Are we using technology to improve productivity or have we become slaves to the always-on corporate inbox?

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I talk with IT leaders regularly about how they can improve productivity and reduce attrition within their organisations through the use of IT, and then walk out across the office to see virtually everyone wading through pages and pages of new emails in their inboxes.   When email was introduced into businesses in the 1980’s […]

I talk with IT leaders regularly about how they can improve productivity and reduce attrition within their organisations through the use of IT, and then walk out across the office to see virtually everyone wading through pages and pages of new emails in their inboxes.
When email was introduced into businesses in the 1980’s it was abused – primarily because it was new; but then usage settled down.  The predominant form of communication then was telephone; so although email offered a new means to convey messages, the standard behaviour, or ethos, of a business at the time was to use the telephone, or meet face-to-face.  So behaviour shifted back to normal patterns.
The world has changed over the last few years with innovative Smart devices becoming more pervasive within the corporate environment. These provide a whole host of productivity-related applications to the user but the one most widely used is the email client. We not only enable but also endorse the regular use of email as the primary form of communication within our businesses. The mobile device; whether phone, tablet or laptop; is an easy way to keep up-to-date with you and your teams’ tasks.
The 24/7, on-line world we live in today actively encourages us to be connected to it.  Our thirst for information, knowledge, gossip, rumour and simple curiosity has created a behavioural shift towards being actively communicative.  If we can’t talk face-to-face, text or instant message then email is the natural alternative.
This is not just limited to the corporate world. The predominance of instant communication enjoyed at home is a new ethos that has developed in significance over the past 5 years.  People – quite naturally – take behaviour with them into work and, essentially, carry on where they left off.  But doing so has consequences for productivity.
The bottom line is that, today, email communication within corporates has a higher priority than face-to-face or telephone conversations.

Is this good for us though? Does it improve productivity?
There are two main camps with arguments for and against the always-on way of operating.
For: These people believe that if you are always connected, you can take a couple of minutes when you are at home, for example, to respond to emails and instant messages resulting in less emails building up in your inbox at the start of the next working day. Resulting assumption: you are more productive during the working day.
Against: This camp believes that once you finish work for the day, you actually finish work. You are usually paid for a fixed number of hours. You work hard, deserve the break and this refreshes you for the next working day. Resulting assumption: your work-life balance is improved and your productivity is actually higher during the next working day.
My personal belief is that both arguments have merits.
Admittedly, if you do check emails outside of office hours, you will have less un-read emails in your Inbox the next day. BUT, and it is a big but, are you responding to the email with the level of gravitas that it deserves or have you just postponed the potential action that the email requires until the next day? In addition, by responding to emails regularly outside of office hours, you subconsciously set the expectation that you use emails as your preferred form of contact, resulting in, (yes…), more emails! The same applies to other forms of on-line communication. Facebook, for example – a typical Facebook user spends an inordinate amount of their time on Facebook, checking status updates, posting status updates. By doing this, it creates a spiral, more content equals more time to review content, and so on. A Penrose Paradox, if you will.
From another perspective, by leaving emails until the working day, you spend more time “on emails” than actually doing your day job, resulting in you becoming an inbox-slave and spending the majority of the day knee-deep in unread mails. I see this time and time again across our clients’ corporate offices.
There is also another angle to consider. If you explore the human psyche, and how the brain functions, we require down-time – a period of rest where we aren’t thinking or doing work but rather focussing on other things – our social and personal life. We all operate at a certain stress level and down-time allows our body to recuperate and regenerate, which relieves the stress. Sleep helps, yes, but we need time during our waking hours to do this as well. If you are always-on, always-connected, you never achieve this relaxation period while you are awake. This results in a lower quality of sleep, higher continuous level of stress and you’ve guessed it – potential burn out.
There have been several studies that discuss productivity in relation to working hours. In fact, recently the German labour ministry and also a number of large-scale global employers (for example Volkswagen) have even gone to the steps of banning corporate emails outside of working hours, with the aim to prevent employees from burning out.  For reference, refer to:…
The question remains, are you more productive when you are dealing with less emails during the working day? My view is quite probably yes; you absolutely are.  But how do you get away from the constant email barrage?
In addition, one thing that is generally accepted is that people often will “hide” behind an email, because being confrontational in writing is regarded as less stressful than face-to-face.  But using email to respond to a difficult situation could exacerbate that situation which, conversely, could’ve been more readily dealt with either face-to-face or via telephone.

The answer is: change the way you and your business works. You do not need to use email as the primary form of communication. Emails didn’t exist 40 years ago and although the nature of business has changed since, it worked ok then, so why should it be substantially different today?
Shayne Hughes, CEO of Learning as Leadership wrote an article in Forbes (2012), which I found insightful: “I banned all internal e-mails at my company for a week”. 
For reference refer to:…
He details four uses of email that enhanced productivity:
•       Conveying simple, defined information. Agendas for meetings, say, or directions to a location. There’s nothing confusing or controversial about that type of data-driven content, and no questions are being asked of the recipients.
•       Delegating clear administrative tasks. “Can you schedule this person?” “Can you send me that document?” “Can you have lunch Friday at noon?” Make the threshold of clarity high. Restrict these e-mails to very clear, no-questions-needed tasks.
•       Transmitting an attachment. After you have agreed in a conversation about the task at hand, e-mail is a good way to send someone the relevant documents. “Can you review the job description we discussed?” E-mail is a courier service, not a project management tool.
•       Documenting or summarizing a completed conversation. “Here are the minutes of our project meeting.” “Here’s what I heard in the performance review you just gave me.” E-mail is a good summarizing tool after the fact to ensure clarity.
Is this the right answer for everyone? No, most likely not, but look at how you and your business operates and identify how you can use alternative forms of communication to achieve the same or better results. Technology has enabled all forms of communication from phone calls, to instant messages, to video calls, to videoconferences, to interactive whiteboards, to interactive document sharing, to forums, to news feeds, and on.
Remember: it is almost impossible to convey what you are actually meaning in an email.  The intonation often replayed in the head whilst writing the message is rarely repeated in the written word.  The message received can easily be misconstrued, which may well then set off a chain of emails that would otherwise have been avoided had the sender telephoned first.

The old saying of ‘one size does not fit’ all applies just as well to technology. Go back to basics. Choose which technology will add real value to each area of your business and identify how you can implement it to do so.
 [Thanks to Paul Carrington for his contribution to this blog post]

Andy Simpson

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