Email: The Bane and Boon of Modern Communication


Recently, we conducted a survey on digital work habits, specifically around email and its ubiquitous (and overwhelming) role in business communication. The survey results were eye-opening to stay the least. We found that a constantly increasing volume of emails are forcing knowledge workers to allocate significant time and effort to managing their inboxes.

Moreover, we were interested in getting feedback from experts in the productivity arena to learn how our results lined up with email productivity data at-large. When one of the top productivity gurus expressed an interest in writing about our findings; we were more than happy to oblige.

Below is productivity and time management expert Tara Rodden Robinson’s commentary on the Varonis Digital Work Habits Survey findings.

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Email is both the bane and boon of modern communication. According to a recent report, 144 billion (yes, billion, with a “b”) email messages are sent each day and nearly 70% of that traffic is spam. In a corporate setting, email still provides many benefits: it’s quick, provides documentation and information trails, and it’s convenient. But the continuous inflow, volume, and “leanness” of communication (that is, it’s lack of tone and context) make email one of the most complicated areas of information management in the business environment.

The Varonis survey on digital work habits sought to explore daily volume, how people manage their email, and determine the frequency and severity of email “mistakes” (such as a reply-all goof or forwarding sensitive or offensive materials to the wrong recipient). One of the key contributions of the resulting report was the division of results by job category; this is one of the few studies that offers insight into how C-level executives handle their email. (However, their sample size of C-level respondents was quite small so caution should be used in generalizing from these data.)

Here, I provide a commentary on the report based on my expertise with productivity and time management as well as my experience and background in coaching knowledge workers, including executives. I call out some highlights in the findings, make comparisons with data from other sources, and draw some conclusions.

Highlights From the Report

When a new client comes to me for coaching on time management, one of the first questions I ask is: How many emails do you receive each day? According to the Varonis survey, 67% of respondents received 50 or more emails per day with a small percentage (~5%) receiving more than 300 emails daily. Extrapolated, this amounts to 250 – 500 messages weekly or 1,000 – 2,000 messages per month. This makes it easy to see how an inbox can become inundated quite quickly. If representative, then it’s no wonder when people (sheepishly) report the number of emails stored in their inboxes as in the thousands.

The Varonis survey didn’t ask respondents how many total emails were in their inboxes but only how many “unread” emails there were. The vast majority of employees and managers reported having very few (less than 10 or zero) unread emails (~59% and ~70%, respectively). A small number of respondents claimed to be automating their email management with rules leaving me to surmise that practically every email message received must be reviewed individually in order to mark it as “read.” If, indeed, only 30 minutes are spent on email each day, as was reported, and a respondent receives, say, 100 messages daily, that would require a lightning fast processing time of 18 seconds per message.

When asked how they were processing email, the survey classified respondents into three categories: “filers” who empty their inboxes daily (presumably into some system of folders and deleting the remainder), “hoarders” who never delete anything but file and/or tag some proportion of their messages, “hybrids” who do a combination of filing and hoarding, and those who have “given up” on managing their messages. One might imagine that “filing” would be the most time consuming style, however, 65% of the filers reported spending 30 minutes or less each day on this task. (And I don’t know what to make of the 2.3% of filers who claim to spend “no time” on their email–they must use magic or have minions to do the work for them.)

The data for C-level respondents presented quite a different picture from the other two categories. In stark contrast to employees and managers, half of the C-level respondents report spending 30 minutes or more daily on email management. (The majority “employee” and “manager” respondents (59% and 63%, respectively) claim to spend 30 minutes or less each day on email.) One third of C-level respondents reported spending more than an hour each day on email (compared to 18% and 11%, employees and managers, respectively). Sadly, email management style (filer, hoarder, etc.) by job category was not included in the report. The number of unread emails for C-level executives was quite different from the other two groups as well. All C-level respondents reported having some unread emails (as opposed to a large number of employees and managers who claimed to have none); most C-level respondents had 10 or fewer, roughly 25% had 100 or less, and (gulp) nearly 20% claimed over 20,000 unread messages (one wonders what their boards would think if they knew!).

Comparisons with Data From Other Sources

Similar to the Varonis survey, the Radicati Group reports [pdf] that the average corporate employee receives roughly 60 emails per day. Thus, according to the Radicati Group, a worker processes roughly 100 emails per day (sent and received, together), a distinction that was not explored in the Varonis study.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI; 2012) report entitled The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, knowledge workers spend an average 28 hours each week (or roughly 5.6 hours per day) “writing emails, searching for information, and collaborating internally.” This includes “28% of work time reading, writing, or responding to e-mail,” which would break down to 13 hours a week (their average work week was 46.5 hours) or approximately 2.6 hours per day. In contrast, only 16.7% of the respondents in the Varonis survey report spending more than one hour per day on email however, the survey asked only about time spent managing email and didn’t specifically examine the time invested in other sorts of email related work.

Conclusions and Recommendations

One key question that is unanswered by the Varonis survey is: “How much of your work (that is, tasks) comes to you as email?” The number of requests that become actionable tasks varies greatly across the corporate landscape. In addition, the ability to delegate also varies from high (at the C-level) to none at all (for many managers and perhaps the majority of employees). Thus, knowing how much work (outside of the actual reading, writing, and managing) email represents would have been extremely useful to know.

In any event, I strongly recommend that workers separate task management from email management. The email inbox makes a very poor task management tool: the constant inflow of new items pushes unfinished work out of sight and messages must be read repeatedly to ascertain what is requested or is actionable. If workers are committed to being reliable and following through on what is requested of them, then the best way to track those commitments is to maintain a task list.

A second, widely reported email headache that went unexplored was the “cc” issue. When speaking to corporate audiences, excessive use of copying others on messages is one of the most vociferous complaints and one of the biggest drivers of volume. Thus, the number of emails received may be decoupled from the amount of actionable task content but messages may still demand a substantial investment of a worker’s time and attention. Surprisingly, a move from email to using social media may be a useful solution.

Luis Suarez, the IBM poster-child for going email-less, has reduced his inflow of email to practically nil and moved the vast majority of his communication to open, social channels. His rationale is that if his communications are openly available, fewer people will need to contact him directly. This reasoning is at the heart of the recommendations of the MGI report as well. By reducing the amount of information “locked up” in people’s inboxes and folders, MGI estimates that email use could be reduced by 25% (although Suarez’s personal experiment suggests individual gains could be much greater). This is an idea with legs: there are indications that numerous corporations are contemplating variations on social media that may reduce the primacy of email.

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Tara Rodden Robinson, Ph.D., is a productivity and time management expert. As an executive productivity coach, she provides one-on-one and team coaching services as well as speaking and training for corporate audiences. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraRodden or learn more about her by visiting her website: TaraRobinson.com

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