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Do Emails Improve Efficiency?

Do Emails Improve Efficiency?

Since we last wrote about offices, work and related digital technology, more recent research suggests the situation has changed. Maybe for the better, perhaps for the worse. It depends on your take on workplace skills.

An April 2013 Warwick Business School survey found the average UK office worker now deals with ‘10,000 messages year, 40 a day.’ But above average, one in twelve copes with 100 a day. A staggering 10% of staff ‘spend the entire working day attached to either a computer or a mobile phone.’

Changes to Skills

They also concluded that older technologies like the phone (landline with receiver on a desk, yes?) is no longer used at all by about a tenth of office employees.

A fifth never puts pen to paper. If the skill of handwriting gradually disappears, surely the human race will be impoverished. Without devices powered by scarce resources, people tend to write things.

If there comes a time when all the gizmos and gadgets are just not available (no power, no signals, no freedom to use) people will be incapable of communication for the now or the future.

And if writing goes, reading will not be far behind. Then civilisation really will have turned a dark corner.

The Museum of Machines

The history of work is littered with clever devices, usually all vital in their time, and now redundant. In 1962, there were only 10,000 computers in the entire world, each room- sized with data entered from punch cards. Even when personal computers began, they were quite large, bulky and clunky. Rather like televisions were.

Few remember the typewriter in action. But in its day it was the power-horse of commerce. My mother now in her mid-eighties who was once a secretary and now does her best on a PC with word processing and emails, said recently – ‘oh, I’d love an electric typewriter again!’

The electronic calculator was must-have office kit. Yahoo Technology News (April 13) reported that Sinclair’s Executive model cost £79 plus VAT in 1972 – the equivalent of three weeks’ wages.

The mobile smartphone, the tablet and its hybrid sons and daughters, will in time be objects of amusement to people amazed at such primitive technology. LinkedIn asked 7000 users about the office fax machine. Three quarters thought it would disappear ‘within a decade.’ I’m amazed it hasn’t already vanished.

The Email Itself

The email arrived in the 1990s. Bob Taylor, then of Graphics Matters set up my email account twenty years ago, one of the first few in Lowestoft. I invested £2000 in a huge Mac desktop Proforma computer, Mac printer and Mac portable to synchronise with the computer. A lot of money, but I loved it and started learning by trial and error how to use it all.

Since then the world has become email-dependent, and we wonder why traditional post is dying (apart from advertising materials). The Email Charter says the average time taken to respond to an email is greater, in aggregate, than the time it took to create.

It’s quicker to read than to write, which is ‘counter-intuitive’, but processing an email takes time to scan inbox, decide which to open, read, decide how to respond, actually respond (reply, hold or trash) and get back into what you were doing before.

Some brief emails demand big time – ‘what do you think about this?’ ‘any suggestions?’ Many are sent to multi-recipients. If even some start replying to all, then time waste is multiplied.

Some emails contain pasted text which again adds to processing time. Links to other sites or videos devour your time. Add in social, online distractions which increase exponentially as you share and forward.

The Charter says that without meaning to, we’re creating an ever growing problem for each other. An email inbox is the to-do list that anyone in the world can add to. ‘If you’re not careful, it gobbles your working week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own true priorities. This is not good.’

Their solution? You can’t solve email overload alone or you end up ignoring, delaying, or rushing responses to many incoming messages, and risk annoying people or missing something great. ‘That is stressful.’

Their 10 rules to reverse the email spiral are:

  1. Respect recipients’ time
  2. Short or slow responses are NOT rude
  3. Celebrate clarity
  4. Quash open-ended questions
  5. Slash surplus ‘cc’ clicks
  6. Tighten the thread
  7. Attack attachments
  8. Give these Gifts: EOM (End of Message) and NNTR (No Need to Reply)
  9. Cut Contentless Responses
  10. Disconnect sometimes!

All good. However, to garner support they urge you to email it to everyone you know and get signatures to support it!

Is Office Technology Progress?

Will Skillman of Warwick Business School told Yahoo! News that the rise of the mobile office means workers stay plugged in on the move and for longer, ‘but whether this has resulted in a more productive workforce remains to be seen.’

He wondered whether we are actually ‘just replacing old technologies with new’, rather than directly improving how we work. The increasing speed of communication, was not absolutely beneficial for productivity.

A revolutionary thought! Do you agree?

Related stories from the archives:

Yahoo! News, British workers now deal with 10,000 emails a year, 8 April 2013

Historypin, Remember How We Used to Work?

The Email Charter

Email Hoarding Is New Psychological Condition, 17 April 2012

Today’s 5 Most Pressing Business Concerns About Technology, 16 October 2012

Nobody Cares That Emails Are Not as Cheap As They Look for the Environment, 1 October 2012

The Longest Coffee Breaks in the World, 11 July 2012

Last Post for Britain’s Post? 21 June 2012

A Hard Day at the Office, 24 April 2012