Here are two quotes from newspaper articles about email overload in the workplace.
It seems that people are so busy wading through the overload and responding that they don’t have time for real work. […] A few companies are taking corrective action. Computer Associates, based in Islandia, L.I., shuts down its E-mail system for four hours a day, between 10 A.M. and noon and again between 2 P.M. and 4 P.M. “People were spending too much time on E-mail,” said Marc Sokol, vice president of advanced technology. “We said, ‘Use it intelligently, don’t use it spuriously.’ ” Until employees got used to the restrictions, Mr. Sokol said, they found the experience similar to quitting smoking. Now, he added: “Productivity is up. It has caused people to be more thoughtful.”
wit’s end: Coping With E-Mail Overload, The New York Times
Overwhelmed by e-mail? Some professionals are fighting back by declaring e-mail-free Fridays — or by deleting their entire in-box. Today about 150 engineers at chipmaker Intel will kick off “Zero E-mail Fridays.” E-mail isn’t forbidden, but everyone is encouraged to phone or meet face-to-face. […] E-mail-free Fridays already are the norm at cell carrier U.S. Cellular and at order-processing company PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services in Alpharetta, Ga.
Fridays go from casual to e-mail-free, USA Today
The biggest difference between the two quotes? Eleven years.
The New York Times article is from April 1996, the USA Today article from October 2007. Apparently not much has changed in all those years, even though “experts” were already hoping for better times in 1998:
Despite the e-mail glut problems, there is optimism among e-mail experts that new solutions – both technological and behavioral – will keep pace with higher e-mail volumes.
E-mail overload drives many users bananas, NetworkWorld Fusion (via CNN.com)
Ten years later, the technological and behavioural solutions still haven’t fully caught up with the ever increasing volume of email (numbers are up from 15.1 billion in 2000 to 97.3 billion emails per day in 2007 according to IDC research quoted in the USA Today article). Otherwise we wouldn’t continue to see the same type of email overload articles year after year after year.
No doubt email overload has been and continues to be a problem for many people. Just this weekend I read a another article (in German) about a German company prohibiting email use two days a month. But I am not a big fan of organized email prohibition, whether it is a top-down decree by the company leadership or a bottom-up idea from a group of employees.
In the end, every individual needs to take charge of how they best manage their communication – every day of the week.
Because it gets worse. Thanks to other changes in technology and behaviour, (yep, I am talking about that Web 2.0 thing and the rise of, you guessed it, social media), email overload articles are not alone anymore. We now have journalists and a whole blogosphere continually discussing the potential benefits or repercussions of using blogs, RSS feeds, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and all the other tools for communication. How do we keep up with all of this if email management still is a problem? Will we still have a social media overload discussions in eleven years?
“There’s going to be a point where culture and common sense are going to start to take over,” [Rapport Communications consultant Gary] Rowe said, “because there’s only so much of this we can process.”
E-mail overload drives many users bananas, NetworkWorld Fusion (via CNN.com), June 1998
My guess is that every person needs to find that point for herself or himself. I wouldn’t wait for your company or colleagues to do it for you.
A friend of mine for years refused to get her own cell phone even though she saw many of the benefits. She argued that “once people know I have it, they will expect to reach me 24/7”. I never bought that argument (but she eventually bought a cell phone). A cell phone can be switched off. Email – and expectations – can be managed by ourselves. And so can social media tools.
Overload, more often than not, is a fact. But it can also be a state of mind.