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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.
The easiest way to curb free communications is similar to the easiest way to curb carbon emissions. You can't ban the staff. But you could tax it. For a decade, we've talked about taxing email to stop spammers. It's not in a company's interest to put a tax on collaboration, since the outcome will be less collaboration. But the most serious way to address information gratuitousness would be to create a real penalty for firing off an email with gratuitous information.
Before I start receiving emails calling me a communications communist, let's get back to the central issue here. It's productivity. Bosses want more good work done in fewer hours. And the literature suggests that activities that look frivolous -- such as inter-office gossip over email, funny links passed around a cubicle cluster, and Facebook loitering -- might help overall productivity.
Studies show that short bursts of attention punctuated with equally deliberate breaks are the surest way to harness our full capacity to be productive. As I wrote in a piece this summer defending summer vacations:
Literature on research at universities -- a notoriously grueling enterprise -- showed that faculty are more productive when they work in brief stints rather than all-consuming marathon sessions. Another study published in the journal Cognition found that short breaks allow people to maintain their focus on a task without the loss of quality that normally occurs over time.
Frivolous email might make us less efficient. Or, by creating distractions that help us manage our focus, they might be enhancing it.
In the next few years, companies will develop better communications tools -- like Google Wave!* Workers will become more proficient with email and learn to take advantage of features like Google priority mail. Spam filters will get sharper.
But here's something that won't change. As long as electronic communications are simple, available, and free, people will talk to each other a lot. Facebook messaging and Gchats can be as much of a time-suck as email. It's not about the technology. It's about the users. As Sara Radicati, CEO of analyst firm Radicati Group, wisely said: