Let’s face it – e-mail can be too much of a good thing
By Edward Lundquist, ABC
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(<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Chicago) – Researcher Dr. Gerry Goldhaber has found that workers spend a lot of time sorting through their e-mail. Too much time.
“There are four trillion e-mails sent annually from 600 million mailboxes,” says Goldhaber. In 1995, we averaged five e-mails a day, and now we average 30 or more, a 600% increase in six years.
Goldhaber, speaking about the use and abuse of e-mail to the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) at a session hosted by IABC’s Research Foundation in Chicago June 12, cited an “Online Business Communication Study” he conducted with his firm, Goldhaber Research Associates, LLC (of Amherst, New York) and its Australian Partner, Rogen, Intl. Dr. Goldhaber is also on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The study included more than 7,300 e-mail addresses in seven countries and various industry sectors. More than 1,400 executives responded to the web survey.
“Many of these e-mails – about a third – are irrelevant to the respondent’s jobs. They’re junk.” Goldhaber says. “And that translate into dollars lost.” A company of 100 workers would lose 15,000 hours equating to nearly a half million dollars and company of 1,000 workers would lose 150,000 man-hours a year, a cost of more than $4.2 million USD, he estimates.
“Most people have no idea how many e-mails they send and receive and how much time they spend doing it. We learned that in our sample, the average estimate by the respondents was that they sent and received 42 e-mails each day, but in fact the number was 50.
Executives spend two hours a day using e-mail, according to Goldhaber, and that usage is increasing.
Supervisors can rapidly share breaking news with employees by e-mail, and then follow up with a face-to-face opportunity, agrees Angela Sinickas, ABC, a communications researchers from Costa Mesa, Calif.
E-mail moves a large amount of information and moves it fast. Goldhaber cites e-mail’s mass communications capabilities, the ability to exchange files, and the ability for record keeping as real advantages. These are also problematic. It’s too easy to send too much to too many people. Crippling computer viruses can be unknowingly carried as attachments. And, he says, there’s always a record of the conversation. “There’s no privacy on the Internet. Anything you write in an e-mail can appear on the front page of the New York Times.”
While e-mail may have created a time drain, the vast majority of respondents felt that e-mail led to improved communications within their organizations, but not necessarily as a replacement for face-to-face communication. This is especially important for news that’s really important, whether it’s really good or really bad.
“E-mail may be more efficient, but not necessarily more effective,” he says. Goldhaber says his research suggests a balanced approach. E-mail is useful, but not instead of face-to-face communications for important news.
What’s important? That’s subjective, but really good news might be a promotion or a bonus. Really bad news might be a demotion or a layoff. This kind of news is best delivered in person, Goldhaber says.
From facial expression to eye movement to hand gestures and posture, the non-verbal communications count for a large majority of the meaning of what is being said. “That’s not present on the Internet.”
Goldhaber says that face-to-face communications, while it may take longer, saves time in the long run.
“This is something we all assumed,” says Les Potter, ABC, a strategic communications consultant from Vienna, Virginia, about the research. “Now we know.”
Mary Hills, of the Northern Trust Co., of Chicago, Ill., said the research underscores the basics of communications, which she learned as a student from Dr. Goldhaber’s textbooks. “Determine the message and decide the channel. E-mail is just one of the channels, and it may not always be the appropriate one.”
E-mail will continue to be a necessary part of business communicating, so let’s do it better. Goldhaber says we all need to manage our inbox. “Deal with a message once. Block or filter unwanted e-mails. Use the subject line effectively. Keep attachment size below 500 KB and keep your recipients carefully. And get your address out of e-mail distribution lists that you don’t want to be on.”
Online research such as web-based surveys can work well for little time or cost, says Goldhaber. “There are real benefits. You can come up with a timely survey. Respondents can complete the survey when they want, and the completed surveys can be immediately tabulated. You can broadcast your survey to a large number of people, but it can also be highly targeted.”
Edward Lundquist, ABC is an Accredited Business Communicator and a member of the IABC International board of directors. He is a communication director with Anteon Corporation’s Center for Security Strategies and Operations in Arlington, VA.