Todays Technology section of the Guardian has an article describing research that quantifies the negative impact of e-mail on our working life.
Researchers have found that:
- People respond incredibly quickly to e-mail alerts: Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University found that 70% of alerts got a reaction within six seconds. That's faster than picking the phone up after three rings. (Jackson wrote up his research in this pdf)
- The interruptions caused by e-mail take significant time to recover form: Jackson found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email.
- People check their e-mail more often than they think: In a survey of office workers the majoriy told Karen Renaud that they checked their e-mail once an hour. When she monitored their PCs she found that most of them checked it every five minutes.
- Checking e-mail is compulsive: Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield believes that the compulsion to check e-mail has the same root cause as the compulsion to play slot machines. The best way to ingrain a really strong habit into someone is to reward them for it occasionally and unpredictably. The slot machine player often gets nothing, but sometimes hits the jackpot. The e-mail checker often gets nothing interesting but sometimes gets rewarded with an invitation, some news or gossip, or some humour.
I attended a useful training course on e-mail management by my colleague Ian Wooler. Four of the nuggets I picked up from it were:
- Don't send an e-mail to a colleague that you can see: This is a rule I have stuck to and has benefited me (it takes longer to compose an e-mail than to go and chat to them, and because you can see them you can pick a moment when they are not busy).
- Turn your automatic e-mail alerts off: this breaks the pavlovian reaction between being told you have an e-mail and going in and checking it.
- Identify set times in the day when you will check your e-mail: I try to check mine at 10am, 2pm and 4pm. I am more productive when if I don't start the day by checking e-mail.
- Don't put your out-of-office alert on if you are only out of the office for one day: Out of office alerts increase my vulnerability to spam (by advertising that the e-mail account is live) and is unhelpful to most or all of the people that are likely to be e-mailing me on any particular day
From a records management point of view the biggest problem with e-mail is that an important communication sits only in the in-box of the recipient and the sent items of the sender. This means that:
- It is not accessible to others, even to close colleagues
- it is not related to the other information, documents and correspondence about the same piece of work.
The challenge that I would like organisations and vendors to address is this:
- How do we enable colleagues to generate, send and store an important communication about a project within the same application that holds the rest of the documents, communications and information relating to that project?
The closest I have seen to this situation is in SharePoint team sites, where a team site can have an e-mail account, and where mail can be sent from the team site, or to the team site. Anyone with access permissions to the team site can view all the e-mails sent from or to the site.
I would like my e-mail to be nothing more or less than an alerting mechanism. I want my e-mail to alert me when a colleague has posted a question about a particular project in our team site, when my sister posts a message for me on Facebook or Last FM, when someone in America posts a comment in response to one of my blogposts.
The alerts enable me to go off to the appropriate application, make whatever responses I choose, and all the content stays in the appropriate application, in context, and accessible as appropriate to other colleagues/friends/readers.