No e-mail today — or else

The author of a book on e-mail management says that excessive use of enterprise messaing systems could be draining a lot of money out of many businesses.

Nancy Flynn, author of the recently released book E-Mail Management: 50 Tips for Keeping Your Inbox Under Control, runs the Columbus, Ohio-based training, consulting, and research company The ePolicy Institute, which has been surveying companies about their e-mailing policies and habits for the last six years.

They have found that e-mails are flooding in, and the constant checking of most e-mail programs is having a severe effect on the bottom line. Many e-mail programs automatically update ever five minutes or so, making for 90 checks a day.

According to Marsha Egan, CEO of the Reading, Pennsylvania-based Egan E-Mail Solutions, it takes four minutes to respond from the interruption of an e-mail, which can add up to another couple of lost hours per day. “E-mail is causing a productivity crisis in the enterprise…it’s the silent corporate cancer,” she said, citing a survey that found that the average businessperson gets around a 100 e-mails per day.

To help combat this, Flynn said, IT professionals could come around and adjust users’ e-mail settings so that the send/receive function would only update every half-hour or so.

She also suggests that employers institute a one-day-a-week policy that forbids any internal office e-mailing. One company “fined” those who went against the ban to donate to a charity, while another forwarded the offending e-mail to the rest of the company to set an example. This frees up employee’s time, and also encourages intra-office communication, which fosters better working relationships, she said.

While she advocates drastically cutting down on obsessive e-mail checking, she suggests tidying up your inbox on Sunday evening can make opening your e-mail on Monday morning a less daunting task. Other tips include refraining from responding to unimportant or copied e-mails, while Egan suggests organizing your inbox to decrease the amount of time spent scrolling for the right ancient message.

The IT department can lend a hand here, said Flynn, by freezing a person’s e-mail account if it reaches a certain size, forcing them to clean out any unnecessary old messages.

Personal e-mailing at work is also becoming a time-wasting cost nightmare, according to Flynn. Her survey found that only 68 per cent of its business responders had written e-mail policies, despite the fact that 86 per cent of employees are writing personal e-mails on company time.

This is another area where the IT department may be called upon to help effect a solution, as they could use software to block the use of instant messaging tools or web-based e-mail applications. If the company decides to have instant messaging in the workplace, an enterprise-grade instant messaging client can be utilized, along with a software product that will monitor, filter, and archive all conversations and e-mails, Flynn said. This could be an antidote to the current situation—while 50 per cent of employees are using downloadable messaging clients, 53 per cent of their bosses don’t know they have them (and only 31 per cent have any kind of instant messaging policy).

According to David Skoll, president of the Ottawa-based anti-spam software company Roaring Penguin , he has seen it all when it comes to e-mail management. Said Skoll: “From a policy standpoint, we’ve seen the whole spectrum, from upper management telling their employees that ‘This is the way it’s going to be’ to execs telling IT ‘We don’t understand e-mail, so you do everything.’”

Flynn found that fifty-five per cent of employers monitor their employees e-mail usage, while 36 per cent actually use keystroke logging programs to track content and time inputted at the keyboard. This helps employers ferret out those breaking the rules—twenty-six per cent of employers surveyed had fired someone for inappropriate e-mail usage.

While employers are increasingly keeping an eye on their employees e-transactions, many of these workers are unaware of this, or that even what they are doing is wrong. “We’ve seen since 2001 growth in organizational (e-mail) policies in place,” said Flynn. “Where they are dropping the ball is educating their employees. E-mail management is not keeping pace with technology—blogs, YouTube, instant messaging, text messaging, social networking sites.”

She said that the best way to keep abreast of the problem is to enlist a team to craft the policies. The team, she said, should ideally include the IT director, the human resources director, the business records manager, the company’s legal counsel, and as senior an executive as possible. Flynn said, “You need to have people who are up-to-date with the latest technology.”

Said Skoll: “You have to have that mixture. It’s (management’s) job to set policies, but IT staff understand the limitations and possibilities or e-mail.”

Once the policies are in place, education is the key to reducing unnecessary or inappropriate e-mail checking and writing, according to Flynn: “You must establish written policies, educate the workforce, and then enforce them with technological tools.”

“You need to change the cultural understanding (in the workplace)—you don’t have to check it all the time,” said Egan.

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