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No more night time email?

thumbnail_iStock-544449650Legislation passed in France made it into the UK press this month, as it focuses on employees’ use of email outside working hours. The story has been reported in a variety of ways, from horror that employees can ‘ignore’ their email, to broader considerations of how technology is making it increasingly difficult to leave work in the workplace.

Here at the Future Work Centre, we’ve been advocates for revisiting how we use technology in and out of work, but at the same time we’ve warned against one-size-fits-all solutions to the challenge of email. So, we thought it was worth taking a look at this story in more detail.

In summary, the legislation requires firms employing more than 50 people to engage in structured negotiation to agree the terms of email usage outside of normal working hours. We can see that it’s not about ‘banning’ email at night, nor does it apply to all French employees.

Where an agreement isn’t in place, the organisation is still required to clarify their expectations about how and when employees can be contacted by email outside of their agreed working hours. This clarification could represent a very welcome step to clarifying expectations and removing ambiguity on both sides, something we’ve encouraged since the publication of our ‘You’ve got mail!’ report.

Will it work?

A potential positive outcome of this legislation is that employers and employees can get additional clarity on how email can and should be used. This absence of clear norms and expectations has been consistently highlighted in scientific research as one of the downsides of email as a communications tool.

It also has the potential to identify some clear email-free time for employees each evening, giving them the opportunity to relax and step away from work.

Additionally, this legislation doesn’t appear to be a one-size-fits-all regulation, rather the spark for some sensible negotiation and conversation.

On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the new law will improve the work–life balance of French employees. It’s a very subjective concept and looks and feels very different for the diverse individuals who make up the workforce. As we’ve pointed out previously, checking your emails at night isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it’s by choice and a way of fitting work around other important responsibilities in your life.

It remains to be seen what the uptake of negotiations will be and how the agreements will be put in place and monitored over time. And just because you’re not reading your emails at night, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be there to greet you the following morning.

Lots of questions

At this stage – the very early days of these new regulations – we’re left with more questions than answers! For example:

  • Will employees feel confident to take part in these negotiations?
  • Will employers engage positively in the process?
  • Will senior leaders positively role model the agreements?
  • Will it lead to a reduction in email volume?
  • Will employees’ well-being and satisfaction benefit from the changes?

We’ve recorded a special episode of our podcast ‘Evidence Talks’ to briefly discuss this story and we’d welcome your input as we monitor developments over the coming months. Get in touch if you’re directly impacted by this new legislation in France, whether as an employee or employer.

Or, if you’re located elsewhere, tell us if you’d welcome similar legislation in your own country and why.

We look forward to finding out more about how usage of email changes in France (if at all) and of course we’ll share our findings with you here.

Thinking of ditching email? Read this first.

The “no email” trend seems to be taking off – but we’re not convinced. Is abandoning it the right response to our growing frustration with email? Or could we just learn to use it better? 

Why no email?magnifying-glass-email

Writers in the press have recently lauded a new ‘no email’ movement, where members eschew email in favour of other channels, including instant messaging. They report increased productivity and relief at the reduction in the amount of emails they have to respond to.

They’re starting from the premise that email is a problem that needs to be solved. They point to the volume of email we receive as something requiring this ‘nuclear option’. A recent article described it as “the scourge of intrusive, hard-to-follow, back-covering corporate exchanges.”

A little harsh, no?

What’s the problem?

Well, that’s a very good place to start. If we’re going to abandon an entire communications medium, we should be really clear on the problem we’re trying to solve. Otherwise, we run the risk of this being yet another expensive and disruptive workplace fad.

Are we trying to solve the problem of too much email being sent? Received? Too much time taken on reading email? Stress and anxiety arising from email? Inefficiency? Productivity? You see, once you scratch the surface, there are many potential problems associated with email, but if we’re going to address them, we need to be explicit about what we’re trying to do.

And while there are many problems associated with email use, we can’t ignore the ugly truth: people cause emails. Aside from automatically generated ‘spam’ messages we get, the vast majority of the emails in our inbox come from people just like us. Email is the tool, we are the cause of email problems.

Research over the last twenty years, including our own ‘You’ve got mail!‘ project from 2015, has illustrated that email is a double-edged sword. It can be a time-waster, a distraction, a source of anxiety and stress and the origin of interpersonal conflict at work. On the other hand, it facilitates remote and flexible working, allows us to communicate with many people at once, regardless of time zone or country and frees our brains up from having to remember everything that was said – there’s a built-in audit trail.

So what’s to be done?

If we can be specific about the problem we’re trying to solve, we can then move on to some potential solutions. For example, research demonstrates that the volume of email we receive doesn’t relate to email pressure as strongly as some of our own behaviours – like checking email early in the morning or late at night. We can become more aware of our email habits and question how much they’re helping us or hindering us.

Email incivility or conflict could be addressed by teaching people how to both write emails correctly and how to deal with perceived conflict in all kinds of interpersonal situations. Interruptions and productivity issues may also be helped by giving email users guidance in how to use their email application, how to silence alerts and how to focus on a single task at a time, rather than multi-task.

A core problem with email is that it’s a powerful tool, but one that’s simply handed over to users without training or even a user manual. And so we copy what others do, which is rarely a great idea. Maybe it’s time we learnt how to use it better.

So what can I do?

You are of course free to abandon email right now! But think about whether you and your colleagues would benefit more from learning how to use this flexible and powerful tool to better effect, or whether you want to replace it with an instant messaging app, which everyone has to use and will quickly replace email in terms of volume and content of messages. In other words, it will become the ‘new email’.

If you want to improve your experience of email (or know someone who could do with some tips!) have a look at our guides of email use for individuals and organisations. And if you’d like to learn more about our recent research, you can download our paper “You’ve got mail!

‘You’ve got mail!’ research goes global

Ahead of the Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference this week, we’ve been promoting the results of our ‘You’ve got mail!’ research, exploring the impact of email on our health and well-being.

We’re delighted at the opportunities that we’ve had to talk about this important issue. Dr Richard MacKinnon, Insight Director at the Future Work Centre, has appeared on national television in the UK on BBC Breakfast and the Turkish television network TRT World:

Richard was also interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio 2 in the UK and on the Pat Kenny Show on NewsTalk in Ireland. And coverage of the research has been picked up by media all over the world, including the Telegraph, Independent and Guardian in the UK, Sky News in Australia, The Times of India, Repubblica in Italy, and Metro News in the Netherlands.

The extent of interest in our study highlights the impact that email usage has on people across the world, and reinforces the role that high quality, evidence-based research can play in helping to improve people’s experience of work.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our research, including advice and guidance, visit our ‘You’ve got mail!’ page. We’ll also be sharing our findings at the DOP Annual Conference in Nottingham on Thursday 7 January at 3pm.

To further develop the evidence-base on this topic, we are looking for organisations who are interested in understanding how email is impacting their employees, and testing interventions to improve the experience of email at work. If you’d like to work with us, please get in touch at info@futureworkcentre.com or on 020 7947 4273.

 

How you manage your emails may be bad for your health

Joint press release from the British Psychological Society and the Future Work Centre, Sunday 3 January 2016

New research suggests that it’s not just the volume of emails that causes stress; it’s our well-intentioned habits and our need to feel in control that backfires on us.

These are some of the key findings presented next week, Thursday 7 January 2016, at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference in Nottingham by Dr Richard MacKinnon from the Future Work Centre.

The Future Work Centre asked nearly 2,000 working people across a variety of industries, sectors and job roles in the UK about their experience of using email. The research explored whether factors such as technology, behaviour, demographics and personality played a role in people’s perception of email pressure.

The research suggests many people have developed some bad habits when it comes to managing email. Nearly half of those surveyed have emails automatically sent to their inbox (push notifications) and 62 per cent left their email on all day. Those who checked email early in the morning and late at night may think they are getting ahead, but they could be making things worse, as the study showed that these habits were linked to higher levels of stress and pressure.

Dr Richard MacKinnon said: “Our research shows that email is a double-edged sword. Whilst it can be a valuable communication tool, it’s clear that it’s a source of stress of frustration for many of us. The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure! But the habits we develop, the emotional reactions we have to messages and the unwritten organisational etiquette around email, combine into a toxic source of stress which could be negatively impacting our productivity and wellbeing.”

“Despite organisations attempting to shape policies and procedures to minimise the negative impact of email, it’s clear one-size-fits-all advice is ineffective. People are different both in terms of how they perceive stress and how and where they work. What works for some is unlikely to work for others. We came up with a few tips to help some of those bad habits.”

  • To the early morning/late night checkers – put your phone away, do you really need to check your email?
  • How about planning your day and prioritising your work, before the priorities of others flood your inbox?
  • Consider turning off ‘push notifications’ and/or turning off your email app for portions of the day, and take control of when you receive email.

You can read the full research report at http://www.futureworkcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FWC-Youve-got-mail-research-report.pdf


The Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference takes place from the 6 to 8 January 2015 at the East Midlands Conference Centre, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RJ. See the conference website.

How to tame your inbox

In our series of blog posts on the topic of email, we’ve outlined why and how email can simultaneously be a great communication tool and a source of frustration and stress.

You’ve probably experienced this at some point at work; taking a deep breath before opening your email application, or worrying about how your inbox will look when you return from holiday. You may have felt a twinge of anxiety as you hear a late night email notification, or the guilt of lying in bed at night, emailing your clients rather than sleeping.

So what can you do about it?

Research into how people use email, including our own recent ‘You’ve got mail!‘ project, has indicated that email can be a source of stress for many people. In part, this is due to the sheer volume of emails we receive, but it’s also due to our email-related behaviours and the way we think about email in the first place.

In terms of behaviours, people who check their email very early in the morning and/or very late in the evening report higher levels of email-related pressure. If this sounds like you – if you check your email before you’ve even had a coffee in the morning – it might be useful to consider whether you absolutely need to check your emails at this time. Yes, some jobs require you to do this, but most don’t if we’re honest with ourselves.

Have you developed a habit of checking and writing emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night? It might be more useful to start or end your day with something that doesn’t make you feel more stressed. How about planning your day and prioritising your work, before the priorities of others flood your inbox? Or even better finish your evening with a relaxing activity unrelated to work.

Indeed, there is some evidence that the blue light emitted by smartphones and tablets can disrupt your sleep. Another good reason to keep your email inbox ‘closed’ later in the evening.

You may also be contributing to your stress levels by leaving your email application on all day and/or using ‘push’ email, where the messages are sent to your smartphone without you checking for them. We found that both of these factors are associated with higher feelings of email pressure.

So you might find it useful to turn off your email app while you concentrate on something else. It may also be healthy to think about whether you really need your emails ‘pushed’ to you. Changing this setting is now pretty simple on most smartphones.

How about experimenting with these small changes and seeing how it feels after a couple of weeks?

It matters what you think

When it comes to how you think about email, do you associate it with pressure and do you have strong emotional reactions when reading the messages in your inbox? You may be falling into one of the mental traps psychologists call ‘thinking errors’.

Picture this example. You see a colleague’s name appear in your inbox and you instantly feel frustrated and angry. You might be guilty of ‘mind-reading’ if your emotions are based on what you ‘know’ the other person ‘really’ means by their message. Are you going to add telepathy to the list of skills featured on your LinkedIn profile? Probably not, because you can’t really read minds, so it’s healthier not to even try.

If you feel a compulsion to stay on top of your email and respond to every message even when it’s not required, you might be placing some ‘demandingness’ on yourself. This is the thinking error characterised by an inner voice that says ‘I must…’ or ‘I need…’ or even ‘I should…’. Challenge this kind of self-talk and consider whether it is useful to spend time checking your email, when you could be focusing on your other priorities.

Email behaviour and thinking often combine to form one habit many of us are guilty of: multi-tasking. We try to complete one task (e.g. a telephone call) while absent-mindedly working on another – reading our emails. The reality is, were not multi-tasking, we’re just doing two things badly. Focus on one of these things at a time and the quality of your work will improve and you’ll feel less stretched.

A final thought, and one many of us forget from time to time. If we want to receive fewer emails, we might want to start by sending fewer emails and responding to more of them using another method. Think twice before sending your next message as you may well be contributing to someone else’s nightmare inbox!

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’.

What?!

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.

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?