Should You Dump E-mail?

An international IT service provider plans to get rid of e-mail for employees. Will this productivity trend catch on?
January 10, 2012

Recently, French IT service provider ATOS Origin announced its intention to be e-mail free for communication between employees in three years. CEO Thierry Breton cited the move as a response to the data explosion that has managers spending five to 20 hours a week attending to e-mail and 25 percent of time at work searching browsers and social network sites.

A part of their solution is to replace e-mail with more efficient social community platforms that bracket communications and assemble information by communities of interest. Another? Restrict non-work browsing.

As an international IT service provider, ATOS has access to the most sophisticated e-mail alternatives. But there are now e-mail screening and site blocking devices available even for small businesses. So the question that every American business should be thinking about is: How much of our use of e-mail and the Web actually adds to productivity in our businesses and how much detracts?

In candid conversations with other CEOs, particularly of lower and mid-tier businesses, I often hear:

  • I have employees spending time at work reading and answering e-mails that seem to have little relevance to the performance of my business. (For example, reports 70 percent of office workers read e-mails at work that are of no relevance to their jobs.)
  • I know people are proud of their work, but do they need to send their latest analyses and PowerPoints to everyone and expect everyone to read and respond?
  • Why am I paying people to shop and visit personal interest websites at work? ( estimated 50 percent of employees would shop online at work on Cyber Monday 2011 and over 30 percent of those would spend an hour or more.)
  • Why do people feel the need to check out every angle of a problem with all their colleagues through e-mails before making a decision? Is the effectiveness of decision-making—quality and speed—always increased by having lots of people weigh in on the alternatives?

These same CEOs are also quick to agree that the problem is not with the functionality—unarguably miraculous upgrades from the old days of xerography, express mail and fax. Rather, the rub lies with our unwillingness to control their use, even with examples from vanguards who have been doing so for a while.

A summary 4imprint Inc released in 2007 cited a number of examples that are still relevant today:

  • U.S. Cellular decreed e-mail-free Fridays back in 2004. The report from management? Employees actually talking to one another on just one day improved workforce cooperation, reduced unproductive time and sped up the resolution of issues throughout the week.
  • No-email Fridays at PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services reduced total email traffic by 80 percent at the 275-person company after six months.
  • A report on Fortune 1000 companies indicated the average manager sends and receives more than 170 electronic communications a day.
  • A report by 4imprint estimated that it takes the average worker three to eight minutes to recover from an e-mail interruption.
  • Capital One Company officials estimated email reduction programs saved each employee the equivalent of 11 workdays per year.

Here's a list of ideas to channel the use of e-mail and the Web at your company:

Tell people not to turn on their computers until they’ve been at their desks for at least 15 minutes every morning, and to use that time to make the list of things they intend to accomplish that day…then, periodically ask people to see their lists.

Tell them when they open their computers in the morning to categorize and prioritize e-mail and continue to do so throughout the day. There are plenty of e-mail categorizing tricks that make this easy:

  • Emergencies get answered first.
  • Things clearly related to your daily list, second.
  • Other work-related things people want you to know about go into a file for later consideration.
  • Non-business-related messages go into a file for consideration after work.

Enforce three other proven tactics:

  • Only address e-mails to people who need to read them. CC all others, and don’t expect them to be read.
  • Let people know if they’ve included you in an address line on something you’ve taken the time to read that was not helpful in your job.
  • Non-work related Web browsing is a misuse of company resources.

It’s unlikely that you’ll get all this done without some pushback. But the logic behind it all, once explained, is hard to argue with.

If you follow up with people after these practices have been in place for 60 days, you’ll find the majority thanking you for setting the course. And the most appreciative people will be the most responsible members of your team.

Your business pays employees, including yourself, for their efforts on behalf of the company, and that’s what your business expects.

OPEN Cardmember Dick Cross is a partner in Alston Capital Partners, originator of the Mid-Tier Presidents Course Harvard GSD's Executive Program and is the author of Just Run It! to be released in April 2012.