E-mail in the workplace: is it a boon or a bane? Essay
E-mail in the workplace: is it a boon or a bane?
The advent of electronic mail usage in the workplace has had a far-reaching effect in many aspects of workers’ efficiency, productivity, and consequently, company growth. Email is the most-used means of communication in the modern workplace (Pratt, 2006), and its use is continually growing (Arnesen & Weis, 2007, p. 53). A global survey conducted in early 2000 shows a 600 percent increase in the use of email in the workplace in the previous six years (Stateman, 2001, p.
6). In 2003, statistics shows that 31 billion emails were sent every day from the workplace with 56 emails sent daily per email address, and 174 emails sent daily per person (Firoz, Taghi & Souchova, 2006, p. 72). However, a recent survey done by the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, California-based research and marketing firm, found that “email traffic around the world clocks in at 141 billion messages a day” (Macklem, 2006, p. 21). The use of email in the workplace is, indeed, staggering, but relative to specific factors, email usage could either be a boon or a bane.
The 1980s saw the introduction of the email on local area networks to “enable communications among employers and employees about business matters” (cited in Pratt, 2006). Its use was “fairly restrictive” in the beginning but with the Internet evolving quickly, email, as a communications tool in the workplace, has also surged in usage alongside that of the Internet (Pratt, 2006). As with other new technology, the adoption or introduction of email rapidly gained favor amongst employers for use in the workplace. The employers regard email use as not only “less expensive and more convenient than telephone usage” (cited in Pratt, 2007), they also believe that the email “will increase productivity and efficiency” (Rudner, 2005, p. R5).
Those expectations in the use of email in the workplace are easily met. As Arnesen & Weis (2007, p. 54) have said:
… email and the Internet have improved organizational efficiency, productivity and growth… improved communication between employees and interaction with customers, helped expand the ability to research the market and competitors, and established marketing channels and brand names on a global basis.
Productivity as a result of email usage may be demonstrated by a study made by the Pew Internet and American Life Project that found 83 percent of those surveyed that said “email saves time,” 63 percent stated that “email is more effective than using the phone or talking in person when making arrangements or appointments,” and 59 percent said “it improves teamwork,” (Swartz, 2003, p. 16). As Jackson, Dawson & Wilson (2001, p. 1) said, improving coordination between team members through email communication is geared towards the betterment of working practices and an increase in productivity. On the other hand, productivity as seen through employers or managers’ eye may mean, to them, as the ability to control their employees at a distance (cited in Skovholt & Svennevig, 2006).
With those significant gains in productivity, email usage in the workplace grew by leaps and bounds. The Pew Internet and American Life Project survey found that while three quarters of the average American employee spend an hour or less in dealing with emails at work, high-level managers in large corporations are heavy email users spending two hours or more daily in emails (Swartz, 2003, p. 16). In the same survey, 60 percent of the average American worker receive 10 or less email daily and send five or less. Only six percent of those surveyed receive more than 50 emails daily. A year after that survey, another study was conducted in 2004 by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association that surveyed 840 businesses in the United States (Pratt, 2006). The findings are astonishing: 60 percent of those surveyed spend at least 90 minutes daily just dealing with emails, 20 percent spend from three to four hours daily, and 10 percent spend more than four hours daily, or half their workday (ibid). Sweetnam (2006, p. 13) painted a more startling picture of email usage in the workplace using a survey of professionals in sales, management and human resources conducted by the National Research Bureau. The study found that the “average businessperson sends and receives about 90 messages daily.” The study further found that the so-called “power emailers” devote more than three hours a day dealing with emails and are likely to check and work on emails in the evenings after work, during weekends, and while on holidays (ibid). With such statistics, i.e. one in ten workers spending half the workday dealing with email alone, and the out-of-bounds spill of email usage from the workplace to the home, and even into one’s vacation and non-working time, the use of email at work has seemed to lose its being a boon.
The emergence of the email, which was hailed then as “a time saver for office workers,” as the now “scourge of the modern workplace,” (Mackhem, 2006, p. 20) comes as no surprise. Even if a lot of people equate the high volume of emails they process a day at work to strong productivity, this basis is considered “ridiculous” (cited in Mackhem, 2006, p 20). Too much email traffic, according to Sweetnam (2006, p. 13), can weaken, if not cripple, the efficiency and productivity at work. To illustrate: a previous study shows that 15-20 percent of the time of the average American worker is spent dealing with interruptions at work (90 percent on telephone calls and personal visits; 10 percent on emails), and each interruption is calculated at about 15-20 minutes per interrupt (cited in Jackson, Dawson & Wilson, 2001, p. 2). In a more recent study, Macklem (2006, p. 21) found out that the “delay between handling the interruption [of one email] and getting back to what you were doing in the first place” is 25 minutes. All these email interruptions in the workplace translate to about 28 percent of the average American worker’s day, or 28 billion hours per year; using $21 an hour, the study concluded that the loss of productivity to U.S. business is $588 billion (ibid).
The high volume of email received at work, aside from being a bane to productivity, also deals a negative impact to workers’ efficiency and worse, one’s IQ. The decreased efficiency is caused by “increased stress, increased time spent checking email (both inside and outside the office), longer working hours and decreased productivity” (Pratt, 2006). Across the Atlantic, a study conducted by the University of Glasgow and Paisley University in Scotland found that one-third of those surveyed feel stressed by the email overload at work, and that many check their email up to 40 times a day (Shellenbarger, 2007, p. D.1). Stressful as that may sound, what could be more alarming than the findings of a study done by a psychiatrist at King’s College, London University that shows “the high volume of“email may currently be making us stupid?” (Macklem, 2006, p. 21) The study monitored office employees and discovered that as they deal with frequent email interruptions alongside that of the rest of their work, their IQ fell by 10 points, “the equivalent damage of losing a night’s sleep.” Dealing with email overload, the report further stated, made the workers more confused and slow.
Personal use and misuse of email, however, may be considered an even darker bane to productivity at work. Compared with email interruptions and email overload, misuse of email in the workplace has created problems with far-reaching effects. Misuse and abuse include sending sexually suggestive emails to officemates; or displaying pornographic images in computer screens located in common workspaces, images that are generated by email messages received from outside the workplace (Bee & Maatman Jr, 2004, p. 27). This kind of misuse had cost Microsoft $2.2 million when four female employees sued for sexual harassment based upon the pornographic images sent between employees using the company’s email system (Firoz, Taghi & Souchova, 2006, p. 73). Lawsuits involving racial harassment have also been filed in court, and in one case, Owens v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. in 1997, “the court found that a racist joke sent on the company’s email constituted sufficient grounds to allow the plaintiffs to proceed with a $60 million lawsuit” (cited in Arnesen & Weis, 2007, p. 55). Another email misuse that could have a negative impact in the workplace, hence affecting productivity, is when a worker downloads personal email attachment that may bring in viruses that could infect and render the company’s computer system useless (Rudner, 2005, p. R6). Using workplace email to defame, threat, annoy, harass or cyber-stalk someone, according to Arnessen & Weiss (2007, p. 56), poses potential problems for the employers and this is another email misuse at work. What is clearly email abuse that has damaged the reputation of a company is illustrated by an employee at Ontario Power Generation “who used her corporate email address to run her exotic dancer business” (Rudner, 2005, p. R5).
The negative impact in the situations mentioned above seems more focused on the company than the employees. However, there are a couple of unusual cases of workplace email misuse and abuse that might illustrate another “dark side of the email” (Macklem, 2006, p. 20). Macklem (2006, p. 21) says that the new technology has created a new addiction and cited a 19-year old in Scotland who was discovered to have sent up to 300 messages daily, or 8,000 messages in three months, most of it to his girlfriend. The man chose to resign from his job when his deed was found out rather than face discipline from his superiors. The other case involved an employee who was found to have 10,000 emails in his inbox with 8,000 of them unanswered (ibid). A consultant with the Montreal Institute of Business Technology was sought by the employer to help the employee but the latter quit his job before the consultant could help the “email addict,” who could well personify the negatively extreme image of an email user in the workplace.
While this extreme negative image of an email user may seem frightening, the reality is that those are rare cases. Further reality says that “it’s wrong to blame email for all office woes… it’s up to [the] users to set their own limits on technology” (ibid). In other words, learning about email management in the workplace is in order. And a step towards this goal may be illustrated by the move of several companies like U.S. Cellular, Deloitte & Touche, and Intel, that have started to impose or try-out no-email days, usually Fridays, to limit “the feeling of being chained to incoming email” and to promote “human beings and interaction” (Shellenbarger, 2007, p. D.1). After their initial shock and protest, the employees involved in those try-outs now love their no-email days (Schaper, 2008, morning edition).
The introduction of email in the workplace has, without any doubt, contributed tremendously to productivity and efficiency. The startling surge of email users in the workplace in so short a time speaks for itself. Employees and employers alike revel in a new technology that is a blessing to both productivity and efficiency.
But as with most anything that is used improperly – specifically, email usage in the workplace – its misuse and abuse could only negate the positive. However, email users need only to stay focused on proper email management in the workplace. The result will not only be an effective email system that produces more effective individuals but it will also return the email in its proper place: a blessing to work productivity.
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