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When Work E-Mail Stops You from Getting Work Done

February 12, 2020

By John Egan courtesy of SHRM 

In a December 2019 report, Forrester Research Inc. laid out a bold proposal for an “employee experience” bill of rights. One of the proposal’s tenets: Enable workers to boost their productivity by focusing on vital tasks and temporarily disregarding digital distractions like e-mail, instant messages and Slack messages.

“Employees’ ability to ignore distractions and get work done is the difference between productive, engaged employees and frustrated, fearful ones,” the Forrester report states.

According to the report, electronic interruptions—a question on Slack about an invoice or an e-mailed request to schedule a meeting, for example—create a considerable cost. For every e-mail an employee opens, he or she spends 64 seconds trying to resume the task that the e-mail disrupted. These interruptions happen an average of 84 times a day, causing 1 1/2 hours of lost productivity.

Furthermore, a survey of workers by workplace software company Front found that two-thirds were stressed-out by the ever-growing flurry of work-related messages.

“Granting employees the right to ignore distractions and focus on work reverses the workplace standard that distracting colleagues is acceptable,” the Forrester report states.

But is it possible to shut the door, even temporarily, on electronic communication in the workplace? If so, how does an employer ensure that critical messages are being seen and answered in a timely manner?

In short, productivity and communication professionals say it’s possible—and even desirable—to permit employees to put off responding to electronic messages in favor of concentrating on higher-value duties. However, they add, an entire organization must have the same communication expectations. Concrete guidelines about communication can prevent an employee who “ignores” e-mails, instant messages or Slack messages from aggravating the colleagues who sent those messages and are awaiting responses.

Jory MacKay, marketing manager at RescueTime, a provider of time management software headquartered in Seattle, said expectations about workplace communications should be clearly spelled out but often aren’t. A RescueTime survey of more than 500 workers found that three-fourths had never discussed communication guidelines with a colleague or manager.

“Giving someone the ‘right’ to ignore e-mail or Slack or texts doesn’t mean they don’t use those tools. We all need to communicate to do our jobs,” MacKay said. “It simply means that employees don’t feel the need to constantly check in or leave their inboxes open all day.”

Survey data from RescueTime shows that most people don’t go more than six minutes without checking their inboxes or chat apps at work.

“In most companies, the current practice is that employees leave all communication channels open all day long and check each message as it arrives,” said Maura Nevel Thomas, a speaker, trainer and author on business productivity and attention management. “This guarantees that they never have an opportunity to do undistracted, thoughtful work.”

Communication tools like e-mail aren’t the problem, Thomas said. Rather, the problem lies in how people use those tools, she explained.

“Our challenge is that the availability of instant communication has created the expectation of instant communication. We must remember that e-mail was designed as asynchronous communication and the pursuit of e-mail as synchronous communication is the new race to the bottom,” Thomas said. “Companies that compete on being the fastest will suffer the same fate as those that compete to be the cheapest, as both of these create other problems.” Synchronous communication means at least two people exchange information in real time. In most workplaces, communication happens this way and people anticipate quick replies. Asynchronous communication refers to the exchange of information among at least two people without the expectation of immediate responses.

How should an organization’s communication guidelines be shaped to properly set workers’ expectations? Experts offer the following recommendations.

Be sure the guidelines match the goals and values of your entire organization.

Communication guidelines are bound to fail unless everybody in an organization is on the same page.

“Assumptions are dangerous and can quickly create unnecessary friction and conflict,” said Therese Gedda, founder and CEO of 30minMBA, a workplace culture and executive coaching company headquartered in Stockholm. When company leaders set and communicate expectations, people don’t have to make assumptions. “Depending on the culture in the company, this doesn’t need to be an issue,” she said. “In my experience, in a thriving culture that is people- and purpose-centric, internal communication challenges are less of an issue than in companies that have a mediocre culture with low employee engagement.”

Gedda suggests that an organization’s guidelines be extremely specific. For instance, to better manage e-mail, create a 1-to-5 scale of urgency and type the appropriate number into the subject line so the recipient can easily tell which messages to answer first.

Differentiate between “immediate” and “timely” communication.

Define what constitutes an “immediate” response to electronic communication and what constitutes a “timely” response. Depending on your organization, an immediate response could mean five minutes or 60 minutes, while a timely response could translate into one hour or three hours.

Establish methods for delivering urgent and nonurgent messages.

Thomas explains that inside your organization, urgent matters might be tackled with a phone call or in-person visit, whereas more-routine, nonurgent issues might be handled through a team collaboration tool or by e-mail.

For her part, Gedda recommends considering e-mail for external communication and Slack or a similar app for internal communication.

“Aligning on the rhythm and cadence of internal communications is super important for businesses,” said Anthony Kennada, chief marketing officer at Front, which offers a workplace communication platform. “Companies will win when they set clear guidelines on how people communicate with each other.”

Don’t replace all electronic messages with face-to-face communication.

face-to-face request is 34 times more effective than an e-mail, researchers found in 2017. Yet that doesn’t mean face-to-face communication should always substitute for e-mail or any other electronic communication.

RescueTime’s MacKay said face-to-face communication is the most common, most disruptive workplace distraction. Therefore, an e-mail or instant message might do the trick in place of an in-person visit. However, face-to-face communication might be the best option in certain scenarios, such as when you’re trying to build rapport with a new hire.

“The key, it seems to me, is more in how you communicate rather than the tool,” MacKay said. “Have the conversation about what’s expected of people, and the tool shouldn’t matter.”

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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