Converting Email From Drain to Gain

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

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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.

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

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