How To Restore Email To Its Productivity-Enhancing Glory

by Erica Driver.

I just got off the phone with a small software startup called Get Back Software. For $3/team member/month, a department head can use Get Back’s product, called Postware, to put a cap on the number of emails that people in their group can send. The thinking behind this new software as a service is that email has turned from a productivity-enhancing tool into a productivity sinkhole, and that by giving workers a limited “email allowance” you can change their behavior—you can get them to think twice before cc:ing their boss or replying to all, or inviting a colleague to lunch via email rather than by walking down the hall or picking up the phone. I agree with the core premise here—that the productivity benefits of tools like email (and instant messaging and mobile devices) go down when the volume of communications hits a critical mass and when workers have no control over the volume and frequency of interruptions to their work.

But I’m not sure that putting yet another technical limitation on the ability of people to communicate in their desired way is the answer. After all, information workers already have technical limits imposed upon them in the form of mailbox quotas and attachment size limits. These limitations don’t encourage them to send less email; rather, people spend time cleaning out their mailboxes to make room for new mail, or emailing a sender or picking up the phone to find out why they haven’t received a presentation they were expecting (which was nabbed by the company’s content filtering tools because the file was too big). Workers will find ways to work around technical limitssuch as through the use of instant messaging. Or maybe they’ll start using their Gmail or Hotmail accounts instead of work email accounts. In my view, restoring email back to its initial productivity-enhancing glory requires a multi-pronged approach:

  • Create a policy that includes legal requirements and etiquette guidelines. For an example of the kinds of things that should go in this document see the June 23, 2004, Forrester report “Why Email Etiquette Guidelines Matter.”
  • Offer rich communication and collaboration alternatives. Team collaboration is a good example. Have people send links to documents stored on team workspaces rather than send email attachments around. Not only does it free up storage space but it can help reduce version control issues and can help teams get organized.
  • Educate and train the workforce. Help people easily identify when the best time is to use specific communication tools (e.g., email, IM, telephone).
  • Deliver contextual collaboration services. Email—and other collaboration services, like instant messaging—make the greatest contribution to workers’ productivity when the service is made available in the context of the business process in which the workers are involved and the applications they are using every day to do their jobs. For more information see the March 8, 2006, Forrester report “Context Is King In The New World Of Work.”
  • Move toward unified communications. Unified communications links communication technologies such as voice with collaboration services like email, calendaring, instant messaging, and presence to improve knowledge workers' ability to interact with coworkers more quickly and effortlessly. Unified communications results in streamlined business processes and enables workers to reduce delays in reaching others regardless of location. See the February 22, 2007 Forrester report “Unified Communications.” For information on the vendors that provide unified communications solution, see the November 9, 2006, Forrester report “Unified Communications: What You Need To Know.”