By Ringside Talent
July 10, 2018
We have a love-hate relationship with email. On one hand, we send over 108 billion email messages every day. On the other hand, most of us hate working our way through our inbox. Email takes up 23 percent of the average employee’s workday, and that average employee sends or receives 112 emails per day.
When you look at these statistics, you begin to see email as a new form of knowledge pollution. In fact, that exact conclusion is one that Thierry Breton, CEO of the France-based information technology services firm Atos Origin, arrived at several years ago. Breton noticed that his employees seemed constantly distracted by the stream of emails they received each day. So, he took steps to eliminate what he believed were negative effects on company productivity.
In February 2011, Breton announced that he was banning email. In three years’ time, he wanted Atos to be a “zero-email” company. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives,” Breton said in a public statement released through Atos’s website. “We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.”
That statement seems surprising coming from the CEO of a technology company employing over 70,000 people in more than forty offices around the world. But perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. As I write about in my new book, Under New Management, an increasing number of company leaders are outlawing or at least restricting email. And as a result, they’re getting more done.
Breton himself had being using a zero-email philosophy well before he announced led Atos to ban it. He’d stopped using internal email nearly five years earlier because he found it hampered his productivity. Despite his seemingly radical thinking about email, Breton isn’t exactly the model of a rogue start-up founder testing out wild new ways to work. He’s a middle-aged former minister of finance for France and a former professor at Harvard Business School.
Atos’s massive size would seem to preclude the banning of email, but in reality it was the size of the company that Breton saw as the reason for the communication bottleneck. Of course, Atos didn’t ban electronic communication outright. Instead, the company built a social network for the entire enterprise. They organized the network around 7,500 open communities representing the various projects that required collaboration. However, conversations are not automatically interrupting employees by pinging their inbox. Instead, employees can choose to enter the discussion on their terms and their schedule.
While Atos still hasn’t hit 0% email, the reduction efforts are working. The company has reduced overall email by 60 percent, going from an average of 100 email messages per week per employee to less than 40. Atos’s operating margin increased from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent in 2013, earnings per share rose by more than 50 percent, and administrative costs declined from 13 percent to 10 percent. Obviously, not all of these improvements were the result of banning email, but the correlation is certainly strong. So is a growing body of research on the effects of email.
Banning or putting restrictions on email, the research suggests, can dramatically increase individual productivity and reduce stress. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the U.S. Army cut off email usage for thirteen civilian office workers and measured the effects on productivity and stress. The researchers first took participants through a three-day baseline period in which they were interviewed and observed both visually and with computer monitoring software (to see how which programs they used, how often, and how much their work was interrupted). They even measured the participants’ heart rates (as a proxy for stress levels). Then they pulled the plug on email, installing a filter on the participants’ email program—which would file away all incoming messages for later reading and remove all notifications.
They continued the “no-email” condition for five days, continued to observe the participants, track their computer usage, and measure their heart rates. Participants began to communicate face-to-face and over the telephone more frequently. Most participants also spent significantly more time in each computer program that they used, suggesting that they were much less distracted. Judging by heart rates, participants also experienced significantly less stress when blocked from email. The participants even noticed this effect themselves. They consistently reported feeling more relaxed and focused, as well as more productive, with their email shut off than under normal working conditions.
Further studies suggest that just limiting email checking to a certain number of times per day or only checking the inbox at particular times can have almost as dramatic an effect.
Taken together, Atos’ experience and the results of these studies suggest we need to have a conversation about when and how we email. Clearing out your email inbox can make you feel like you’re ultra-productive, but unless your job description is solely to delete emails, you’re likely just fooling yourself.