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E-mail abuse fit for The King

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

We tend to misjudge e-mail's effects. We overlook the real time it takes us to deal with them, and under-manage our expectations on appropriate use. We need e-mail to help maintain the flow of information within organizations, but how much do we need versus other methods of getting our messages out?

Some organizations are dealing with this issue in creative ways that suit their internal cultures.

The Toronto office of public relations firm Hill and Knowlton came up with their own unique solution -- the Return to Sender Award, for breaches in e-mail etiquette. All employees are eligible to participate and the rules are simple. If an e-mail is received that should not have been sent, that employee can now take action and send their own return message. The message comes in the form of a near life-size bust of the King himself, Elvis, that sits in the transgressor's office or work station. This bust is so imposing; no one can miss its location or its movement within the office.

Indeed, when senior vice-president Kadi Kaljuste picked up the offending item and brought it into her office, all eyes were definitely at attention.

Asked why a solution was needed, Ms. Kaljuste said the office was becoming too e-mail driven. It became more noticeable with new hires, who were shocked at the volume of e-mail being sent back and forth within the office.

The most notable e-mail problems cited were sending information via distribution lists and e-mailing people sitting two offices away for information that could have been obtained verbally. Her rationale was that as a professional services firm, consulting time is directly linked to productivity, which in turn goes to the bottom line. Removing time wasters would create an impact and Elvis has indeed played his part.

"It was the best $30 this office ever spent," according to Ms. Kaljuste, adding that the award has reduced e-mail traffic by at least 10 per cent in the past few months.

John Osmond, a manager at Siemens Canada Ltd.'s building automation division, dealt with e-mail dependence another way.

Concerned about the precedence e-mail was taking in dictating office routines, he suggested that a moratorium be placed on e-mail use -- access would only be permitted before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m. each day.

Mr. Osmond saw that e-mail was infringing on both productivity and business development efforts. He wanted employees to spend more of time dealing with people and customers, not looking at computer screens. The first day the computers were turned off, he said, employees were somewhat disoriented. There was a feeling of recapturing extra time and it was filled through greater interaction with clients and colleagues.

Within that first week, however, a problem occurred -- the computer applications were needed to fulfill other business requirements. The moratorium was lifted, but he asked that people refrain from using e-mail during peak hours. In his view, the ideal office would have two computers -- one for tools and one for e-mail. The use of the applications could then be managed separately.

While the e-mail ban was short-lived, it has had a lasting positive impact. According to Mr. Osmond, people are spending more time planning their activities and they have broadened their choice of communication channels. Employees are now reconsidering whether they need to "send that e-mail" or whether the matter can be better handled by telephone or though a meeting.

Still another unique solution comes from Carol Gray, a financial services executive, formerly with CIBC, who initiated "BlackBerry moments" as a way to get a group of her peers attending all-day meetings to focus on both tasks. Again, the rules here were simple -- a five-minute break would be given every hour for the express purpose of checking and responding to e-mails. One can only imagine the absolute silence in the room during those breaks.

These stories have three common elements that can drive our thinking about workplace e-mail:

Awareness of e-mail overdependence. E-mail use, while ubiquitous, can all too easily circumvent use of other communication channels. We need to be alert to the cues that tell us where and when e-mail is being overused. We also need an outlet where we can begin to take action.

Productivity concerns. While most of us feel there are too many e-mails sent and received at work, it's difficult to measure the level of abuse and its impact on profitability. We need to look harder at finding ways to quantify the costs. My own research estimates a 12-per-cent drain on corporate payrolls in handling unproductive e-mail traffic. You might ask yourself what a 2-per-cent drop in this figure would save your company in a year, and start from there.

Taking sensible action. The types of actions taken need to reflect the culture of the organization and its processes for achieving results. Employee groups are more apt to adopt changes seen for their benefit, like less dependence on e-mail, if this is a good fit with work routines, and results in working smarter with less effort. Solutions can be initiated easily.

Regardless of how much e-mail pervades your workplace, remember that there is a cost to using the system. Good use enhances our productivity -- the e-mails we send and receive are relevant to our work and are appropriate for the medium.

Poor use, on the other hand, frustrates the efficient flow of information, forcing more time spent discerning electronic messages. This, in turn, robs us of the energy and focus we need to manage our other workday tasks.

It's a fallacy to believe that e-mail use has no consequences attached. Like the free lunch, there is always a price to pay.

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Christina Cavanagh is a professor at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business and author of ManagingYour E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox.