Company ban on email gives employees a break, and maybe a different type of headache


(Scott Olson/GETTY IMAGES)

And mind you, this is not a small company where everyone is seated in offices down the hall from each other. Atos has more than 70,000 employees based in 42 countries and is Europe’s largest IT services company. Still, that’s not stopping Breton from instead pushing phone calls, face-to-face interactions, text and instant messages, and wiki-like software tools for employees in lieu of email. Email, says Breton, is a “pollutant” and “an instrument to shirk responsibility.” He hasn’t sent a work email in three years.

He’s right, in some regard. We’ve all felt the perverse sense of accomplishment that comes from sending an email to someone with an introduction, a list of questions or a request for help. We feel like we’ve gotten something accomplished, when really all we’ve done is lobbed the ball across the net. It’s in their court. We can move onto other things, even if nothing has actually gotten “done.”

That’s only one of email’s many problems, of course. People inadvertently send the wrong signals in emails all the time, conveying one tone when they mean another. They write C.Y.A. missives, copying everyone on the planet so there’s no way to be accused of not getting the word out on time. They hit the dreaded “reply all” when they shouldn’t. And they clog up inboxes with messages that say nothing more than “Ok” or “Got it.” (We know you got it! There’s a little thing called “Delivery Failure” notices that we would get if you didn’t!)

Email is also incredibly distracting. Studies have shown that every time you’re alerted to a new email, it can take 64 seconds to get your head back on track with what you were doing. If the average person gets close to 100 emails a day, that’s an hour and a half of the day wasted on refocusing on work. And we are so attuned to the ding that alerts us to new messages that 70 percent of emails are responded to within six seconds, hardly enough time to finish the thought we were having as we did our regular work.

But should leaders ban it outright? I don’t think so. It does have a time and place, even if it’s overused. When a complex set of instructions needs to be conveyed in quick fashion, few things work better. When someone’s sending you a request for information you know will need to be reviewed by other people or read again at a later time, there are few things that can be more easily shared or readily referenced. Sure, wiki software can do these things, but for many employees, e-mail is simpler.

I applaud Breton for trying to do something that streamlines his employee’s workloads. For most professionals working in today’s knowledge economy, information overload has replaced safety concerns as the No. 1 issue that affects their working conditions. And yet, it gets woefully little attention. Most leaders just pile on more ways to add to the information deluge, issuing Blackberries and laptops so that their people can be always on, all the time.

But as Jonathan Spira, the author of a book on data overload, puts it, “to paraphrase Sir Winston, e-mail is the worst form of messaging except for all the others that have been tried.” There is a time and a place for it, and banning it could make people’s jobs harder at times. What leaders really should be doing is urging—and more important, modeling—smarter and sparer use of the tool. That, and maybe banning the “reply-all” button.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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