How much time you really spend emailing at work

If you’ve ever felt like all you do at work is read and answer emails, you’re wrong. According to a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, which uses proprietary data from McKinsey as well as from the International Data Corporation, we spend 28 percent of our workweeks reading, writing or responding to email. (Hat tip to Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic, who figures this means we spend 650 hours a year.)


(Courtesy of McKinsey & Co.)

But 28 percent of our time—that’s 13 hours in an average workweek—is still a whole lot to spend writing and answering emails. The chart above, which appears in the McKinsey Global Institute’s July report “The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies,” shows that we spend more time answering and responding to emails than we do communicating and collaborating with our co-workers or searching and gathering information. The only thing that takes more time is “role-specific tasks,” otherwise known as “doing our actual job.”

The McKinsey report proposes that using more “social technologies” in the workplace—things like blogs, wikis or Twitter feeds—could reduce email use by 25 percent. It also estimates that 30 percent of current time spent on email “could be repurposed by moving communication to a social collaboration platform, freeing up 8 percent of the workweek for more productive activities.”

And indeed, some dedicated souls have shown this is possible. The report highlights Luis Suarez, “an in-house expert on social software” at IBM. He has reduced his email traffic by 98 percent using various tactics, such as posting responses to emails on a social site, “thereby eliminating all the follow-up questions, copying, and forwarding that multiplies e-mail traffic.”

But really, it could be a whole lot simpler. If we all stopped using the “reply all” button except when absolutely necessary, I’d guess that alone might shed hours off the weekly tally. If everyone stopped responding to emails with an unnecessary “thanks” or “I got it,” email traffic would plummet simply because threads would come more quickly to their rightful ends. And if more people would actually pick up the phone when it was warranted, maybe we could all spend more time communicating, collaborating and actually doing our jobs.

I don’t doubt that new technologies have a role to play in helping us to fight the tyranny of older ones. But sometimes, the best weapon against email overload may simply be common sense.

More from On Leadership:

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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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