They revolutionised office life, providing an instant way to communicate with colleagues and clients without the need to pick up the phone or lick a stamp. But emails have become the bane of working life with staff spending the equivalent of a day a week tending their inboxes.
Now businesses are trying to find ways to cut email down to size, or even eradicate it, to boost productivity and give staff their lives back. Atos, a French IT company, led the way with a pledge to end email and is on track to achieve that over the next year. Now a housing trust in Cheshire has picked up the baton and is preparing to turn off its internal server after a two-year programme to wean staff off emails. The Halton Housing Trust worked out that staff were spending 40 per cent of their time on internal emails. Nick Atkin, the chief executive, said he feared that his employees were “addicted” so only drastic action would work. The trust started off naming and shaming its highest email users in a monthly league table, while developing its intranet for more sophisticated internal communications. An email charter limits the use of functions such as “reply to all” and “cc”. It encourages staff to check external emails only once or twice a day, with an auto-response warning clients not to expect prompt replies. The trust was coming close to its goal of turning off its internal server Mr Atkin said. “What is clear is that email has become an overused and abused communication tool. Instead of being one of many ways to hold conversations it has become the default tool,” he said. Procure Plus, a property services company, introduced a similar email etiquette after Mike Brogan, its chief executive, found that staff had almost stopped leaving their desks or speaking to each other face to face. Now internal email can only be used as a last resort, after a phone call or stroll to a colleague’s desk has been tried. Other companies have curbed out-of-hours email. Volkswagen turns off its server at 5.30pm and Daimler stops staff getting work emails when they are on holiday. Ryan Holmes, chief executive of the media management business Hootsuite, said the problem would resolve itself, with millennials turning away from emails to social media networks instead. “Email might just be the biggest killer of time and productivity in the office today,” he said. “It’s not just me who thinks email’s days are numbered. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, time spent on webmail has declined 34 per cent in the past year alone and nearly 50 per cent since 2010.” Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School, who worked with Procure Plus on its email-reduction programme, predicts that more companies will follow suit. He is about to begin a project on email use on behalf of a range of employers, including a big government department. Sir Cary said: “The UK was quick to adopt digital technology and the World Economic Forum says the UK has the highest digital use per capita of the major economies. Smartphones have just made things even worse with people constantly checking their inbox wherever they are — during family dinner, on holidays, everywhere. It’s affecting everyone badly, their health and happiness and also their productivity.” The problem was now so ingrained that “doing emails” was seen as a good day’s work, he said. David Burkus, associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, agrees. “Clearing out your inbox can make you feel like you’re ultra-productive but unless your job description is solely to delete emails, you’re just fooling yourself,” he said.