Email etiquette policies: Big savings and productivity

Email makes the world go 'round, but without an email etiquette plan, productivity and collaboration can make you spin into information overload.

Email has become one of the most important communication and collaboration tools for businesses. Email volume has doubled during the past five years to more than 40 billion person-to-person emails daily, according to Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC. Moreover, the volume is expected to continue to at least 18% every year for the next five years.

For the average email user, more than 30% of a given day is spent creating, organizing, reading and responding to email. This contributes to information overload, which hinders corporate productivity and competitive advantage. Thus, users are becoming more dissatisfied with mail as a productivity tool.

Spam is another issue. It comprises 20% of total email volume in organizations without proper protection in place. Although spam does not take long to process, typical users waste about 10 minutes reading and/or deleting these emails each day, costing organizations approximately $1,250 per user in lost productivity each year.

But one of the biggest issues, which is largely unaddressed, is the general lack of email etiquette and how this affects productivity. How many of us are copied on emails or invites that we didn't necessarily have to be copied on, or receive email blasts about the latest snack in the kitchen, birthday or car in the parking lot with its lights on? How many of us waste time asking for clarification on an email's content, or dealing with issues resulting from poorly crafted or rude emails?

Email etiquette policies could help reduce the volume of unproductive emails, improve communication and collaboration, and reduce growing frustrations with the abuse of the medium. Here are some of the most common etiquette issues that, if addressed properly, can drive savings.

Reply to all: When users craft emails or create meeting invites, it's all too easy to copy too many recipients or, worse, entire workgroups or all employees. Training and prompting users to better focus email distributions can help eliminate more than 10% of email received per day, according to recent case studies. For a typical 1,000-person organization, this practice alone could reduce 5,700 emails per day -- at a savings of three minutes spent reading and addressing each message; a savings of 285 person hours per day and more than 35 full-time equivalents (FTEs) per year -- an overall 3.5% productivity improvement, and a potential recapture of $1,800 per year per employee in wasted labor costs.

Lack of clarity and tact: When emails are poorly written, the reader has to spend more time deciphering the meaning or sending follow-up emails to question or clarify. Even worse are unprofessional emails containing content the author would never say to a person face to face. Emails that are poorly organized, use poor grammar or have inappropriate business language wastes precious time.

Content improvements have demonstrated an average 10% to 20% reduction in email time necessary, which is an estimated 17- to 34-minute productivity improvement per user per day. Over a year, this could result in better use for the equivalent of 35 to 70 precious resources -- a 3.5% to 7.0% overall productivity improvement. This can help reclaim $2,100 to $4,100 per email user per year in lost productivity.

What to do:

  1. Don't panic. A lot of your users already have that base covered. Information overload is one the highest stresses reported by knowledge workers. A systematic approach to reducing and improving email with demonstrated results is a powerful method of getting the attention of email users. Hastily implemented patches like sending more emails about email etiquette, writing new policies and procedures and putting technology constraints (reducing email storage allocations, file size limitations, banning personal communication) commonly fail to change behavior and reach the objectives. This tends to put a big problem in a smaller box.

  2. Take ownership. A major fault with email is the lack of ownership of how the technology is productively used. Email is an orphan enterprise application and is often the default communication and collaboration platform. Does general management take charge? Where is the user manual for knowledge workers? Does HR take charge? Do we leave the individual worker to figure out how to spend 30% to 40% of their workday (as well as personal time -- evenings, weekends and vacations)?

    The IT organization can improve email behavior. IT is the custodian of email technology and therefore can naturally extend influence on user behavior. And of course, there are benefits for IT specifically, including improvements for storage, archiving, compliance and litigation issues.

  3. Use a team approach. Personal behavior in a company setting is very difficult to modify. Knowledge workers naturally coalesce into teams, both permanent and temporary. The majority of communication and collaboration is done in the team dynamic. Real progress can be made by using teams as peer influences to share ideas, develop best practices and mentor each other to improve team performance.

  4. Rely on training, not technology. Every knowledge worker has more functionality than will ever be used. Adding more technology to either enable, constrain or to change behavior is an expensive and futile effort. Most users would benefit greatly from a training program that introduces and supports improved use of the technologies already in place.

Improving email etiquette is a hidden area for potential cost savings and productivity improvement. With proper implementation, this best practice can generate an average 10% reduction in email volume and improve email quality. It can also save 10% to 20% handling time, resulting in an expected 7% to 10.5% overall productivity improvements, some $4,100 to $6,000 in wasted productivity recaptured per employee per year.

You can read more about how to understand and improve these issues are covered in the new book, The Hamster Revolution: How to manage your email before it manages you, by Mike Song, Vicki Halsey, Tim Burress, Kenneth Blanchard. Available in hardcover on Amazon.com.

Tom Pisello is CEO and founder of Alinean, the IT Value Experts, and an ex-managing vice president at Gartner Inc. He has been dedicated to using business value measurements to prove and improve the return on IT for the past 16 years. Free ROI tools to help drive better IT decisions can be found at: Alinean.com. Tom Pisello can be reached at tpisello@alinean.com.

This was first published in February 2007

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