The Case For Banning Email at Work

One of the largest technology companies in Europe is looking to ban office email. Are they ahead of the curve, or are they totally ignoring the origins of our communications kluge?

615 email shutterstock Markus Gann .jpgMarkus Gann /Shutterstock

One of Europe's largest technology companies has a new rule for employees. Get off email. Get on instant messenger.

Atos CEO Thierry Breton claims the amount of email pinging around his 50,000-employee company (which is about the size of Apple) is "unsustainable," forcing managers to spend up to 25 hours a week reading and writing emails. He told employees that the company plans to phase out email between colleagues over the next three years. "Email will still be used for external communications, but employees will be expected to use collaboration and social media tools instead of email to communicate with fellow co-workers," the Financial Times reports.

Banning intra-office email: Horrible counter-productive idea, or inspired work-flow enhancer?

Let's think through this. If we agree that the role of work email is to keep workers connected to their work, then there are two arguments against it. The first is that email does its job poorly: it's not the best way to keep people connected and productive. The second is that it does its job too well: it keeps people so connected that it winds up hurting productivity.

OUR POST-EMAIL FUTURE?

The case that email stinks as a modern technology is made most clear by the fact that nobody under the age of 18 seems to be using it.

"Nobody uses email here," my roommate told me when he started a new company on Brown University's campus. "They all use Facebook chat and text." Facebook chat? I couldn't believe it. But the New York Times corroborated his theory in an article that found the number of unique visitors to major e-mail sites like Yahoo and Hotmail peaked in November 2009 and has since declined among teens by a fifth.

Just because college students have eschewed email for chats and texts doesn't mean email doesn't belong in the office. It just means that thousands of younger, fluently connected teens and 20-somethings who are about to join the workforce have found a way to manage their lives off email. Many companies have met them halfway. Thousands have office chat software to let workers stay in constant dialogue. Chat is faster. It's seamless. It requires less opening and closing, deleting and archiving.

Because chat seems more efficient, Atos executives assume that moving to chat will save its colleagues' time. They might be right. But I can think of a reason why they might be wrong. Encouraging office chat invites the same over-sharing of information that turns email from a productivity-booster to a time-suck.

WANT FEWER EMAILS? TAX 'EM (SERIOUSLY)

There's too much email out there for the same reason that there's too much carbon dioxide. It's really cheap to make the stuff. If I work in PR, it's totally free for me to send 1,000 emails to 1,000 journalists. But for each of these journalists, there is a cost. It takes time to see, read, archive, or delete the email. The negative externality of lots of freely flowing information is distraction.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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