There’s a new kind of corporate battle raging in offices around the globe that has nothing to do with takeovers, mergers or acquisitions. It’s called an e-mail war. A recent survey by Novations concluded that less than 30 percent of all e-mail sent actually helps people do their jobs better. In many cases just the opposite occurs. CLOs who use learning to drive organizational productivity should focus on helping their workforces use e-mail appropriately.
One of the main functions of e-mail is to speed and ease communication, but without face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction, misunderstandings can happen that actually waste time. “The functional part is how well do we read?” asked Robert A. Williams, communication practice leader, Novations. “Most people will read e-mail, and there’s obviously no passion behind it. You’re missing all the nuances of a full communication when you’re not face-to-face. I find that people will read e-mail, and they’ll put their own emphasis on words, and depending on how they read, sometimes people will take it wrong. They will e-mail back, and one of the most common things I have found happens—you get caught up in this, almost having arguments by e-mail.
“Sending e-mail back and forth can quickly escalate into a war where participants say, ‘Not only am I going to take part in this war with you, I’m going to copy your boss on the next message,’” said Williams. “Now you’re getting another level involved, and it can get pretty ugly. Often, it’s because of a misunderstanding, having read the words and put one’s own meaning to them. Your own passion and inflection colors it, and often it’s completely wrong.”
Not only do e-mail wars cause friction in the workplace and waste valuable time, they also can contribute to organizational dysfunction. “What’s helpful in getting my job done? How much of the e-mail I get a day is really helping me to do something better that I’m responsible for? Companies need to come up with a way to have an information use-by date,” Williams said. “We need to start segmenting what’s job-related, what’s informational and what’s nice to know. But most companies don’t do that.”
To achieve functional coherence in the workplace, a balance of internal communication methods is encouraged, but that’s not how it usually happens. “People spend an average of four hours a day on e-mail, and some people spend much more than that,” Williams said. “Think about that for a moment. In corporate America there’s meetings going on all the time, and that takes up a lot of your time. I always ask, ‘When do you actually get work done?’ And the answer universally is, ‘After 5 o’clock.’ That’s why we’re stressed out.”
CLOs can get the ball rolling on initiatives to help employees understand how to use e-mail appropriately. Some studies have shown that productivity actually decreases as workers attempt to multi-task, yet many employees do just that—checking their e-mail while they work on other projects. “I’ve been on phone calls with executives at other companies doing needs analysis or talking about a communications issue, and during that conversation I can hear a change in their voice,” Williams said. “I will hear a change in volume, an increase in ‘ummm’ and ‘aaaah.’ I will notice that the coherence they were speaking with earlier suddenly changed and (realize) they’ve got one eye cocked on the computer screen. People are almost addicted to e-mail. At some companies, you’ve got instant messaging going on. Add that to the mix, and it’s really kind of weird. There’s a huge distraction.”
How can learning executives help individual employees reduce distractions? That may depend on the person and what system of prioritization works best for him or her. For some, prioritizing means having an assistant weed out what’s worthy of attention and what isn’t. For those without the luxury of an assistant, things can be trickier. Reducing the chance that a misunderstanding will escalate into a full-scale e-mail war is much easier. “It’s simple,” Williams said. “First of all, don’t respond. If you have some anger or some reaction to an e-mail, don’t put in an addressee. If you want to vent a little bit, just type, but don’t hit the send button. Two, pick up the phone, call the person and have a conversation. It’s in that conversation that you’re going to get a little more meaning. You’ll have an opportunity to interact, and it’s a lot better. I realize that companies are geographically dispersed and e-mail is a great way to get something out to lots of people at one time, but we also have access to telephones, and I think we overlook that. I really think there are some people who don’t want to interact on a human level.”
Because a lack of human interaction can lead to e-mail wars, misunderstanding and time lost or rendered unproductive, learning executives should develop initiatives to help employees reach out to one another through other means. “To rely upon e-mail to replace the human touch is a big mistake,” Williams said. “You’re just not going to get people to adopt change in big numbers simply through e-mail.”