From hierarchy to productivity: Making better use of email


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Email is the primary method of digital communication in the workplace. But it comes with hidden dangers

From very early on email has been recognised by businesses as a means of enhancing communication in the workplace. The opportunity to contact a large number of people at the same time, over great distances, at seemingly low cost and with almost no time delay, marked the technology as a potential game changer. Despite the rise of other applications promising to replace it, the use of email within the workplace has continued to grow.

However, regardless of the widespread uptake, using email to communicate is not always productive, or even effective.

The hidden dangers of emails in the workplace

Since the 1980s a number of studies have been conducted looking at how effectively email is implemented in the workplace; however, one of the most recent and largest studies of email use has revealed interesting, and possibly damaging, perspectives.

The study of more than 1,000 employees in the further education sector investigated how those employed in different roles made use of email. Data was gathered from senior managers, middle managers, business support, and academic roles. Areas explored included how many messages are sent and received, how much time is spent on emails, how users consider the needs of others, and how time is wasted when using them.

The results demonstrated how different roles reported very different experiences, and that this directly affected how effectively staff employed in one role could communicate with those in other roles via email.

Senior managers tended to see the lack of human interaction as a drawback, but believe in the benefits of speed and ease. This differs from all other roles; with middle managers unconcerned about those issues, business support staff more concerned about the obstacles caused by computer literacy and reliance on systems, and academics more concerned about the potential for time wastage and that others will fail to respond.

Senior managers spend the most time using email, closely followed by middle managers, academics, and business support. However, senior managers are least likely to want to change their habits, in sharp contrast to middle managers and academics who want their email load to change. Across all non-management roles there is a marked perception that email load is increasing, and that email bullying is a specific issue. Despite these differences, all roles demonstrated a concern related to the lack of human interaction. Waste when using email is a universal concern, with all roles identifying examples of waste. Interestingly, when looking at sub-roles there is no difference in perception, illustrating that the cultural alignment is with the primary job role.

Different roles, different perspectives

The differences between the perception and actual email usage translates as cultural differences between the roles; with each role experiencing email differently. When communicating within the same professional level there is a shared expectation that makes communication more effective; when communicating between roles there exists a significant difference in the cultural expectations, and therefore, effectiveness can be compromised.

As a follow up to the study a number of staff were interviewed and asked where their primary working relationships lie, and who they tend to send messages to. Each role reported that their primary relationships were with others in the same position, which makes sense based on working patterns. However, in the vast majority of cases, email communication was external to the role, across cultural boundaries, which potentially introduces communication issues. In one example, an interview respondent felt it was appropriate to expect an academic to respond to emails quickly, even if they were teaching- an example of a lack of cross-cultural understanding.

Developing better relationships

How does this translate into making email communication more effective in the workplace?

One of the most commonly reported issues is that people fail to consider the needs of the recipient. This came across when asking whether users did this, but also in what contributes to waste and poor communication. Anticipating the needs of others can be better achieved by getting to know them. Spending even a small amount of time developing a face-to-face relationship can enhance email use.

There is no value in avoiding emails, having email-free Fridays, or other reactive methods that are proposed to improve email communication. The best way to address difficulties across cultural and professional boundaries is to break down those boundaries by developing better relationships

Ben Silverstone is course leader for postgraduate computing at Arden University and an IT security expert specialising in email governance, business security and user experience

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