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Email usage drops – so why is email overload still a thing?

Rudolfs Millins, Contributor - Truesix

Emails have been a mainstay in the professional world for communication and are often viewed as a productivity sink. The constant influx of messages and overflowing inboxes can be a recurring source of stress for many office workers.

However, data from productivity software DeskTime, collected in November 2022, shows that the average European employee spends only 18 minutes per day on emails. This implies that the perception of emails as a significant time drain is not entirely accurate – as long as an organization’s communication culture is effectively managed.

Only 18 minutes?

The fresh data may come as a surprise. A much-cited 2012 McKinsey study put it at an enormous 2.6 hours spent on email per day. Popular discourse also likes to make out the email as the boogeyman of productivity — every article and guru will tell you to boost productivity by reducing email use. There is the inbox zero approach, we are urged to triage our incoming mail, and so on. It’s become a platitude.

Still, studies on the real levels of email use are few and far between. DeskTime’s findings suggest that the situation isn’t so bad. In Europe, the top 3 countries with the highest email usage are Malta (55 minutes per day), Spain (38 minutes), and Greece (36 minutes). In the USA, the average user spent 27 minutes on emails in November 2022.

Why is email usage declining in a remote and hybrid work environment?

This may appear counterintuitive. Would it not make sense for email usage to be on the rise, especially considering that the COVID-19 pandemic has made hybrid and remote work the norm and thereby intensified the need for digital communication?

One explanation is the rise of instant messaging apps. Professionals are turning to platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams as a more efficient and effective way to communicate with their colleagues. For quick questions or simple answers, instant messaging can be a more efficient option than email.

As noted by a productivity expert, an email is like a phone call to someone in a different location, while using apps feels more like a conversation in the same room.

The shift towards these tools is driven by the need to streamline communication – users want to send and receive just the right amount of information in the most accessible format. To that end, instant messaging platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams can offer distinct advantages compared to old-fashioned email.

Poor communication culture means email woes are not over for everyone

The above figures may give a false impression that things are fine. But one look around will show you that’s not the case – some people are still struggling with email overload.

For example, imagine being in the shoes of a man who, after only one year with a company, has amassed a total of 7000 emails. Or having a panic attack because you misplaced or deleted an important message in your unkempt, overflowing inbox.

Research confirms that an increase in email volume is correlated with increased stress. The question is – to what extent is email as a medium the root cause of this problem?

According to data, 57% of workers claim that they are not provided with clear internal communication guidance, and 69% of managers indicate feeling uneasy when communicating with their subordinates. Poor communication is likely one of the main reasons why some of us still have to deal with overflowing email inboxes.

If you receive more than 100 emails daily, it might be worth examining what explains this sheer quantity. How many of these emails actually require your attention? What proportion of them could have been avoided if the participants had been clearer and more concise in the first place? My guess – a very sizeable chunk.

Of course, some people might still find it hard to reduce the volume of emails due to the nature of their work. In that case, an email overload probably indicates a general work overload. As with communication culture, emails in this context only act as a medium, and the real problem lies elsewhere.

Don’t blame emails – it’s a general information overload issue

If you’re among the people who have successfully managed to cut email usage to its bare minimum – you aren’t out of the woods yet. As mentioned, the reduction in email usage is typically proportionate to an increase in other types of communication, which bring their own productivity woes.

For example, with instant messaging platforms such as Slack, people feel compelled – and are often expected to – to respond instantly to any messages. This may undermine deep work, as your attention is constantly split across multiple fronts.

Using instant messaging may make initiating communication easier, but it does not simplify the complexity of the actual communication. In fact, instant messaging may tempt us to use more imprecise language, which in turn requires more communication to clarify. In some scenarios, apps such as Slack might be counterproductive and actually increase our communication overhead.

Moreover, today’s popularity of conference calls also eats away at your day, and people increasingly find themselves in virtual meetings when the information could have been more efficiently conveyed through other means (dare I say – email?).

Poor communication practices and heavy workloads are the real culprits of wasted time, not the use of email or other forms of communication. The relatively low email usage reported by DeskTime shouldn’t make us complacent, as many organizations still have significant room for improvement.

Email overload has simply taken a new shape. And it’s not yet clear whether we’re better off for it.

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