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E-mania: Organizing, filtering, ignoring e-mail can increase productivity


Dawn Lahlum says her company gets 80,000 to 120,000 e-mails a day and "only 8 percent of those are not classified as spam."

Lahlum, vice president of administration for Park Co. Realtors, says the company that provides their spam filtering was "blown away" by the numbers.

"They had never seen that before," she says.

Matters have gotten much more manageable for Park Co., thanks to some spam software. But it illustrates what a beast the beautiful technology of e-mail can be.

To be sure, e-mail is a powerful tool. But, ironically, the fast-as-lightning technology can also be a productivity killer.

It may seem as if it only takes a second to deal with the ping-and-pop-up that signals a new message. But the time it takes to change tasks and reorient to the original task can be significant.

In fact, if a worker processes each e-mail as it arrives, the individual can lose about 30 minutes of work in a 10-hour day, says Ashish Gupta, assistant professor in Minnesota State University Moorhead's school of business.

Gupta and Oklahoma State University's Ramesh Sharda published a study in the International Journal of Simulation and Process Modelling in which they detail the results of a computer program that models workers' use of e-mail.

They found that by responding immediately to e-mails, a company with 100 employees could lose more than $2,000 per day, assuming a wage of $50 per hour. That means approximately $600,000 per year.

"So you're talking about 10 workers," Gupta says.

The proposed solution is elegantly simple: Stop processing e-mail so frequently. Gupta suggests processing messages in batches one to four times per day. If it's all processed once per day the "loss as a result of interruptions is almost negligible," at 0.6 percent of the day.

There may be other, less easily quantified costs to mismanaging the Cyber Postal Service.

Lahlum says something is lost in terms of the personal touch.

With e-mail, you really don't get "that full value of a relationship (that you get) when you communicate with someone face to face and you're able to hear the verbals and also see the nonverbals. You lose a lot of that," she says.

And Erik Holmberg, electronic payments and services manager for Fargo-based State Bank and Trust, says a friendly "have a great day" can be taken as sarcastic in electronic communication.

Some of this can be combated by going to a more direct type of communication when misunderstandings arise.

"Pick up the phone and give somebody a call," Holmberg says. "At least you'll be able to hear the inflection in somebody's tone of voice when you're asking them the questions, because you're going to know immediately if they're ticked about something; or if it rubbed them the wrong way, you're definitely going to know."

And e-mail can also be a conduit for work life to spill into private life.

Holmberg saw the danger of that happening to him personally and "had to draw a line in the sand and say, 'Yep, here's the times for work, here's the times for the family.' "

And he advises people to make a commitment to family and to put boundaries around their work times.

"Let the family know, let your kids know," he says. "Your kids are really good at holding you accountable."

The simple quantity of mail is also an issue for some. Lahlum says that "the sheer number" of messages is one of Park's biggest e-mail issues.

For those drowning in the e-sea, Microsoft Outlook offers a trick or two to help pare down the e-mail avalanche. Under "Rules and Alerts ..." is a versatile set of filters that allows the user to automatically delete unwanted messages, file messages from particular senders in particular folders, etc.

Of course, we don't want to be too hard on the addictive little technology. As Sharda says, "There is no question that e-mail has been a major transformative technology that has enabled us to connect with more people faster, more easily, more cheaply, so on."

And while acknowledging the productivity challenges that e-mail can pose, Gupta says, the technology "brings a lot of advantages in terms of productivity gain. ... Things that would have taken three days to reach you, now can reach you in just a fraction of seconds."

In fact, for business, Lahlum puts e-mail right up there with the telephone saying, "They're both equally important in this business."

She says it's about balance. E-mail "is a very positive tool, but it comes with its challenges."

E-mail tips

* Check e-mail at defined times each day.

We hate telemarketers during dinner, so why do we tolerate e-mail when we're trying to get something useful done? Turn off your e-mail "autocheck" and only check e-mail two or three times a day, by hand. Let people know that if they need to reach you instantly, e-mail isn't the way. When it's e-mail processing time, however, shut the office door, turn off the phone, and blast through the messages.

* Use a paper "response list" to triage messages before you do any follow-up.

The solution to e-mail overload is pencil and paper? Who knew? Grab a legal pad and label it "Response list." Run through your incoming e-mails. For each, note on the paper what you have to do or whom you have to call. Resist the temptation to respond immediately. If there's important reference information in the e-mail, drag it to your reference folder. Otherwise, delete it. Zip down your entire list of e-mails to generate your response list. Then, zip down your response list and actually do the follow-up.

* Charge people for sending you messages. Some CEOs charge staff members $5 from their budget for each e-mail received. Amazingly, the e-mail overload goes down, the relevance of e-mail goes up, and the senders are happy, too, because the added thought often results in them solving more problems on their own.

* Train people to be relevant. If you are constantly copied in on things, begin replying to e-mails that aren't relevant with the single word: "Relevant?" Of course, you explain that this is a favor to them. Now, they can learn what is and isn't relevant to you.

* Answer briefly. When someone sends you a 10-page missive, reply with three words: "Yup, great idea." You'll quickly train people not to expect huge answers from you, and you can then proceed to answer at your leisure in whatever format works best for you.

* Ignore it. Yes, ignore e-mail. If something's important, you'll hear about it again. And people will gradually be trained to pick up the phone or drop by if they have something to say. After all, if it's not important enough for them to tear their gaze away from the hypnotic world of Microsoft Windows, it's certainly not important enough for you to take the time to read.