Inbox Overload

When I started to write this blog, I planned to list all the things we can do as individuals to be more efficient in how we manage our email.

Then it dawned on me that leaving individuals to find their own way is not the answer. The fundamental problem is that we cannot control the number of emails hitting our inboxes.  We are at the mercy of circumstances and other people, and psychologically, that is not a good place to be.  We like to have control or at least influence, but in fact, we are stuck in respond mode and this drains our energy and causes stress.  However many hours we work, however many times we clear our inboxes, they just keep filling up.  It’s like trying to bail out a sinking ship.

What we really need is for organisations to take the lead on establishing good email practice and making this part of the culture of our workplaces.  We don’t want to get rid of email – it is a fantastic tool for rapid communication, and few would want to go back to the days of brown “internal memorandum” envelopes being delivered by hand around the office.


But we do want email to be a tool to do our work, rather than becoming the work itself. 

The HR Satisfaction Survey  showed that that HR staff spend an average of 32% of their time on email.  In many organisations, managers rush from meeting to meeting, grabbing a few moments in between to deal with the emails piling up in their inboxes, and with little time to do the work they are really paid to do.  When they get home, they often stay switched on, connected electronically, mentally, and often emotionally too, and ultimately this can lead to overload and burnout.

It is time that organisations stepped up and took action to establish good email practices and reduce inbox overload.  Some are already doing so.  Atos has succeeded in reducing the numbers of emails sent by 60%.  Daimler encourages staff on holiday to have any emails sent to them automatically deleted from the server.

Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Consult with staff, set up some working parties, and get people engaged in how to solve the email problem – this will create pressure for change and a vision of how it could be.
  • Adopt Daimler’s policy and delete emails from the server when staff are on holiday.
  • Like Atos, replace email with a social network that employees can choose when to access.
  • Send alerts to employees when they have sent more than a specified number of emails in a day.
  • Ban emails sent between people in the same location – use phone calls or face to face meetings instead.
  • Set reduction targets and monitor the number of emails sent across the organisation – give recognition when it is reduced.
  • Establish ground rules for good practice and technical barriers to poor practice eg limit the use of “reply all”, have a “do they really need to know” check before copying people, ban read receipts.
  • Monitor how much time staff spend on email and tell them eg “did you know that last week, you spent 15 hours on email?”

Please start a conversation about email in your organisation – no-one else is going to do it for you –   and let’s take control of the email epidemic.