Email interruptions, meaningful work, workplace stress and employee engagement

by | Jun 5, 2018 | Collaboration, Digital workplace, Information Management

One of the benefits of being a one-person business is that I can usually plan my month with a high degree of precision. May was not  one of those months. I had to undertake twenty global telephone interviews, with all the email traffic and revising of interview slots that entailed. One interview started at 6.30am (Australia) and another at 10pm (East Coast USA! On top of that there were all the GDPR last minute emails from companies pleading with me to stay on their email marketing lists, and I had to filter the ‘Do nothing and you will be cut off’ from the ones that needed attention. My best guess is that I dropped around 90+ out of over 100 emails. Further interruptions came from follow-ups to my presentations in a couple of conferences. The end result was that May was a month in which I lost all control of my inbox and schedule.

The issues arising from email overload were first highlighted in 1996 and since then there has been a significant amount of research on email management, especially from Susan Dumais and her team at Microsoft Research and Gloria Mark at the University or California. (Google “Large-Scale Analysis of Email Search and Organisational Strategies” for a recent overview of this topic by Susan Dumais et al)

It is easy to see email (and social media in general) as just a mild inconvenience to the working day, but that is because we rarely track the working day. In my opinion there is no arbitrary ceiling for emails received. The overload arises from the challenge of dealing with them. The extent of the challenges depend on your own priorities, about which the sender of an email has no idea and probably little concern. What is now widely documented is that once our train of thought has been derailed by an email it may take 20 minutes or so to get back on course and on our original agenda. We may well take the opportunity to rethink what remains of the day. So the impact on productivity is not just about the time taken to respond but the period immediately afterwards. Just a handful of emails can totally wreck a carefully planned day, as I found out yet again last month. The working day for a global business might easily be seventeen hours even if the individual working days are eight hours. Seventeen into eight is always going to be a challenge.

There is an employee engagement aspect that is often overlooked. Sam Marshall highlights the importance of making progress in meaningful work as a core factor in ensuring a reasonable engagement score. This relationship between was first explored by Paul Fairlie in 2011.  An IBM global engagement study published in 2017 indicated that this ‘meaningful work’ element was the largest (at 27%) factor in employee engagement. If an employee spends much of their time having their work agenda usurped by incoming emails, and that the purpose of many (my guess – no evidence) of these emails is to provide information to the sender that makes them, not the original recipient, look good then where is the meaningful work? Although I am using email as the channel example, social media can have the same impact with colour for added emphasis.

If someone walked past our desk at irregular intervals perhaps 30 times a day and dropped a sealed envelope on our desk marked Action This Day we would get quite annoyed and complain to our manager about this invasion of our working day. I doubt we would consider doing so with email and other media (instant messaging is a great example). When we send an email we should always remember that we are interrupting the working day of a colleague. Perhaps we think we are more important and cannot be spared from our own agenda. More likely we just don’t think about it.

In preparing this post I looked at quite a number of corporate email policies on the web. I was disappointed that most focused on security, disclosure and other compliance topics. It was only a cursory search but I could not find a policy that reflected the issues of interruptions to a working day. Research dating back to 2011 shows that email-related issues are a major contributor to workplace stress. Does your corporate email/social media policy take these factors into account?

If you consider it is time to take a look at how best to manage email communications then “You’ve got email” (download) published by the Future Work Centre in 2015 is a good place to start. The Future Work Centre also offers a range of resources on email management and employee engagement.

Martin White