E-mail angst

first_img Comments are closed. E-mail angstOn 1 Jan 2001 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos. The ultimate office communication aid, e-mail has undoubtedlytransformed  work culture, but a lack ofcontrol over the inbox has led to it becoming more of a hindrance than a help.We look at how training can help reduce the stress associated with e-mailuse.  By Miranda James After only a few years, it seems impossible to imagine life without it. Howdid we cope before e-mail? Letters were written, faxes sent, memos circulated.People had to go to the lengths of telephoning each other or schedulingmeetings, often trying to synchronise multiple diaries, to agree actions andget things done. E-mail has become such an integral part of organisational culture, it isalmost invisible. Documents that need to be sent out often go, at least in thefirst instance, as e-mail attachments. Answering a pile of e-mails becomes the first task in the morning. We findourselves developing relationships with colleagues we know only through e-mail.Its speed and ease are revolutionary. Looking at the anachronistic processesthat preceded it, it is logical to assume that e-mail must be saving theworkforce a massive amount of time. There must be productivity gains that areoff the scale. The irony is that in many cases, the opposite is true. What is beingincreasingly recognised in many organisations, is that e-mail is no panacea andcan give rise to its own set of unique problems. In some cases, simply dealingwith the e-mail tide is a significant workplace stress in its own right. The strain of keeping up Taking the Strain, the Institute of Management’s report, published inFebruary 2000, shows “keeping up with e-mails” as the tenth moststress-inducing activity in a survey of over 800 UK managers. Its position inthe rankings nudges e-mails into the “high pressure” zone, abovefactors such as “relationship with boss”. But in theelectronically-dependent workplace, bad e-mail practice is also more thanlikely to contribute to the three most stressful factors in the study –”constant interruptions”, “time pressures and deadlines”and “poor internal communications”. As the report points out, the perennial obstacle to tackling stress in theworkplace, particularly among managers, is the “macho” culture of notadmitting weakness or to a sense of being unable to cope. On top of that,separating out e-mail from a raft of other general stressors, and dealing withit as a phen- omenon in its own right, is less likely when stress is comingfrom several directions at once. Bad e-mail practice may be identified duringan internal communications audit (one of the recommended remedies in Taking theStrain), but because it is a technology-related problem, there is often aperception that the problem belongs to IT, not to human resources. Research published this year by San Francisco-based consultancy FerrisResearch, shows that using e-mail typically saved workers in the US 381 hours ayear. But conversely e-mail also lost the average user 115 hours a year – forexample, through wasted time dealing with e-mailed irrelevancies. The studycame out with an overall net benefit – 266 hours – but the “two stepsforward, one step back” route to that result is disturbing. Ferrisconcludes that companies need to develop and communicate clear policies one-mail distribution lists, indiscriminate copying and personal e-mails. Learn the rules The realisation being made by HR departments which do invest in specialisedtraining, is that ignorance of simple communication rules can tip the balance,taking the e-mail load from manageable to unbearable. “There is definitely an increased awareness about the effect e-mail ishaving on our working lives,” says Granada Media training officer JaneFoston. In April the company commissioned a course in e-mail practice fromLondon-based Team IT Training. For Granada it wasn’t evidence of stress that prompted the course, but anawareness of the exponential growth of e-mail that was circulating. Overload –”simple volume issues” – was the most prevalent problem, Foston says.”There was also a tendency to keep checking e-mails all the time, whichcan be disruptive when trying to get work done.” The training highlighted a lack of awareness about how e-mail was receivedand the flow-on effect once the “send” button had been hit.Gratuitous use of “cc”ing (copying multiple people into e-mails) wasa key problem. Often staff were not using the subject field properly to conveythe message content, and simple rules like writing in capitals (shouting in ane-mail) were identified. “The training really challenged people to think about whether e-mailwas the best way to communicate rather than picking up the phone or going tosee them. Are we just clogging up the system by sending e-mailsautomatically?” Following the training, says Foston, there was a sense that gaining greaterknowledge of the medium saved people stress, giving them a new power over theirinbox. “It can be relentless,” says Hammersmith and Fulham Council directservices personnel manager Lorna Garrett. “People report leaving theoffice, then finding a massive number of e-mails waiting for them when theycome back in.” The council ran training sessions for 55 direct services managers, mainly toaddress potential legal issues with e-mails passing frequently to externalcontractors. In the process it found that managers needed to implement basiccommunication rules to keep their e-mail load under control. Over-copying, using subject fields appropriately, using acronyms to denotethe level of urgency and the tone of the e-mails themselves were addressed. “There was a lot that needed to be done in the way that e-mails cameacross. It is an informal, casual medium and there are issues ofprofessionalism. We had to smarten up our act,” Garrett says. According to Marc Powell, director of Team IT Training, the lack of acommunication “code of practice” is a major factor in e-mail stress.There are formulae and protocols for using the telephone and letter writing,but when it comes to e-mail, such codes don’t exist. This, plus the rapidgrowth of the medium – with thousands of inexperienced e-mail users are comingon stream all the time – compounds the problem. Good and bad practice Bad e-mail practice, particularly among management, can be not only irritatingbut destructive, he says. In one organisation Team IT worked with, a managere-mailed staff at the start of the week about a team meeting on Friday in whichhe was to deliver “the good (or bad) news”. He was then on leave forthe rest of the week. What he thought was tongue-in-cheek humour in his e-mailwas taken as a negative portent by his staff, who were utterly demotivated andexpecting the worst. The urge to copy an e-mail to multiple people, either to win favour withmanagement or cover oneself, is one of the worst factors in overload, Mr Powellsays. “It can send all sorts of ambiguous messages. People think ‘Why do Ineed to know this?’ and assume some action is required of them. It causesconfusion and untold unwarranted stress.” Over-zealous copying is top of the list of e-mail “don’ts”. Othercommon bad habits include confusing or unclear subject lines; tagging e-mails”urgent” when they aren’t; forwarding e-mails with old messages stillto be sifted through; scolding or arguing via e-mail; replying to the wholegroup in receipt of an e-mail instead of just the sender, and sendingunnecessary attachments. But the critical issue in e-mail overload is simpleoveruse. In many instances, people send e-mails as a first action rather than phoningor physically meeting. “The language that many managers use about their e-mail speaksvolumes,” says Team IT director Bob Halliwell. “It is the language ofaddiction.” Common phrases are “I can’t do without it”, “I need my e-mailfix”, “I’m addicted”. Many of the senior employees they workwith, he says, check their e-mails compulsively and reply to all of them assoon as they come in. If the managers who are most susceptible to overload wantto reduce stress, the onus is on them to drive the change that will prevent itin the first place. E-mail etiquette: do’s and don’tsDo– Develop clear guidelines for the organisation– Set up central intranet folders for non-critical social/personal e-mails– Set up filters and folders to group e-mail by subject and priority– Use notes and acronyms to indicate how critical an e-mail is– Use a salutation and sign-off– Put a clear message in the subject field – even avoiding body text if possibleDon’t– Send an e-mail if you wouldn’t bother saying the same thing on the phone– Copy people into e-mails unnecessarily– Forward e-mails that still contain old, irrelevant messages– Forward attachments where an html link can be used instead– Reply to an entire group if you only intend it for one person– Use capital letters unless you’re intending to convey a “shout”– Allow your inbox to become more than one screen-full– Send an angry e-mail Previous Article Next Articlelast_img

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