Too much cc’d email is one of the main causes of information overload. This is one of the main factors to emerge from various client Smart Email Management workshops which Mesmo Consultancy have been running.
Email is basically wall paper covering much deeper cracks in the business regardless of the nature of your business. Too much cc’d email is generally symptomatic of a variety of challenges and dissatisfaction with the organisation. The six main ones are as follows.
- Uncertainty about your job. We live in extraordinary times regardless of where you live. In the UK it is Brexit. In the USA it is the war of words with China and the Middle East. Nearer to home your organisation might be the focus of a merger, investigation into financial or human misconduct (#Me Too).
- Blame culture.Despite all the talk of open and trusting organisational cultures, observations indicate that few people really feel this is true. When something goes wrong, the first question is nearly always ’where is the email that….’ Consequently people cover their backsides by copying in everyone.
- Lack of recognition for ones efforts. Again, most organisations have value statements which include something around valuing excellence. Yet many would say on pat of the back is rare: so they seek attention by copying in as many as possible and especially their line-manager.
- Mushroom management. No clear understanding about who really needs what information. When was the last time you discussed with your line-manager what information they really want to see?
- Micro-management personality. Yes your inbox is a DNA fingerprint picture of you in every including your management style as illustrated by Seeley and Hargreaves in ‘Managing in the Email Office’. Some people are by nature micro managers and want to see every email their team send. This is not the place to argue the merits of this behaviour.
- Meeting bloody meetings. This leaves no quality time for people to speak to each other either by face-to-face or phone (and especially team members and their line-manger).
So how do we reduce the cc’d email overload culture?
There are no short terms solutions. The first step is to audit your inbox. Cluster the incoming emails and look for patterns and to which of the above categories these fall. Second, decide which you can tackle at the individual and team level in the medium terms. Third, decide whether or not the organisation culture needs modifying.
Here are three case histories
- Senior Management Team of large IT Department. They found that the biggest problem was their back to back meeting culture. By allocating Friday pm as meeting free the volume of cc’d emails dropped dramatically.
- IT Director. He identified which team members he was confident trusting (for example long standing and new joiners but very knowledgeable). He then changed how and when they communicated.
- Director of Local Government Organisation. We audited his and his EA’s inbox to identify which email he actually read and which were dealt with by his EA. It was a very small percentage of the cc’d emails he received. This was feed back to the team with guideline on how to get things actioned quickly.
Change does not happen overnight. Moreover, there often is a big gap between perception and reality. You need to keep telling people what email behaviour you expect and eventually over the course of a few months you will see a drop in the volume of unnecessary cc’d email. Nudge Theory can be very useful for reducing email overload and hence information overload.
The Brieflab [https://thebrieflab.com] issues a brief report: Tuning In, Tuning Out: How Technology has become Our New Noise. From their survey of 1119 professionals, 60% stated that at least 1/2 of their emails are useless. These same persons said these e-mails were a hindrance to attention discovered that devoting more time in the day for quiet, uninterrupted activity improved productivity. Proposed 7-7 rule, 11 minute unplug and preferred senders club. Got your curiosity to obtain this report? Marty EndInfoOverload
A problem with email is that it has evolved to become a catch-all accepting numerous kinds of messages, many of them far removed from its original intent to serve one to one communications. One kind of message that is hiding in our inbox but is not really a part of the real email paradigm is newsletters and updates from blogs and other websites. It is easy to subscribe to these, so people do; but then they get countless emails that are diluting the “real” messaging content.
The ideal solution to this is moving that newsletter flow away from email and into an RSS newsreader like Feedly or Feedreader. I suspect that too few people are using these tools, which is a pity, because RSS is ideally suited to consuming pushed news, by converting them to pull mode reading. The email inbox has the disadvantage that users perceive it as needing to be cleaned out regularly – ideally attaining “Inbox Zero” every day. This creates stress and overload. An RSS reader is also like an inbox of news items, but it is used for browsing – you eyeball the latest items and decide which to click and read. No need to clean them all.
This subtle difference in use model makes a huge difference in mental stress. Take my advice: anything that is not personal communications yet is of value to you is best consumed in a newsreader!
A student of mine once did a little research project to check what features of Gmail people were using. Her findings: he great majority of users were only using it to read, compose, forward, reply and delete. All the wonderful advanced features that could make them a great deal more productive were unused and unknown to them. They never bothered to investigate them… or to “read the manual”.
This shameful ignorance is of course common in all computer tools. When I was computing productivity manager at Intel I analyzed the email overload situation and one root cause I found was precisely this lack of knowledge of the productivity features of our email client (Outlook). I subsequently developed a Web Based Training module that all employees were required to take, which showed them how to use the tool – effectively.
I strongly recommend you do this: take 30 minutes to acquaint yourself with all the options and controls of your email client. You’ll save hours and hours every month, forever.
Read the f****** manual!
As IORG Social Media Chair, for the past four weeks my theme has been whether or not email overload will still be a problem in 2019 and if so how to reduce it.
Clearly, there are now multiple excellent other ways to communicate electronically from instant messaging via Skype for Business or What’s App to sophisticated collaborative tools like Slack or SharePoint. Sadly, what often happens is that organisations adopt alternatives to email with no clear guidelines on what to use when. With no clear conventions and frameworks all that happens is that email overload turns into a severe attack of information overload because now you have at least three if not four or five different channels to check.
In the absence of organisational guidelines, here is a simple framework which others with whom I have worked have found very useful. Its called the PNPD Framework for Thinking Outside the Inbox
For any form of communication, there are basically four factors to consider when deciding which medium to use.
- Privacy – what level of privacy is needed?
- Numbers – is it one-to-one or one-to-many
- Permanency – do you need an audit trail of the exchange?
- Delicacy – how important is it to be able to see the other persons reaction as you converse so as to moderate what you say accordingly?
Here are two examples of how to apply the PNPD framwork to think outside the inbox to reduce email and information overload.
For more information on the PNPD Thinking Outside the Inbox Framework see Taking Control of Your Inbox.
It is my view that email is here to stay and the real challenge is how to manage our use of it better.
What is your view?
Recently at Emailogic we had the opportunity to take part in an academic study to have email training tested for its effectiveness on productivity and well-being.
Busy senior service managers at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London UK all agreed that email overload was an issue needing attention.
100 of these senior managers attended an email best practice training course.
We can learn a lot from history… even in the field of Information Overload and Meeting Culture.
Consider this true story, quoted as is from Plutarch, about a spicy event in the senate of ancient Rome:
The possibility that social networking tools will take a bite out of email in organizations suffering from IO has been discussed for a while, and some forward-thinking companies have been seeing progress in this direction.
But the news from France last week takes this to a new level: the CEO of IT services firm Atos Origin, an international 49,000 employee corporation, has declared that he plans to make the company Email-free in 3 years. The intent is to replace all internal email with alternative comm channels using the new crop of social networking and collaboration tools.
One of our members sent a pointer to this article on TechCrunch. Apparently, the Nielsen Media Research’s management had taken action to remove the Reply to All button from the interface of all its 35,000 employees’ email clients, as part of a drive to eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiency.
It is fascinating to read the comments to the post. As my own experience confirms, suggestions like this tend to stir heated emotions. And indeed, on one hand, it is easy to identify with the views that it would be better to educate people to act sensibly; on the other, with thousands of users, we know that will never suffice. My own take on this is that the more aggravating RTAs – the ones that are a clear result of thoughtlessness – may be solved even if you don’t remove the button, but simply move it on the toolbar away from REPLY. Even such a tiny change might eliminate some of the reflexive use of RTA when REPLY would suffice.
What do you think?