Q: In my position as a manager and team leader at a telecommunications company, it's not unusual for me to receive 75 to 100 e-mail messages a day. Going on vacation for a week could mean returning to the office to find 600-plus messages waiting. (I hear many people take their computers on vacation with them for just this reason, which means they aren't really off, even when they are on vacation.)

The number one complaint I hear both at my company and from acquaintances employed elsewhere is the daily volume of e-mail. If I weren't also managing a staff of 16 and attending four hours' worth of meetings each day, I could probably manage the volume, and the attachments, and the replies. Maybe. But in an environment that relies heavily on communicating through e-mail, I'm finding that I simply can't get all my messages read each day. Consequently, I miss meetings--or, worse, miss deliverables.

I've known some employees who have left our division because they are trying to escape the e-mail overload. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated.

A: Thanks for your e-mail. Yes, we're all awash in a sea of messages, partly because we live in a world of instantaneous communication and partly because e-mail and other technologies are still novelties without rules to govern their use. A study conducted last year by office equipment manufacturer Pitney Bowes Inc. found that the average worker is being deluged with 190 messages a day, including e-mail, faxes, conventional and cellular telephone calls, voice mail and letters.

"We're all on information overload," agrees Gloria Peterson, president of Chicago-based Global Protocol, a consulting company that develops technology etiquette systems that help workers remain productive in the face of a multiplicity of labor-saving communication devices.

Peterson's advice? Handle incoming messages in their appropriate priority, and make sure co-workers know how you rank their significance. Telephone calls always come first, because there's a live person on the line. Then faxes. E-mails are handled last. Unfortunately, she said, a growing number of cubicle-bound workers, increasingly averse to real human interactions, are using e-mail inappropriately for things people should be told in person, which contributes to overuse of the technology, she said.

Meredith Fischer, a Pitney Bowes vice president and author of several studies on communications technology, said the writer needs to call a meeting to talk about the mounting problem and establish "rules of the road" for e-mail use. At some companies, for example, certain times of the day are set aside for handling e-mail, so the job ceases to be a 24-hour-a-day chore, she said. E-mail senders should make efficient use of message or memo lines, so recipients can learn the subject at a glance without a need to open up the file. And established code words, like "urgent," or "private," or "FYI only," could help readers sort out even faster what they need to view immediately.

Fischer said part of the problem may be that the writer's employees think she is so busy she has no time for face-to-face communications with them--which isn't good, she said. On the other hand, in some corporate cultures, e-mail has become the preferred means of communication, particularly if workers are employed in far-flung locations.

But what about the pesky e-mail that you never asked for, don't want and now feel you are stuck having to answer? The two experts disagree. Peterson thinks it is simple good manners, and makes good business sense, to make yourself respond to all e-mail within three days. Fischer disagrees, saying that e-mail is simply another way to send letters, some of which merit a response and some of which are just "left in a pile."

"Sending something by e-mail does not make it a more important piece of information," Fischer said.

On the vacation issue, the experts agree. Tell your co-workers and employees in advance that you are going, that urgent matters need to be handled before you go, that you will not be checking your messages. Then pack your bags and go.

Fischer said everyone in the organization will benefit. "Her co-workers don't want to be overloaded when they are on vacation either," she said.

Q: My husband has worked in the computer business for 25 years. The company he is now working for has a business planning meeting that has been on-site in the past. A new vice president has come on board, and now it's off-site, three days and two nights. For almost everyone, the three-day, two-night event is just great. The company gets employees for 24-hour days. The VP can "bond" with her group, and the employees can "bond" with one another.

The flip side is the family. A team player can never leave an event like this because it would send a bad message at work: that the worker would rather be a parent than spend time bonding with people he sees at work every day; that the spouse should take care of it all while the employee is spending time out.

These kinds of meetings work against families. The employee should be bonding with his or her life partner and be a parent to his or her children. This way the employee gets the support by his family to focus on the job.

A: The executives planning the event probably thought it sounded like a great idea--and, indeed, it might be helpful in promoting collegiality and improving team spirit. But a weekend retreat that seems fun to a single person can generate much ill will inside families--and studies are already finding a growing level of work-family conflict.

Arlene Johnson, a work/life consultant with Boston-based WFD, said thoughtless corporate planning can cause lots of problems for workers but it is usually difficult for workers to complain, particularly if they fear it would put their jobs at risk. She suggests the issue be raised anonymously through a sympathetic human resources official at the firm, with the worker careful to make sure "to affirm the goal" of what the meeting was to accomplish, she said. But there's not much the spouse can do, she said.

Another problem may be that the worker actually thinks the weekend getaway is great, even if the spouse does not, she said. In the interests of family harmony, the worker would be well advised to offer the spouse a nice getaway trip in the near future, or a special family vacation where all work talk is off limits, Johnson said.


Got a tough workplace question? Trying to deal with difficult co-workers or handle a thorny management question? Is the work-family balance giving you vertigo? Want to be more effective on the job?

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