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Business Officer Magazine

Is Your E-Mail Culture a Gain or a Drain?

Establishing efficient practices for processing e-mail can help you and your staff avoid productivity leaks and gain control of the workday.

By Marsha Egan

Have you ever wanted to delete every last one of your e-mail messages and start over? Certainly, the idea can be tempting. But, as a higher education leader and staff role model, you’ll need to resist the impulse. A more productive strategy involves examining how you and your university coworkers and staff use e-mail. How do you manage it, send it, and save it? The habits you adopt—good and bad—can be contagious. These practices can make the difference between a positive e-mail culture and a workplace drain.

Consider one example of a costly e-mail practice: When you let incoming messages interrupt your productive work, it takes you an average of four minutes to get back on track. In one day, if you let only 15 e-mails derail you, you’ve just lost an hour of productive time. A 20-person office can easily leak 100 such hours per week. On a larger scale, multiply that four-minute recovery time by every university employee every day and you can see how inefficient e-mail use can be an enormous drain on collective productivity and ultimately an institution’s bottom line.

Now consider the reverse: When each e-mail sender uses effective practices, your institution will have a distinct productivity advantage over competitors who are not doing so.

Taking control of your institution’s e-mail culture presents a huge opportunity. Following are some other productivity sappers and ways to counter them.

Underlying Inefficiencies

Interruption recovery is not the only e-mail practice that can sneak minutes and hours from your workday. Here are some others that may be all too familiar to you:

  • An environment of urgency. Once you, as a leader or manager, begin flagging messages as “high importance,” your entire department will keep inboxes open, continually checking for messages requiring an immediate response.
  • Repeated distraction. By allowing, for example, the “ding” of an arriving message to interrupt you, you risk becoming distracted many times daily.
  • Misplaced priorities: In your desire to clear your inbox, you and your staff may spend more time on insignificant items, confusing activity with results.
  • Overwhelming clutter. You or your employees may keep hundreds or even thousands of messages in your inboxes. Managing this clutter takes time; meanwhile, it presents the risk that some items are missed, overlooked, or forgotten.
  • Unnecessary copies: Because of the cost-free ease of adding people to a distribution, you may include unnecessary recipients. Each communication steals extra time from the reader—and most likely creates an additional e-mail for the original sender.
  • Poorly written e-mails: When messages are unclear, they create misunderstandings and even more e-mail.
  • General subject lines: While they appear harmless, vague subject lines sap time. Recipients must unnecessarily open and reopen messages, and often they encounter additional difficulty finding a filed e-mail related to the same thread.

Culture That Challenges Change

Other productivity drains related to office dynamics plague the typical office. Here are three big ones:

1. Each person has his or her own way of doing things. When e-mail first came on the scene, you likely received only a few messages daily to deal with. How you processed and managed them did not affect your overall productivity, but your methods became habits. Now that you and your staff receive a daily average on the order of 50 to 150 messages, unproductive practices take their toll. Additionally, time-wasting habits become solidified with the more e-mail you handle.

2. Although the university owns employee e-mail, how and when you use that function is largely private. Understandably, you and other managers are reluctant to look over employees’ shoulders to help them with e-mail practices. Since no two e-mail users have exactly the same time-sapping habits—and the veil of privacy makes it hard to diagnose what needs correction—establishing new processes is like trying to plug holes in a dike.

3. Few organizations train or orient their employees in e-mail efficiency best practices. This leaves staff largely in a vacuum, continuing their entrenched habits— some effective, some not. In addition, people have a tendency to learn only what they need to know to do their work. So, while most e-mail programs have extensive electronic tools that can truly aid efficiency, many people don’t even know they exist. I am continually amazed at the “aha’s” verbalized in my workshops about the most simple productivity-enhancing techniques. One participant admitted sending herself a blind copy of every message she sent; she had no idea that “Sent Mail” existed.

Simple Improvements

Establishing a more effective e-mail culture is not difficult. But, changes require two key actions: getting everyone on board and working with them to ingrain collective, productive habits that are followed daily.

A few simple changes, if accepted and implemented by your group, will bring noticeable productivity gains. Before you laugh off these suggestions as too elementary, consider the increased quality and focused attention that might be gained and what that might mean to your institution.

1. Never use e-mail for urgent matters. As noted earlier, flagging messages as “urgent” creates an environment in which people feel that they must view each e-mail right when it comes in. The practice creates an unpredictable workday. Such distractions are extremely costly, and the more volume you receive or send, the more interruptions you experience or create.

If you—as the boss—are the culprit, know that your behavior can change the entire organization’s e-mail culture in a millisecond into one that is driven by urgency above all else. Your subordinates soon learn that they must constantly monitor their inboxes, continually checking for incoming mail lest they miss something important. Soon, your entire organization is embracing a dizzying e-mail pace, with your days filled with constant interruption and the resulting inability to focus for appropriate periods of time.

To avoid this detrimental work environment, use the “three-hour rule.” Handle anything that requires a response within three hours via other communication methods. E-mail was not established to take the place of urgent or timely communication. Deal with highly important issues and decisions in person or by telephone. And, if you find yourself needing to do too many things on a high-priority basis, it could be symptomatic of another problem.

2. Check e-mail only five times daily. Interruptions eat away at productivity and efficiency, so it is prudent to reduce the number of times you view and sort incoming messages. This applies not only to you but to everyone in your business circle.

We already learned that each interruption takes you an average of four minutes from which to recover—to “get back in the zone.” Allowing yourself to be interrupted by only 15 messages a day will cost you 60 minutes of recovery time. If you shift to deliberately checking your e-mail only five times daily, you’ll save yourself 40 minutes each day. Multiply that times everyone in your institution’s business circle!

Most employees in the typical office setting can survive nicely by checking their inboxes at roughly these times: upon arrival at work, in mid-morning, after lunch, in mid-afternoon, and at the close of the business day.

Of course, this schedule may not work for everyone. One alternative is to set your e-mail default program to deliver new messages at set intervals. By establishing 60- or 90-minute intervals at which to receive new messages, you decrease your automated interruptions to no more than seven per workday. Just think about how much more you and your associates could accomplish with this newfound time.

Either option allows you to work systematically, checking communication only when it’s convenient for you. Ultimately, you will increase your personal productivity by decreasing the amount of time that interruptions eat up your workday.

3. Keep your inbox clean. A clean (or empty) inbox will enhance overall productivity at your institution. Here’s what this practice can help accomplish:

  • It minimizes distractions. When your inbox is clear, you are not pulled toward the computer screen and fooled into handling items that you think will take only a few seconds—only to be surprised 15 minutes later that you are still working on that “easy” but unimportant item.
  • It allows you to focus on the right stuff. By taking control of your work, you are more able to handle the truly important items that will advance your business and the bottom line.
  • It reduces stress. If you keep hundreds—or even thousands—of items in your inbox, you feel stress the minute you open your e-mail at the start of the day. The overwhelming number of messages reminds you of everything you have to do—and know you will not get done.
  • It allows you to take charge. When your inbox is empty, your virtual workspace is open for business. By not having items on your computer screen staring at you, you are essentially free to select what you are going to work on next. This enables you to plan and execute your day in a proactive way and effectively take charge of your work.

Here’s how to handle all those incoming messages:

Sort rather than “handle” your e-mail. You may be confusing “sorting” with “handling”—but, they are not the same task. To be most effective at managing your inbox, you need to understand and embrace the distinction between the two activities. Sorting denotes viewing, grouping, and moving messages and then assessing their priority. Handling means actually working within the details of the particular message. You need to commit to sort the work delivered by e-mail (i.e., delete irrelevant items, accept meeting requests, and move items to folders) and to handle it according to the priority it deserves.

Determine a time frame that fits your responsibilities. The times of day and amount of time you’ll need to spend on this kind of management will depend on your specific schedule and work demands—and your self-discipline.

The results can be staggering. Socius, LLC, a 120-employee technology consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio, conducted a survey following an e-mail productivity workshop. The results indicated that the average time reclaimed per employee through improved e-mail practices was 21 minutes per day, or 105 minutes per week. A comment from one participant sums up how this challenge affects the workplace culture: “Just knowing that everyone in the company heard the same message—so that now we all have the same expectations of one another—is very freeing. I no longer feel guilty if I don't respond immediately, because that expectation has been removed companywide.”

Your best results will come when your entire business unit collectively embraces, applies, and perpetuates these three productivity-enhancing habits. They are worthy of attention at the highest level. And, once they become a part of your culture, they pave the way for further refinement and expansion to even more time-saving habits. Your strong leadership and endorsement, along with that of other opinion leaders, can enable your college or university—however small or large—to reclaim up to an hour a day per e-mail sender. Just think what that 20-person office can do by sealing up the productivity drain and gaining an additional 100 hours per week.

MARSHA EGAN is chief financial officer,, Reading Pennsylvania.

Learning to Clean Your Inbox in an Afternoon

In my role as director of the Center for Community Engagement at Alvernia College, Reading, Pennsylvania, I’ve learned a thing or two about e-mail overload.

As the former chief of staff for the mayor of Reading, I fielded an overwhelming amount of e-mail from constituents. Some of it was critical and demanded immediate attention, but much of it was municipal trivia that writers wanted to call to the attention of the city’s chief executive.

Being available 24/7 for true emergencies and learning to separate them from the daily trivia was a key challenge to my position. Often, this resulted in long hours and distraction from long-term strategic planning for the office.

When Alvernia College held a grand opening of its Upland Center—a new campus building for graduate and continuing studies programs—I decided to apply some important lessons from my civic role. I included in the opening activities a workshop on improving e-mail productivity. These continuing studies programs are designed for adults managing very busy lives, so we thought this workshop would appeal to them as a value-added incentive to attend the grand opening.

The strategy worked. More than 300 people from the college, nearby businesses, and other sectors of the community came to the event, and many participated in the one-hour e-mail workshop.

As the class interacted in this short session on a Saturday afternoon, it became apparent that while their businesses or disciplines were different, all participants were hungry for tips on how to get control of their workdays and manage their e-mail.

Tom Minnick, an advancement associate at the college, explained, “The workshop made me think more about time management of my daily tasks. By designating certain times of the day to focus on e-mail and putting it aside for large blocks of time, it allows me to allocate my time for more strategic tasks and avoid so many interruptions.” Minnick added: “By using a system of prioritizing and sorting incoming messages, I’m finding that I’m able to clear my inbox by the end of the week. That makes for more efficiency.”

Learning to manage e-mail effectively can help ensure that this useful technology helps us work more efficiently and does not become a drain on productivity.

GINNY HAND is director, Center for Community Engagement, Alvernia College, Reading, Pennsylvania.