The Management Series
Jan 2018

Is Email Running—And Ruining—Your Work Life?

Overly zealous email habits can sabotage your productivity and even demoralize you and your staff.

Email may be one of modern civilization’s greatest productivity tools, but handled without discipline, it can also be a constant distraction and huge time suck.

Paul Argenti, a corporate communications professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, spells out the pitfalls of email in the Harvard Business Review article “Stop Letting Email Control Your Work Day.” He cites a 2012 McKinsey report that found that 28% of employees’ time in the office is spent “responding to, reading, or composing emails. The average person checks his or her email upwards of 70 times per day, and on the high end that number approaches 350 times!”

The problem goes far beyond simple consumption of time. “Employees who feel more control over their days are generally more satisfied at work,” he notes. “And it should come as no surprise that high levels of stress, perceived or otherwise, correlate with lower performance.”

Argenti outlines a comprehensive plan for getting a handle on email and making sure it serves the purpose you intend. That means reviewing and rethinking pretty much everything you do with email: what you choose to read and when; the importance of subjects you choose to write about; the number of emails you send, which suck up other people’s time as well as yours; even your tone.

To start, he suggests listing all the tasks you perform during a workday, from answering the phone to meeting with managers and consulting with team members. For large tasks, break them down into components. For example, a report project might include online research, assigning data gathering to others, writing and final editing.

He then suggests prioritizing all those tasks by using a four-tier system that goes from urgent and important (“These tasks would include responding to crises or hard deadlines.”) down to neither urgent nor important.

Under his system, email use most commonly falls under Nos. 1 and 3, with No. 2 reserved generally for important face-to-face contact and time for planning, reflection and preparation. Using email too much, especially, for the bottom category, often cheats time from the more personal time that helps you to be more reflective and deliberate.

“Once you know what your priorities are,” Argenti writes, “you can use other people’s input to refine them. … If faced with taking on another project, your team will be more effective if everyone knows what other teammates’ priorities are. Cross-functional and team-based projects are increasingly common, so this kind of frank discussion can lead to fewer problems down the road.”

Argenti then goes through things to consider when writing or replying to email. That ranges from making sure you understand what you hope the email will accomplish and ensuring it actually conveys that message. Does it even need to be sent? Is it civil or, perhaps, easily misunderstood?

“Turn off your email program when you’re deep into your work,” he advises. “Communicate with your team to let them know when you will not be checking email—and stick to it.”

A separate Harvard Business Review article, “Emailing While You’re on Vacation Is a Quick Way to Ruin Company Culture,” zeroes in on a particularly destabilizing form of email, those fired off at all hours or even on vacation by workaholic bosses.

Author Katie Denis, chief researcher and strategist for Project: Time Off, which advocates for changing attitudes about providing and taking time away from work, argues that checking in by email while on vacation chips away at workplace morale and culture.

“Every email sent by a vacationing employee is a tiny cultural erosion: a signal to other employees that time off isn’t really time off. … They send signals like ‘I don’t trust you to do the job without me’ or ‘I’m not organized enough to wrap up my loose ends before I go on vacation.’”

Emails from any employee sends the wrong message. But ones from the boss can have a devastating ripple effect.

“The boss is the number one influencer over an employee’s time—even more than the employee’s own family. The power of that influence may not be clear to managers, just as the downstream consequences of staying connected to work on vacation may not be intended,” she warns. “But their connectedness on vacation is a predictor of their support for their employees’ vacation time.”

Employees get that message and get anxious about taking vacation even if they know how important a role it plays in business, personal relationships and family life. (To learn more about the benefits of vacation from an employers’ point of view, read Project: Time Off’s report, “The Tethered Vacation.”

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