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Time is money - and so is e-mail

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

Last week a friend reported that she managed to complete a project at the office. She said she could only do this by ignoring her e-mails for two days. On a larger scale, productivity concerns made a British company, Phones4U, ban all internal e-mailing for its 2,500 employees. This move became noteworthy enough for CNN and The New York Times to pick up the story. The only difference between these two situations was the company quantified the actual cost savings -- a whopping three hours per day per employee and $1.6-million (U.S.) a month.

So, how do we begin to understand the cost of e-mail use at work? The first step is to establish some realistic assumptions on volume and time. For instance, my research has shown that 65 per cent of e-mails require a response. Therefore, if you receive 40 e-mails a day, then 26 require a return message and you are therefore dealing with 66 pieces of e-mail.

The remaining 35 per cent of daily e-mails are a combination of workplace spam, spurious messages largely originating from within the organization that should not have been sent in the first place and those all department-all employee messages, many of which could be rerouted to the corporate Intranet. Already through creating assumptions, we witness a first area to focus our cost-savings efforts -- stopping unwanted e-mail before it starts.

Now that we have established a method to capture volumes, let's look at time spent. The actual time we spend on e-mail can be divided into three phases:


In the prioritization phase, we spend time deciding which e-mails we should open. We now get too many e-mails in our inboxes to afford the luxury of dealing with them on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Since we aren't generally sitting in front of our computers waiting for the next message to arrive, we tend to visit our inboxes sporadically, both in between meetings and at the start and end of the workday. What makes this phase such an illusive time-drain is our wariness of being caught by the non-relevant e-mail. Our attempts to sift through the messages in order to bypass or save certain ones for later review takes more time now than we are willing to credit.

Some people open e-mails then decide to close them (some even take the extra time to mark them as unread), just to save them for later. It's actually much more efficient once the message is open, to just handle it rather than making the extra effort to defer the inevitable.


During the comprehension phase, we commit ourselves to focus attention on the message. This is where a well-crafted and relevant e-mail makes so much difference to both our time and our mood. E-mails that aren't explicit as to the nature of the request take more time to discern -- likewise, for those e-mails where the subject line is either too vague or doesn't match the underlying message.

These innocent sender antics cause receivers to lose their rhythm and now their attention needs to be refocused. Again, we underestimate the time it takes to plow through a message that we thought originally was about something else. This too is where our mood shifts -- depending on the circumstances, we get in touch with feeling betrayed by these sender habits. Multiply this situation by 10 such messages a day, and it's no surprise that for many of us e-mail becomes not only a chore, but also a bore.


The disposition phase for an e-mail can also be quite an elusive time thief. The key decisions that we make here are whether to respond and what to do with the message afterwards.

Instinctively, we know which messages require response, but there are e-mails where we ponder our next move -- should I acknowledge receipt, say thanks or conclude the message loop?

We also spend more time than we should deciding whether to delete the e-mail after a response or to save it to a folder. Those of us who actively use electronic folders are ahead in the e-mail time management race because we reserve our inboxes for current items.

Unfortunately, there are many people who use their inbox only, keeping old messages stacked below the new incoming ones. While this may seem more efficient than taking the time to file, ask yourself what it costs us in time spent feeling guilty that we have 1,468 messages (and counting) in our inbox?

It seems that e-mail use has become a legitimate independent cost centre. The problem is that it doesn't appear on anyone's income statement, so it is not recognized as a corporate expense. Most companies do not gather together their e-mailing statistics even though the raw data are tabulated by the system every day. Organizations that have requested this type of information realize that they can learn which e-mail accounts are most active, which routinely send large volumes of e-mail, and the proportion of e-mail that is sent internally versus externally. This is not to be confused with electronic surveillance software that is specially designed to monitor Internet use and specific e-mail content. E-mail usage statistics have always been a part of the basic system; these were just never considered important enough to become management information.

The irony of e-mail is that it is a productivity tool that, through misuse, has become unproductive in our workplaces. Again, our instincts tell us this is true but it seems that if we don't come up with the hard numbers, there is no sense of urgency to try to resolve the problem. This may explain why the British company made headlines -- they did the math and did not like what they found.

So how do you do the math for yourself? Taking the earlier example, calculate the total time using 66 e-mails (40 incoming plus 26 outgoing) and average time spent on each (including prioritization, comprehension, disposition) as four minutes apiece. (This assumes that you may spend 30 seconds reading and deleting some messages, and 10 minutes composing others.)

Multiplying the two, you get 4.4 hours a day. If you are really quick and decide that three minutes is your average, then it takes you only 3.3 hours to whip through your daily allotment of e-mails -- hooray! The reality for many of us is that most e-mails take much longer than we would like to think and that may be an underlying reason not to calculate the bad news.

We can see how high volumes and poor message content interfere significantly with our daily routines. The real time spent on e-mail, because it is hours not minutes, truly comes at the expense of our other tasks and encroaches on our personal lives. This in turn serves to inhibit productivity, happiness with work/lifestyle balance, that both affect bottom-line contributions. Perhaps our British cousins have the right idea after all.

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