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We’ve all been there, worried about taking time off work because of the email deluge we might face when we return. For many email overload is an ever-present worry, often impinging on out of hours time. That stress can be reduced if employers and employees take some simple steps, according to a new report.
Emma Russell from Kingston Business School has written the report, Strategies for effectively managing email at work, in conjunction with Acas. Acas puts out an annual call for research on a particular topic that is relevant to employment relations. In this case, it said it would fund research on how technology impacts people at work. Emma’s proposal on email overload won the bid. Her report is the first time Acas has done a systematic literature review of the impact of email on workers. While there have been a number of previous studies on email, they have tended to be in disciplinary silos, for instance, psychology or economics. Emma wanted to bring them together to see if there were common findings and conclusions.
There are also, she says, a lot of management gurus and consultants who give advice on email policy, but they tend to be based on anecdotal reports of good time management rather than empirical evidence.
Emma’s research sought to look at which strategies work for productivity and wellbeing. The two do not necessarily go together, she says. “Some of the strategies for productivity are not necessarily best for well being, for instance, out of hours work can help people keep on top of their workload, but it can increase work family conflict. There is not one size fits all strategy for all these different goals,” she states.
Her report makes recommendations for employers and individuals. For individuals it recommends processing and clearing email whenever it is checked can avoid inbox clutter that can make people feel overloaded; switching off alerts but logging on regularly can help to stay on top of email; using the ‘delay send’ function so that the recipient isn’t disturbed, when sending email outside of the recipient’s contact hours; and reviewing personal email strategies.
She says that letting email build up can lead to a feeling of overload. “Some people have 1,000s of email marked they have not attended to and never will,” says Emma.
She adds that research shows the ping of the alert interrupts concentration and that it takes a while to recover. Hence the recommendation on switching off email alerts.
With regard to the recommendations for employers, Emma says one of the things she had not considered before she did the report was the impact of email on part timers. Although they work reduced hours, she says, the research shows that the amount of email they receive does not significantly fall. “The result is that part timers proportionately deal with more email. Industry has not caught up with this,” she says. “There are not generally provisions in place for dealing with email on the days someone is not in the office. Research suggests shared and team inboxes can be helpful for part-time and shift workers.”
Another thing employers can do is to be clear about expectations regarding responding to email, for instance, out of hours email, says Emma. France has introduced legislation allowing employees in larger organisations to disconnect and not to answer email outside office hours.
Emma says research does not suggest UK workers want a ban. In fact many find it easier to balance work and family life if they can do school pick-ups and then catch up on email in the evening. “People want the flexibility to deal with email when it is convenient for them,” she says. However, she adds that it is not good practice for managers to send email in the evening as it creates an expectation that workers have to answer it. Instead they should use the delayed send function and send email in the morning.
Another area where employers can fall down is if they are too prescriptive, for instance, saying email has to be answered within a certain time limit. Nevertheless, it can be good for employers to develop an email etiquette, for example, to make expectations clearer, to suggest to people when they should cc colleagues and to clear up any worries about what tone they should take or whether they should use emojis.
Emma adds that there are no hard and fast rules and it very much depends on the work culture. For instance, too much cc-ing can be suggestive of a culture where there is a lack of trust and where people feel the need to cover their backs, whereas in a more positive culture cc-ing may be evidence of a desire to share information and can foster a sense of inclusion.
How managers use email is key in setting expectations, says Emma. They should model best practice, for instance, not sending emails when they are on holiday.
Emma adds that it is important that employers and employees develop good email habits. Already email is being supplanted by other forms of communication such as Yammer or instant messenger. The days of research purely on email overload may be numbered.