It’s 7.30am and the emails have already started. As I sit, savouring a few moments calm over a bowl of muesli before leaving for work, the phone has already started to chime. The ‘silent’ phone setting insists on buzzing on the table top – vibrating my coffee mug. I have resigned myself to the alternative ‘classic’ ding-dong. I guess my working day has begun.
Although I can rarely follow my employer’s ‘good ICT policy’ – fastidiously filing every email into a named subfolder (I never know where to put ‘Today’s Lunch Offer’), most days I click each email just long enough for it to be marked as ‘read’. Few of my colleagues manage this. I guess working part-time has some benefits.
Relentless work emails and calendar invitations that materialise from the electronic ether is the norm for many. This incessant distraction is a drain and – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out – probably drains productivity. The phone is dead: the majority of interactions are now done digitally. Could we sever our digital ties and survive at work without the emails? One group of workers did just that – for one week they went without emails. Researchers watched what they did and remotely monitored their stress levels. How did they cope? Surprisingly well…
People work better without emails
Gloria Mark and Stephen Vioda from the University of California (working with Army Doctor Cardello) looked into the effect that emails – or rather the lack of them – had on one cohort of information workers. Most research of this type has explored the effect that emails have – this is the first one to look at the effects of taking them away.
Given that a typical worker checks their email once every two minutes (about 36 times an hour), Mark and Vioda rigged 13 volunteers’ workstations so that all incoming emails were silently stored on their computer – without giving a notification. Forbidden from looking at their emails, a heart rate monitor recorded their stress levels and all work-related activity was timed and logged.
The six male and seven female workers found that for the five working days they were better able to focus on each task. The number of times they flicked between windows halved (switching once every three minutes, rather than the normal 90 seconds) and their stress levels fell(*see footnote). Their work wasn’t the only thing that was impacted: relationships with their colleagues tangibly improved. Rather than emailing, they had to (shock!) resort to speaking face-to-face:
“Email can be a superficial blanket that distances you from real relationships where you’re really working together.”
“Email is easier, but getting up and walking around, it’s a lot easier to talk face-to-face. You can pick up more vibes of the relationship thing that you can’t do with email.”
“[Working without email] helps with one-on-one relationships”.
And – employers take note – email communication may be effecting workers’ physical health. Recently, the health dangers of sitting down for prolonged periods were widely publicised – limiting time daily to three hours on one’s behind improves life expectancy by an estimated two years. Without emails, these workers used their ‘pins’ significantly more – getting up and walking around three times as much.
In praise of emails
It would be foolish to wholly vilify emails. A ‘double edged sword’, the pace of work increases with emails and helps us to feel connected – findings confirmed in this study. However, whether this ‘connectedness’ is real or illusionary is uncertain.
Smartphone ‘addiction’ is on the rise – some relationships have even broken down as a result. Over half of young adults describe ‘panic’ if they don’t have their smartphone (according to one recent survey). Similarly, three of the email-deprived workers in this research study confessed addiction-like symptoms.
The post-email era?
70% of emails received at work are read faster than Usain Bolt can sprint down a track: six seconds is the typical response time. I just can’t help feeling that there are times when, in the words of Sherry Turkle, “we don’t do email, our email does us”.
Instant electronic communication has undoubtedly revolutionised the way we work. An indispensable part of modern work and life (how many minutes was it since you sent a text message?), many experts insist that digital communication profoundly boosts efficiency and worker autonomy. This experiment gives a different angle on this widely held belief.
I relish going for a walk in the evening – without my phone. But when we are ‘connected’, there are plenty of good techniques for managing the inbox and reducing ‘email stress’. Heeding such advice, I will certainly be sledgehammering out all those unnecessary regular emails I receive. I don’t need to know who has updated their LinkedIn status today. I don’t need to know whether my local pizza parlour has 25% off (I don’t even like pizza). A more dramatic solution could be the panacea – perhaps I will set up an automated email reply:
“This is an automated message. Thank you for your email. I now only check my emails once a day. If you want to get hold of me, please call. Or send a letter.”
Thanks for reading – all opinions are my own. Feel free to leave your comments below…
Family discussing the effects of smartphones on family life (BBC Video)
Gloria J. Mark, Stephen Voida1, & Armand V. Cardello (2012). “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 555-564