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Is Email Overload Hitting Pause on Productivity? – YES!

By Chuck Cusumano and Sarah Mill

In the age of remote work, uninterrupted hours are highly sought after. Yet, we have all had days where, despite being glued to the computer for eight hours, we have barely made a dent in our to-do list.

We know all too well the barriers of productivity as many of us adjust to working from home. However, one of the major culprits of decreased productivity is something that has become deeply embedded in modern business operations: email. We have written several blogs this year alone concerning this topic or emails have been mentioned in many other writings dealing with communication confusion, productivity, remote working and so on.

Today, we want to go straight to the bottom line. Our inability to control how we use and manage email as a tool, is costing us and our businesses valuable time and significant productivity losses. Less productivity = less profit and lower job satisfaction.

Regardless if you are working from the office or from home, it is hard to imagine a workday without email. We use the communication tool for everything from transmitting information to assigning and managing tasks among a team. According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, employees are spending an average of 28 percent of their workweek writing, reading, and responding to emails.

That’s a lot of emails.

While communication is imperative to any business, overflowing inboxes are doing more harm than good. The stress of email can cause employees to feel overwhelmed by the time and effort needed to manage their growing backlog of emails and burdened by the pressures to respond quickly, even if it means stepping away from other work responsibilities.

Participants in a workplace study reported feelings of decreased productivity and increased stress on days they spent more time engaging with their email. The unspoken pressure to consistently check one’s email leaves employees feeling exhausted and under accomplished, increasing the risk of burnout.

The Role of Email Workplace Productivity.

A University of California-Irvine study connected the dots of why employees are experiencing these negative feelings, revealing there is, in fact, a correlation between the distraction of email and reduced productivity. The distraction of email shifts our attention away from the task at hand, requiring time and effort to reorient and regain our focus. It can take up to 25 minutes to regain the initial energy and drive to complete the original task, the study revealed.

The good news? While email can play a role in decreased productivity and increased stress among employees, it is important to understand the issue lies more with a lack of protocols surrounding email use, than email technology itself.

Since email is here to stay, companies need to look for ways to handle the email overload many employees face on a daily basis. While many employee handbooks include policies for proper email and technology use, it is becoming increasingly necessary to take these policies one step further to include guidelines for practical email use to cut down on the volume of and time spent on unproductive emails.

Establishing and discussing company-wide email etiquette and practices helps prevent email overload and employee frustration or burnout. If you want a more uniform and succinct email culture, there are certain guidelines that you can impose ASAP.

Best Practices to Minimize Email Overload and Increase Productivity.

From the increased distraction of interruptions to the frustrations of decoding ambiguous and unclear messages, employees are spending valuable time on unproductive email management. Consider sharing these best practices with employees to help them better manage their inboxes and better maximize their potential.

  1. Consider timeliness of response: Most people assume emails are sent looking for a reply in a timely fashion. To decrease distraction from the task at hand, emphasize the need for an immediate response in the email subject. Set a clear timeframe for responses to avoid confusion and stress, usually within 24 to 48 hours. If an employee needs more time to respond due to extenuating circumstances, the said email should be replied with an email confirming receipt and the timeframe for an expected response.

  2. Include a clear and appropriate subject line: Emails with over-generalized or missing subject lines are often overlooked, ignored, or assumed to be spam. Requiring specific subject lines ensures the recipient knows what the email is about without having to open it. This can help recipients prioritize immediate responses or easily search for the email at a later time. Subject lines should be succinct, to the point, and relevant to the subject of the message. When writing external emails, it is important to include the company or product name to avoid being confused with their other clients.

  3. Assign logical names to any attachments: Attachments can be confusing to navigate, especially when there are numerous in an email. Limit the use of attachments to avoid over-stimulating the system of the recipient and be sure to clearly and logically name each attachment to save the recipient time when understanding the attachment’s purpose.

  4. Limit the use of Cc and reply-all functions: Sending emails to the right people will save others a ton of time. Therefore, sending or copying others to emails should be done on a need-to-know basis. Before adding someone as a Cc recipient, it is important to ask if the information in the message is imperative to everyone on the list. Otherwise, there will likely be confusion regarding what to do with the information or who is supposed to act on the request. The same goes for using the “reply-all” function. If your response to a message is not meant for everyone in the original recipient group, there is no need to include them in your response. Save the reply-all option for times when each person who received the original message needs to know your response.

  5. Limit the use of auto-response: Auto-response emails can cause an unnecessary back-up in a recipient’s inbox. Auto-response messages are great for times when an employee will be out of the office and unable to respond to messages in an expected timeframe. Otherwise, they are unnecessary distractions taking up space in an already overflowing inbox.

  6. Include essential information in email chains: Long conversation threads can easily lead to confusion. When replying to a chain of emails, be sure to reply to the message rather than creating new mail. This will keep all of the related information as part of the chain. However, it is important to clarify which part you are responding to. Pulling the key information to the top of the thread or re-stating the information in the response will prevent any miscommunication. For an email responding to multiple items, utilize numbered or bulleted lists to increase readability and organization of thought.

  7. Insert a clear call-to-action when needed: If an email is sent with the intent of the recipient taking action, the sender must clearly state the desired next step. Being clear with the expectation can prevent further back-and-forth communication to clarify the desired outcome. For example, the email might end with, “Please respond to let me know when you are available to meet this week.” The more specific the CTA, the better. If the email is informative, it is useful to outline that at the beginning of the message.

Consider Your Other Options.

Remember, while it is convenient, email is not the only option for business communications. Before you send an email, ask if the information would be better exchanged using another form of communication. If the information or task is overly complex or requires a lot of back-and-forth communication, it is better to pick up the phone or schedule a meeting in person or via Zoom. The same goes for time-sensitive updates and cancellations. These messages are best relayed in real-time instead of over email.

While email has its place and purpose, the constant distraction leaves us feeling exhausted and under-accomplished. Whether the distraction comes from notification ping or the incessant need to check our inbox, we are falling victim to email overload and potential burnout.

Since email is here to stay, the responsibility falls on us to confront this culprit of productivity woes. By devising a plan and implementing procedures for productive email use, we can get back to controlling our use of email instead of email controlling us. If you need more information on policies or etiquette, just contact us and we will send you some guidelines and templates on how to solve your company’s email woes!

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