Why one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work for email

It’s the end of a long working day full of meetings and, just before you leave your office, you realise you haven’t responded to an email from a key client. Feeling slightly guilty, you head back to your desk and spend the next few minutes writing them an apology and answering their various questions. Breathing a sigh of relief, you hit ‘send’, only to see a message pop up on screen: ‘Emails cannot be sent from this account after 6pm. Access will be restored at 9am’.


In our last two blog posts, we explored the pros and cons of email in the contemporary workplace. We’re definitely not alone in noting how it can both help and hinder us at the same time. Over the last few years, organisations have sought to better understand the impact email can have, and put in place policies to improve the situation.

Some notable news stories in recent times have described large organisations limiting employees’ ability to send or receive emails after a certain point in the evening. These were instigated with the best of intentions: to stop employees’ personal lives being impacted by emails after working hours. But as the fictional scenario above illustrates, it doesn’t always end well.

The main problem with these initiatives is that they don’t work for everyone. Time-based email rules assume that everyone works to the same schedule and in the same way. It assumes a one-size-fits-all solution will work when, as we know, email is an area where one size definitely doesn’t fit all.

Think about it. What about the working parents who wanted to leave the office slightly early, spend time with their young children and then finish off emails in the early evening? Fixed time email access doesn’t work for them. What about the frequent business traveller who finds herself unable to productively use email while sitting in a hotel room far away from home? What about employees who want to support a colleague or client in a different time zone, even if it’s after working hours? Again, a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work.

Another practical downside with this approach is that it doesn’t stop people writing emails, just sending them. So employees continue to write and write and then send them just as soon as the server allows the next morning. Result? A glut of emails arriving in everyone’s inboxes first thing in the morning. Not a great start to the day, right?

This top-down approach to email management won’t work because it essentially sends out the message ‘We know what’s best for you’, when it can’t account for individual working practices and preferences. It can also lead to all kinds of unintentional consequences like mountains of early morning emails – or rushing to send emails before the evening ‘window’ closes. For every unhelpful rule imposed from above, employees will find some kind of workaround.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, as we discussed in our previous blog post, a lack of email norms within organisations is frequently cited as a problem. What kind of norms? For example: when to send an email, rather than pick up the phone. How quickly to respond to different kinds of emails. What kind of information is best shared electronically and which deserves a face-to-face meeting. Establishing norms and clarifying expectations takes a lot of the guesswork out of managing emails.

So, rather than constructing rigid rules to control email use, organisations might get a better result by investing time in clarifying norms and expectations and setting principles for good, effective and healthy email use.

This would help those working flexibly, those in receipt of late night emails and those in contact with colleagues and clients on the other side of the world. Which is what email is really all about when you think about it: flexible communication.

What kinds of norms would you like organisations to clarify for employees? Let us know in the comments below.

And look out for our next posts in this series, when we’ll set out our recommendations for how individuals and organisations can take specific action to improve their email situation.

A double-edged sword: the pros and cons of email

Picture this – an empty email inbox. How do you feel about that? Relieved? Worried? Skeptical?

As we’ve noted before, email plays a big part in many people’s working lives. It can definitely be our friend – but why then can it also be such a painful activity for some of us? Research from the last twenty years has shown that, like most communication tools, email can be used for good or bad. Our literature review of this area revealed that email is perceived both positively and negatively at the same time – hence our reference to it being a ‘double-edged sword’ in our research report, You’ve got mail!

We were eager to make sense of this strange relationship, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of email.

The pros

Unlike its earliest origins, we can now access email from a multitude of devices, meaning we’re not tied to a single desktop computer. Email also gives us one more communication channel to use at work, perhaps for when a message is simple and needs to be sent quickly, or when the recipient isn’t available for a phone call. We can also review emails sent at a time that suits us, rather than receiving a constant stream of phone calls. Email provides us with both flexibility and convenience.

Email also makes it easy to reach a large audience concurrently with an identical message or to share large volumes of information with a specific audience. This can simplify communicating a message or gathering feedback on a topic, and is particularly useful within organisations when arranging phone calls or meetings with so many colleagues would be both time-consuming and inefficient.

Email is sent quickly and arrives in the recipient’s email inbox almost instantaneously. It’s definitely faster than ‘snail mail’, especially when we’re communicating with people over large geographical distances. These days, we can get information to a colleague in Beijing as fast as we can to one in Birmingham!

We can review previously received emails to check who said what and when, helping to remind us of key decisions and how we arrived at them. This written audit trail can be much more reliable than our memories of face-to-face conversations, where various parties can ‘re-remember’ or misinterpret what actually happened.

The cons

On the other hand, each of these advantages could also be seen as a disadvantage – which is why we talk about it being a double-edged sword. You’ve been on the receiving end of a ‘reply all’ email, right? They might be convenient for your colleague, but they’re a chore for you and many others who’ve been thoughtlessly copied in. And just because you’ve sent someone lots of attachments and background information doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve understood or even read them.

So, what do people complain about most it in terms of how email is used?

The general lack of email norms and expectations. For example, without clear guidance within the email, how do I know what kind of response you require, if any? And how urgent is this? Organisations frequently fail to establish these norms, which means that all kinds of unhelpful behaviours can take over. If my manager has sent me an email over the weekend, does this mean she expects me to be reading them? And responding?

Unlike face-to-face communication, or even video conferencing, email lacks non-verbal cues. This makes it easier for us to misinterpret the purely written communications we get in our inbox. Sarcasm or humour are both difficult to identify when we can’t see the sender’s facial expression, which can lead to all kinds of problems. It’s also possible that email is too spontaneous. Who else has sent an email in anger, or later realised they’d misinterpreted the sender’s message? We can respond instantly – but should we? Unlike in a face-to-face conversation, we can’t self-correct when we notice we’ve made an error – unless we want to send another email.

A common complaint about email is the sheer volume we receive. Unfortunately, it seems its widespread use, speed and convenience have combined to increase the number of emails we receive daily. At it’s most benign, a large volume of emails can distract us from our priorities. The feeling of email overload is a common experience, one that can lead to frustration and stress. And that moves email to something beyond an annoyance.

So, email is far from perfect – but you intuitively knew that, didn’t you? So what can we do about it? Watch out for the next few blog posts in this series, which will explore what both individuals and organisations can do to tame the email beast.

Join our team – Principal Psychologist

Do you want to work for an organisation that’s shaping the future of occupational psychology? Do you want to shape evidence-based solutions for organisations without the constraint of a pre-defined set of products and services? Are you passionate about communicating the science of occupational psychology to the general public? If so, we have a unique opportunity to join us on our journey, helping us grow our business and achieve our mission.

As Principal Psychologist at the Future Work Centre, you will be primarily focused on generating new business and growing our portfolio of clients. But you’ll also have the opportunity to lead client projects, providing objective insights and actionable solutions to their people-related challenges.

We’re looking for a psychologist who shares our ethos and is passionate about occupational psychology. To be successful, you must be able to explore client issues from an independent perspective, not with a fixed product or service in mind. We examine issues using an evidence-based practice perspective, so an advisory approach is key.

Download the Principal Psychologist job description to find out more.

If you share our ethos and think you’re a good fit for the role, we’d really like to have a conversation with you. Express your interest by emailing us at mycareer@futureworkcentre.com and we’ll be in touch to arrange a call.

You’ve got mail!

As part of our 2015/16 research focus on the role and impact of technology at work, we’ve spent the past few months exploring the impact of email at work.

Email is part of most people’s lives. But despite its widespread use and popularity, for some individuals and employers, it can be a source of major frustration, anxiety and lost productivity.

To understand more about how email both facilitates and negatively impacts the employee experience, we conducted a survey of c2,000 people across a variety of industries, sectors and job roles in the UK. We found that people’s experience of email is influenced by a range of factors, such as technology, behaviour, demographics, work-life balance and personality.

Explore our findings and recommendations for how you can improve your experience of email.

Friend or foe? How do you feel about email?

Blue-email-280pxEmail is a big part of our lives. Since its creation in the 1970s, its growth has been unprecedented, facilitating quick and easy communication between individuals across borders and time zones, for both business and personal use.

But despite its widespread usage and popularity as a communication tool, for some individuals and employers, it can be a source of major frustration, anxiety and lost productivity. As the volume of email continues to rise, many of us are feeling the impact – struggling to prioritise work effectively and constantly being interrupted by the flow of messages and demands, resulting in decreased productivity and stress.

At the Future Work Centre, we’re interested in understanding how technology impacts our working lives. So, when we started to consider topics for our first year’s research focus – Technology at Work – it came as no surprise that top of the team’s list was email. Which incidentally, we discussed via email!

‘How can I keep on top of my email?’ is a question we’ve often heard at work – and one we’ve even asked ourselves. Advice on how to ‘manage’ email more effectively is not in short supply – but have you ever wondered if any of it actually works or why you sometimes get conflicting opinions?

One thing that workplace research has demonstrated over the last fifty years, is that it’s very rare for one solution to suit all employees. This has never been more true as how and where we work is changing, as well as the diverse nature of the workforce itself.

We chose to focus on email because of its challenging nature. The power to make work easier and more efficient, combined with the power to distract, upset and stress – a double-edged sword if you like. Given its widespread use, we believe that, like all tools, it should be used appropriately for best results.

We conducted a survey of c2,000 people across a variety of industries, sectors and job roles in the UK, in order to understand how email both facilitates and negatively impacts the employee experience. We investigated whether factors such as technology, behaviour, demographics, work-life balance and personality play a role in our perceptions of email pressure and consequently in our coping strategies.

To read our findings and advice on improving the experience of email, download our research report, You’ve got mail!.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the impact of email further through a series of blog posts. We’ll look at the research that helps us make sense of it, along with some advice for individuals and organisations on how to use email most appropriately.

In the meantime, let us know what you think about email in the comments section below. Is it your friend or your foe?