Email is clogging up our working lives: how to restore real voices to the workplace

Email is consuming our time, confusing both our personal and professional relationships, commandeering our attention at work, and over-complicating our lives. Here are some suggestions to create more harmony.

When I was a supervisor, my favorite phone-call was the one that went: "Hi Mark, did you get my email?" to which my confused response was often: "which one?"

Bless the days of the movie "You've Got Mail", in which correspondence was exchanged between two honest if confused and complicated people in a time of over-excitement about a new technological break-through.

These days, email conflicts, consumes, and combusts communications too often.

A professional colleague speaks of many employees in her organization who prefer to spend the day sending and receiving emails, rather than advancing assignments, understanding and learning from their colleagues, and generally getting their work done in a friendly and efficient manner. Via email, she says, you never have to suffer the potentially empowerment-surrendering experience of walking down the hallway to be honest face-to-face.

Responsibility for advancing huge projects can be shifted with the mere forwarding of a PDF. Anger or frustration, no matter how misplaced, can be expressed from behind the safe if temporary haven of a large and expensive employer-provided electronic screen, and shared around - if desired - with like-minded frustratees. Points can be scored with the anticipation of an emailed response which will likely only serve to escalate the issue, involving an expanding number of copy-lined staff, thus consuming more precious time and thought.

Insecure staff may feel they need written proof that they have, indeed, informed somebody of something, lest anyone questions their response times, and/or communication skills.

Worst of all, email written with innuendo, aggression, assertion, or allegation, frequently started needless battles, but very rarely solved them.

God gave the lucky among us voices - we are choosing to replace them with keyboards.

There is now proof that this daily cycle of passive-aggressive typed mayhem is slowing organizations' productivity, creating unnecessary and prolonged internal conflicts, and is - most importantly - highly addictive. And then there is the mind-clutter, which prompts me to confess what prompted this outburst: as of tonight, I have 26,348 items in my Gmail Inbox. On a crusade to banish them last week, I discovered there is no quick-fix Gmail tool for mass deletion.

A 2016 study of SaneBox’s internal data suggests that in the average inbox only 38% of emails are "relevant". A 2012 study from The McKinsey Global Institute suggested the average employee spent 13 hours a week reading and responding to email, consuming an average of 28% of their time at work. A study by UC Irvine and the U.S. Army cut off email access to 13 workers for a week, attached heart rate monitors to them, and found hugely reduced stress levels.

In 2011 Atos, Europe's largest IT company, announced a "zero" email policy by 2013. In its place, they established their own social media network among employees, after finding managers were spending up to 20 hours a week answering emails. They established training courses for managers to operate in a "zero-email environment". By the end of 2013 an independent study suggested overall email had been reduced by 60%, from an average of 100 email messages per week per employee to less than 40.

According to Forbes Magazine, Atos's employees said they felt more productive and collaborative. The company's operating margin increased from 6.5% to 7.5% in 2013, earnings per share rose by more than 50%, and administrative costs declined from 13% to 10%.

Assuming not all organizations would want to go that far, here are some suggestions for "managing" email flow.

  1. Talk to your people about the best ways to communicate in different situations. When it comes to solving complex issues, face-to-face meetings are still the best. Contrary to popular culture in many organizations, these don't always need to last an hour.
  2. Meet with staff and encourage them to talk to each other where possible. Set boundaries for work emails - they should only be for the exchange of information, not to score points or argue positions. Establish workshops to teach employees how to choose the best method of communication for different issues, projects, and information flows.
  3. Encourage thoughtful, accurate and informative subject-lines to avoid inbox confusion, and urge users to be professional and to-the-point.
  4. Set regular daily time-slots for checking email - don't sit across it constantly, because you will inevitably be distracted. This will encourage others to do the same.
  5. Make sure spam filters are working effectively for yourself and your organization. Better to have someone taking out the trash for you.
  6. Create subject folders and file away all important ongoing emails at the end of each day. Religiously dump everything irrelevant, or you'll wind up with an inbox like mine.

If you are in an organization where there is lots of needless or troublesome email, consider whether your staff need more opportunities to express themselves and their ideas in weekly forums, meetings, or other channels. It may be a sign of frustration. Increasingly, the voiceless are going into print, for better or worse.







The Trump-Inspired crisis in the US Media

As the large swath of the USA formerly known by the city elites as "the flyover zone" continues to gloat at Donald Trump's ascendancy to the White House, the mainstream media are feeling his "shoot the messenger" strategy like an NRA bullet to the stomach.

Despite the reassuring emails calling for journalistic vigilence in the face of the presidential assault to the cable news and big paper troops from their ethics experts and supervisors, his central message that they are "the enemy of the American people" is hurting. They scramble to hire more fact-checkers to prove on an hourly basis that it's HIS news, not theirs, which is "fake". And while a twitter-based #nottheenemy campaign might go some way to soothing the scribes' egos, it is not likely to resonate with Trump believers.

Unfortunately for the journalism profession here, while the President's ability to turn critical global information into a factually challenged playground slanging-match is rousing his supporters anew, the media does have a problem - and it is the same issue which brought down Hillary's Democrats.

Much of "Middle America" exists in a parallel universe to the adrenalin-fueled lives of many of the coastal citizens of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The default news channel in most of the bars of small-town America is Fox News. The New York Times and Washington Post are harder to obtain in many places than back-issues of The World. Only USA Today's circulation model succeeds in delivering a truly national newspaper to the masses in the middle.

The rolling panels of recurring evening pundits on CNN and MSNBC, in which the group usually consists of one Trump apologist surrounded by critics, certainly don't have the appearance of fairness.

The Dean of the Trump defenders is long-time conservative-turned-pundit Jeffrey Lord.


During his almost hourly appearances on CNN, he's often pitted against four, five or six accusers. Regardless of the obviously outrageous and, at best, bombastic behavior of the President, it sure doesn't LOOK good for balance.

Following the election, New York Times' Public Editor reflected on the paper's coverage: "The national desk of The Times has correspondents around the country, and they filed a steady stream of compelling stories from voters between coastal America. And yet between the horse race and the campaign drama, much of their work was simply drowned out." It seems as the drama continues beyond the inauguration, so the drowning of the words continues along with it.

The elite city perspective brought the democrats down - refusing to believe the less-heard had deeper and different concerns, and were so fed up with the status quo that they were prepared to subscribe to a confused vision of unfulfillable promises offered by a narcissistic outsider. The erstwhile trusted media is in danger of going down the same road, if they don't start listening to the heartland. In all this, I believe there is one single, and cutting, statement Trump has made to his supporters about the mainstream media reporting that happens to be true: "It's their agenda, it's not your agenda". Time to look at that agenda, and draw the real stories from the disaffected.

Mark McDonald is a former BBC World News Producer who leads Washington DC-based Birkdale Media, a coaching and consulting group in media and communications for non-profits, international organizations, and business entrepreneurs.


Mark McDonald

Consultant, International Media and Communications

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How to be a Journalist in the age of "Fake News"

Trawling aimlessly through my Twitter feed it dawned on me that it sometimes has a lot in common with the Lancashire Witches – a group of hapless, poverty-stricken women who were hanged in 17th century northern England on the basis of rampant, indigenous misogyny, repeated gossip, allegations, rumors, a vengeful judge and the demands of the baying mob.

The more they protested their innocence, the more widespread became the myths and the gossip, and the more fact became confused and merged with the saucier fiction.

Before the Trump phenomena swept the 2016 election we could have given it a contemporary buzz-phrase such as “malicious crowd-sourcing” or “judicial trolling” but the message is the same – truth can be as elusive a commodity today as it was then. And, as we've seen recently the phrase "Fake News" doesn't come near to doing justice to some of the more repulsive stuff. Add to that the Hall of Mirrors social media has created, where subscribers only hear their own opinions echoed back, and you have a recipe which challenges democracy itself.

I may be in a minority in thinking that Mark Zuckerberg's sudden initiative to help the Facebook "community" police fake news may not be the perfect solution.

A survey reported this week by a credible organization shows a big majority of young people can't distinguish between "real"and "fake" news.

And the number of people making big money from distributing fake news is expanding daily. Thanks to NPR's "All Things Considered" for both stories.

Brittany Fong, a DC-based data visualization expert, displayed this data gathered from BuzzFeed which showed the supremacy of the right in generating fake election news, although some it came from the left, too. 

My journalism students often wonder what a journalism degree is worth these days, when any group with an Amazon discount code can buy a digital camera and drive to a riot zone to make a dangerous name for themselves on CNN. Or a bunch of guys can hang out in an apartment in LA, make terrible stuff up, plant it on social media, and make thousands from the subsequent advertising revenue.

Pendle Hill, Lancashire, UK, where many of the "witches" were brutally murdered

Pendle Hill, Lancashire, UK, where many of the "witches" were brutally murdered

So we came up with a list of attributes which might separate “real” journalists from the mob. I’m sure readers can add to the list.

Real journalists can distinguish their work and bring success to their organizations:-

  • By acquiring ALL the skills necessary to create and contribute to all types of platforms
  • By taking careful notes and recordings and keeping them
  • By being first hand witnesses to events, vigorously questioning any derivative versions
  • By standing for truth, accuracy and diversity before speed
  • By building credibility as tellers of significant stories
  • By having trusted, first-hand sources and extensive contacts
  • By building expertise, knowledge and experience in chosen beats
  • By rising above the “noise” to report fact, not rumor or hearsay
  • By remaining neutral and emotionally detached from their subject

It may seem a quaint notion, but is it time to restore credibility to the profession by having a nationally (or internationally) recognized qualification as a journalist? We could let Facebook (and others) off the hook, if they added a "credibility" badge to our stories.

News organizations who only employed card-holders, and genuine freelancers, could increase their credibility and enhance their reputation as trust-worthy custodians of truth and reliability.

Call me old-fashioned? The Lancashire Witches could have done with some independent observers who sought the truth. The first draft of history prevailed then, as it will today. But with all the tools of discovery and dissemination of news now at our disposal, shouldn’t we be doing more to get it right, especially since it's been 4-hundred years?

Mark McDonald

Birkdale Media - Digital and Broadcast Media and Speech Coaching

November 2016