There are many productivity dampeners, and email overload is the most significant and most common of them. Many people in many organizations routinely receive 100+ emails every day. Not only these emails eat up a lot of productive time: but they also create a problem of context switching. Emails pertaining to different contexts sit in one’s inbox next to one another, and one needs to keep switching the context when one moves from one email to next. Studies show that this time is as high as 3 minutes per email on an average.
One who receives such an email traffic is at the receiving end (literally!) and there is little that this person can do about it. I have been in a similar situation once. Each morning when I opened my email client, 150 odd emails would get downloaded one by one. The work priorities were set according to these emails, so it would have been important to go over all of them. Some of the emails had multiple people commenting on them, which means that I had to absorb the whole who-said-what before arriving at a conclusion about how to respond and what work I should get done. Many a times, it used to take more than half a day before I could talk to my team about what to do.
For the people in this situation, advice on how to improve productivity is available. For all it is worth, it helps the situation at hand only marginally. For example, in the specific situation that I was in, for 95% of the emails, it would have been risky to let go of a message based on the subject or the first 3 lines.
The context switching builds fatigue which kills productivity — more than just the time spent.
In later years I realized where the problem lies. The right questions to ask would be: Why would this individual be required to look at these many messages in the first place? Doesn’t it indicate an unfair loading of work? Isn’t a better work distribution possible?
These questions need to be asked and solved at a different level from the individual level. The organizations are killing employee productivity by not doing so.
To be fair to the organizations: this email overload issue has caught most of us by surprise. In the early years of its existence, email was there with only a handful of people and we never had this kind of challenges. Now, while email traffic has increased manifolds, our mindset and our toolset have not changed to keep pace.
The solution to this problem will be specific to a situation. In some cases, it could mean adding people to distribute the workload. In some others, it could mean using a tool (like Kommbox) to keep your communications better-organized. But once you find a solution that works for your organization, it will have a far reaching impact on the organization’s productivity through making all employees happier and more productive.
Thus, if you have people in your organizations who have to deal with insanely high volumes of email, it’s high time you start asking “why” at the organization level. The solution will work magic to your organizational productivity.