Converting Email From Drain to Gain

New research lays the groundwork for a team-based approach to managing email.

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Frontiers

An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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Perhaps no workplace technology is so widely adopted, so widely used, and yet so widely reviled as email. Because of its ubiquity, most people don’t think much about how they use it, so we sought to identify how email is related to performance and other outcomes in organizations.

Despite a widespread perception that email is a drain on employee time and productivity, we found that its effect on performance actually depends on the email content, the performance time frame, and how email is managed. If the email content is congruent — or relevant — to an employee’s primary work tasks, email interruptions can have a positive effect on employee performance. Congruent emails are associated with mindfulness, although they also come at the cost of higher subjective workload on a daily basis. Incongruent emails, relating to secondary work activities or unrelated to work, are where the real problems arise. Developing more effective shared practices for handling email in light of this can help maximize the performance benefits — and minimize the performance liability — of email.

Despite our deep reliance on email, little research has examined the relationship between its use and workplace performance. Our research is based on two studies we conducted on email use among North American business-to-business (B2B) salespeople. (See “Related Research.”) First, we conducted a general survey of email habits and workplace outcomes, geared at understanding the effect of email on a weekly basis. Second, we undertook a diary study in which we asked respondents to reflect more deeply on their email usage at multiple points in time. This study aimed to understand the effect of email on a daily basis. These multiple approaches helped paint a rich picture of the effects of email use at different time frames. We focus here on the findings that apply across business contexts.

Email and Workplace Performance

Not all email is the same with respect to its impact on performance. In our research, we divided email into two types: congruent and incongruent. Congruent emails are those that are pertinent to the recipient’s primary work activities, containing relevant information or feedback, revealing discrepancies, or requesting actions. In our setting of B2B salespeople, these emails included information about a prospective customer’s needs, a problem with an ongoing sales pitch, or a request for new features in a product. Which types of email are congruent will be different in other jobs and responsibilities, but the key feature is that they are germane to the employee’s primary work, meaning the employee’s main task responsibilities.

Incongruent emails are those that contain information or requests that are not germane to the recipient’s primary work tasks. These messages might relate to secondary work activities (meeting agendas), extra-role activities (helping a colleague with a work-related issue), or activities that are unrelated to work (a family event). Incongruent interruptions are not unimportant or junk mail; they are simply those email communications that are not associated with an employee’s primary work.

We found that the number of congruent email interruptions an employee handles is positively related to performance and that the number of incongruent email interruptions is negatively related to performance. More surprising, however, is that these effects hold only for performance at the daily level. Neither congruent nor incongruent emails are significantly related to performance at the weekly level. Employees seem to be able to eventually compensate for the incongruent emails over the longer term, likely finding time to address them when they won’t affect their primary tasks. Moreover, the positive effect of congruent emails also seems to wane over the longer time period: The marginal benefits of congruent emails apparently diminish with the increasing quantity of information or feedback received.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there — the relationship between email and performance is more nuanced. Email also has indirect effects on employee performance through subjective workload and mindfulness.

Subjective Workload

Subjective workload is the extent to which an individual feels his or her work is emotionally, temporally, and mentally demanding. Consistent with prior research, we found that subjective workload is negatively related to performance at both the daily and weekly levels. In other words, the more overwhelmed we feel by our work, the worse we perform.

Anyone reading this article would probably agree that email is positively associated with subjective workload. Indeed, we found that both congruent and incongruent emails are positively related to subjective workload at the daily level, which, in turn, is negatively related to performance. Interestingly, however, congruent emails are not related to subjective workload at the weekly level, but incongruent emails are. Email is a necessary tool for daily work, but it appears that incongruent emails are the source of longer-term stress.

How people manage email also influences their subjective workload. Conducting parallel communications — engaging in several ongoing email threads at a time — was the single biggest factor associated with subjective workload. These concurrent and fragmented discussions tax our concentration and lead to higher stress. These findings echo advice offered by consultant Phil Simon, who recommends after three rounds of iteration via email that participants switch to another channel for communication, like the telephone or an in-person meeting. Our results suggest this may be sage advice.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state in which an individual exhibits alertness to distinction, openness to novelty, orientation in the present, and awareness of multiple perspectives. We found that mindfulness is positively related to performance at both the daily and weekly levels. Congruent emails were positively related to mindfulness, but incongruent emails were not. Information received through congruent emails helps shift our mindset toward alternative perspectives, information, and ways of doing things, which in turn helps us do our job better. (However, this association between mindfulness and congruent emails may be limited to knowledge workers, such as B2B salespeople, and not administrative employees, such as executive assistants who manage the logistics of email.)

Just as certain email practices help decrease subjective workload, other practices increase mindfulness. Specifically, we found that reprocessing and rehearsing were positively related to mindfulness. Reprocessing is the extent to which an email recipient reexamines the content of an email, such as carefully reading the content to fully understand it. Rehearsing is the extent to which an email recipient carefully considers and fine-tunes his or her response to an email.

These findings suggest that email is a valuable workplace tool when used to engage in deeper and more thoughtful communication, rather than quickly dashed-off requests and replies or general logistical requests. A deliberative and mindful use of email can change the way we think, helping to hone our understanding of congruent tasks.

Improve Email Through Intentional Practices at the Team Level

Our results suggest that email has the greatest positive benefit on performance when (1) employees address congruent emails immediately and mindfully to maximize their positive performance impact, and (2) employees postpone incongruent emails to tackle at a later time, when they are less mindful and the negative performance impact is limited. Although this advice sounds appealing and intuitive, following it is easier said than done. Employees still face the challenge of distinguishing between congruent and incongruent emails in the first place.

More intentional email practices can help by reducing the volume of incongruent emails or shifting them to another communication platform. However, individual employees can’t develop more intentional practices on their own and expect them to have a meaningful impact on performance; one person’s congruent email is often another’s incongruent one. Intentional email practices must be shared in order to be effective. Organization-wide email practices, however, are unlikely to be effective. People use email effectively in divergent ways, depending on the nature of their work. A one-size-fits-all approach to email practices won’t account for the various legitimate uses and needs within a single organization.

Therefore, shared email norms and practices are most likely to be effective when supported at the team level. By teams, we simply mean some meaningful subset of the organization that works together to accomplish its goals with a clearly defined leader or set of leaders. Teams establishing email norms and practices should be of a manageable size to enact meaningful change in individual behavior, have some basic shared understanding of what constitutes congruent and incongruent communication, and account for a considerable portion of the communication in which employees engage.

Leaders can work with their teams to develop shared practices that reduce the proliferation of incongruent email. They can decide together which types of communication tasks are best handled over email and which ones can be shifted effectively to other collaboration platforms (and which platforms). Teams can agree together that certain types of emails are unnecessary and undesirable (for example, message acknowledgements or thank you emails), and when it is necessary to copy others on an email and “reply all” and when it isn’t.

Building a Better Mousetrap

Technology could provide another way to help distinguish between congruent and incongruent emails. We think the adage “If you can build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door” is true for email systems, too. We expect that incongruent emails could be reduced significantly if messages had a “Like” or “Thank you” button to acknowledge receipt without generating another email.

Artificial intelligence (AI) can also improve email as a productivity tool, as Google’s “Smart Reply” has already demonstrated at a basic level. Meanwhile, most email platforms already filter spam, and some allow bundling of emails of a certain type. And tools like Gmail’s Priority Inbox and Microsoft Outlook’s Focused Inbox offer automated sorting for likely importance. We envision taking this process a step further, much in the same way the collaboration platform Slack prioritizes content. Its AI leverages data from users’ past communications — such as who they communicate with most frequently and what content topics they are most likely to engage in — to prioritize messages for the user and help identify the most relevant content. A similar approach could be applied to organize users’ inboxes by likelihood of congruence, instead of the order in which email was received. AI could also monitor employees’ work activity through calendar data or the applications and files in use to define congruence based on employees’ current work requirements, reprioritizing email accordingly.

Depending on what data is used for its predictions, the AI could also scan emails before they are sent to provide a predicted congruence score for targeted recipients in the same organization or recommend additional recipients for whom the information might be congruent. The sender may determine that an email does not need to be sent to a certain person at all or is better sent through a different platform, potentially eliminating the incongruent email before it even exists.

For Better or Worse, Email Is Here to Stay

Email is probably not going anywhere anytime soon — it is a ubiquitous and effective tool that provides real value to organizations. But it creates real problems as well, depending on how it is used on both an individual and a collective basis. Teams can develop more effective shared email practices to maximize the presence of congruent emails and reduce incongruent ones or move them to another forum. We also think email programs can be redesigned by leveraging advances in AI to help workers better identify and treat congruent and incongruent email. Rethinking how you and your team use email in light of these findings can ensure email remains an effective workplace tool — or help it become so again.

Topics

Frontiers

An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
More in this series

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