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Many executives overwhelmed by e-mail

As I See It

The typical corporate e-mail user receives about 30 messages a day, up 50% from just last year according to a recent survey by Ferris Research of San Francisco.

The survey also indicated that the “average corporate e-mail user” spends more than two hours a day dealing with these messages and the tasks they trigger. Further, respondents indicated that they expect a 35% to 50% increase in e-mail messages over the next year. Thus, by 2002, employees may be spending up to four hours of their workdays on e-mail.

E-mail is a valuable new communication tool. Of that, there is no argument. Whether it is being overused and used improperly is a legitimate question.

Firing off e-mail to a customer in Thailand is fast, cheap and efficient. However, a significant number of our e-mail comes from down the hall, from people within the sound of our voice. Is this a good thing?

Why do we send so much e-mail? It’s easy. Just draft a message, point and click and it’s done. Well, almost done anyway. The recipient is obligated to see what we have to say and that investigation requires an investment of time.

In fact, since we copy lots of people with our e-mail messages, a small army of recipients are obligated to see what we have to say, whether it really relates to them or not and that takes even more time.

E-mail is hard to ignore and sending e-messages rather than a note or a call can get us access to attention that we might not otherwise get. Accordingly, they are a powerful means of communication and that power is sometimes abused.

When employee attention is diverted from business to personal pursuits, efficiency suffers. Many companies have policies against personal use of e-mail on company time and on company computers.

Without meaning to rain on the e-mail parade, there are business reasons other than just efficiency to restrict personal e-mail.

Remember that every e-mail leaves a track back to where it originated, or was forwarded from. Forwarding a funny, but perhaps inappropriate, message to friends or associates can cause legal problems if it ultimately lands on the wrong computer. Companies have been forced to pay stiff legal settlements as a result of discriminatory e-mail passing through their computers.

Just to prevent misunderstandings, employers should have written policies setting forth ownership and confidentiality of e-mail passing through their computers. A statement that inappropriate electronic information is forbidden just like verbal or written comments that could reasonably be considered racially or sexually offensive should be included in the policy. Inappropriate is inappropriate regardless of the medium.

Additionally, employees should be told that e-mail is the property of the company and is subject to review at any time. Confidential messages should be restricted to home computers.

Is e-mail always the best medium of communication? No. Verbal communication is far superior to electronics for inspiring and motivating. Would you rather have e-mail from the boss congratulating your success or would a telephone call be better?

The same is true for necessarily critical messages. Reprimands should never be communicated other than in person, or at lease by phone.

What can be done to control e-mail? Ferris Research advises managers to organize e-mail into subject folders, filter out unwanted e-mail, handle each message only once and then delete or file it, use “reply all” sparingly to reduce unnecessary traffic, and avoid back and forth replies such as “thank you” and “OK.”

Ask to be removed from “copy” lists if the information is not pertinent to your job. Remind co-workers that non-essential messages take up a lot of time and are discouraged.

The increased productivity arising from the electronic developments of the last decade have played an important role in the booming economy of the 90s. Just like the power of flowing water, it is a force that can be used to make things better or it can be destructive.

Thought for the Moment – You only lose energy when life becomes dull in your mind. Your mind gets bored and therefore tired of doing nothing. Get interested in something! Get absolutely enthralled in something! Get out of yourself! Be somebody! Do something. The more you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, the more energy you will have. — clergyman and writer Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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