. The problem is that for some industries, such as maritime, this solution is simply not feasible as things happen fast and users cannot fly blind for so long.
There can be a tendency when using email to copy everyone in, regardless of whether they need to be involved. Sometimes this is done without thinking, sometimes deliberately. In order to generally reduce the volume of email throughout an organisation, consider the introduction of a policy whereby the use of email-to-all and reply-to-all is restricted, in other words, working on a need to know basis. Enforcing such a policy will require supervision. However, the use of departmental, or shared mailboxes (see below) may make it easier to ensure that a restricted number of people, i.e. only those who have an interest in the message content, are the only recipients.
Interruption time is made worse when the body of each message needs to be read in order to categorise its importance, to choose between an immediate or delayed response. To help users determine quickly whether or not an email needs urgent attention, set up the email application to display the subject of the email together with the first line or more of the message.
Finally, for a more direct way to reduce volumes, regularly review “graymail”, all those “unwanted” emails from companies or websites arriving as a result of opting-in to a subscription list. Unsubscribing from services no longer used will likely reduce email volumes significantly.
In an effort to reduce workplace stress some organisations have implemented a policy whereby the use of email is banned outside of normal working hours. Volkswagen configured its system to ensure emails are only received during the working day and half an hour each side of it, with none at weekends. A 2017 law in France requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. Such blanket policies however need to be carefully considered. In a survey conducted by the University of Sussex, lead author Dr Emma Russell recommends organisations instead personalise work-email actions according to the different goals that different people value: “People need to deal with email in a way that suits their personality and their goal priorities in order to feel they are adequately managing their workload”. Strict policies on emails may well be harmful to employees by preventing them from doing so.
After that… some smart automation
Begin by investigating alternative email clients that have tools to handle higher volumes of email in a way that is designed to both free up time and reduce workplace stress. Our own CompassAir software, as well as being maritime sector specific, uses Artificial Intelligence to take advantage of the extraordinary value that can be created by applying the latest technological developments: workflows speed up, repetitive manual tasks are reduced or eliminated and solutions are automatically made available to allow a quick response to commercial opportunities as they arise.
In terms of general improvements to efficiency, the features to look out for come under the heading of smart automation.
Such features can include message rules whereby emails containing pre-defined characteristics are dealt with as soon as they arrive in the inbox. One example may to be flag for specific employees in a shared mailbox all those incoming emails that contain the name a specific word, such as “Maersk”. Those messages containing that word might then be automatically filed in a separate folder, to be dealt with by a designated member of the team.
Another tool available is where messages are colour coded, similarly making the identification of those messages that need to be treated as a priority easy to recognise – for example, attention could be drawn to incoming messages from the bank by giving them a blue background as opposed to the default white.