Email experiment

Not much can be said about email overload. It's all be said before and nobody has come up with a really workable solution, though the email charter is a start point. Colour coding, red flagging, and assigning certain stuff to junk mail is insufficient to stop me feeling email drowned. It's not that I want to shut myself off the information flow – I need to know what's going on. But I want to find some reasonably effective method getting to the right balance of being in the loop and spending a reasonable part of my day doing stuff other than to-ing and fro-ing emails. I need to get a few steps towards what's discussed in Pico Iyer's short book The Art of Stillness: The Case for Taking a Timeout From Your Life.

Estimates suggest that people spend around 28% of work week time on their emails. Oddly, it's not a topic that I commonly investigate when doing organisation design work, but I think it makes sense to do so. Emails and meetings are integral to information flow – it must be possible to design the flow tools to be more efficient and less draining than we currently find them. Indeed many sellers of social technologies (and email filter programmes) are suggesting that's what they do.

Over the last two weeks I've been experimenting with item 5 on the email charter about 'cc'. I've instituted two Outlook rules

1. a rule whereby all emails where I was cc-ed automatically re-directed to a folder – they did not enter my in-box.
2. a second rule that automatically replied to those who cc-ed me explaining what I was doing and saying, 'I will not be looking regularly in that folder. I will look intermittently and at the end of the experiment period. I'm also trying out phoning/texting people and just going to talk to them face to face if they are located in the same building as me.

Now at the end of the two weeks and taking stock, I find I've got five types of responses: good idea, bad idea, curious, fed up, and no response.

The good idea people said stuff like, 'Good idea – how did you set this up?' 'This is fantastic :)', resulting in my showing some people how to set the rule(s) so maybe there are the seeds of a wider experiment about to burgeon. These people might be willing to go a stage further and lobby to introduce Daimler's idea: they now have an auto-delete programme for emails to out-of-office workers. This allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on vacation. When an email is sent, the program, which is called "Mail on Holiday," issues a reply to the sender that the person is out of the office and that the email will be deleted.

The bad idea people saw value in the cc 'I think you get cc'd into a lot of important emails', and 'An interesting experiment, and I understand where you are coming from, but quite high risk. For example, if I am sending [top dog] a note, but it is also of interest to you I would be unlikely to include you in the To box, likewise with [head honcho]. Better all-round if you know that people only include you, and address to whatever box when you have a real interest.'

The curious people said things like. 'This sounds like a fascinating experiment – I would be interested in your observations at the end of it. Email traffic is a real problem and we need innovative solutions. I spoke to a key operations manager last week in a highly pressurised role and he told me he gets 160 emails a day. As well as cc emails, people hitting 'reply to all' is also a problem'. Another said ' Would be interested to know if your email traffic goes up as a result!'

The fed up people said they'd received my automatic response email multiple times (because they were cc-ing me in many of the emails they sent) and could I desist. This led me to set a third rule excluding certain people from getting the automatic email. But I guess I could have asked them to stop cc-ing me into stuff, although then I might miss useful information.

Beyond these I've had some increase in phone calls with people saying 'instead of emailing I thought I'd call', similarly people in the building I work in have come to talk rather than email.

I also got a couple of emails where I was cc-ed from other people also cc-ed in that same email but who'd read it and who then forwarded it to me – with my name in the address line – saying, 'You've been –cc-ed into this but I think you should read it', which was a kind and generous thing to do.

Summarising the experiment: there were some successes:

  • On both weeks I got around 400 emails addressed to me and I was copied into a further 100. So the method cut the flow by about a fifth.
  • People agreed that email overload is an issue and so there was some awareness raising and people making different communication choices.
  • I started to have shorter more productive exchanges with people who decided to phone calls or just meet briefly (no meeting scheduled) face to face.

The successes were balanced by potentially losing some useful stuff (I peeked at intervals to check) and annoying some people with a repeated automatic email.

In the organisation I'm working with other choices for flowing information include text messaging, phone calls, face to face, Yammer, Huddle, but these are underused compared with emails (and formal meetings). But there are arguments in favour of encouraging people to use them – not least because as the McKinsey report The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies says: 'when companies use social media internally, messages become content; a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35 percent, the time employees spend searching for company information. Additional value can be realized through faster, more efficient, more effective collaboration, both within and between enterprises'.

Effectively changing the design of information flows in the organisation in order to reduce reliance on email and increase use of social technologies is a bigger, people process, technology challenge. However, starting with the lone nut approach may attract the first followers. So, if you're interested in skinnying down your personal email in the hope that will encourage the rest of the organisation to follow suit the best tips I've found come from PC Mag.

Give it a go. Let me know what happens.

PS I have decided to stop writing blogs at the end of this year. So I have six more to write. If you'd like to suggest a topic for one of these let me know.