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What if your e-mail suddenly stops working tomorrow?

 
Download PDF Ping! You've got mail, or you see it as a pop-up on your desktop or phone. Before you know it, you've clicked on your e-mail programme and are reading what just came in, even though you had actually been focusing on a very important task. Sounds familiar?

Research has shown that office workers spend 23% of their time reading and answering e-mails. What's more, they deal with 70% of these incoming e-mails within just 6 seconds. But what will happen if you arrive at work tomorrow and find that your e-mail isn't working?

Reducing stress
The University of California closed down the e-mail programme for a group of 13 employees during 5 workdays. Previous to this research, half of the employees had so many incoming e-mails that they had no control over their work anymore. This lack of control is a major cause of stress.

During the research, the participants completed questionnaires to indicate their stress levels. In addition, heart rate sensors measured their heart rate variability to monitor their stress levels objectively.

The employees indicated that they were less stressed without the e-mails. This was also backed up by the objective heart rate data. These findings are already interesting within the context of health care. But the research also looked at other consequences of working without e-mail: on concentration and cooperation.

Less multitasking, more single-tasking
Software kept track of how long the participants worked in a programme without interruptions and how often they switched from programme to programme. The assumption behind this monitoring was that the longer a person works in a programme, the less multitasking is going on and the better the concentration is.

Without the e-mail interruptions, a person can concentrate twice as long on the monitor before switching to another one. This is reflected in the lower number of window changes.



Apart from these research results, the participants reported that they could concentrate longer on a task and even on their work in general. Another important conclusion was that tasks and projects could be completed sooner without e-mail interruptions.

Improving work relationships and having more social contact

Eliminating e-mails requires people to communicate in other ways, so the number of face-to-face interactions and telephone calls increases. This leads to improved work relationships with colleagues. According to the participants in the research, having more social contact results in enjoying their work more.

The only comment made by the participants' colleagues (who still had e-mail but could not contact the participants by e-mail) was that it was somewhat more difficult to gather certain information. It had no effect on their satisfaction with the colleagues without e-mail, their own productivity and their own stress level.

A marked reduction in meaningless tasks

E-mail is a simple medium for delegating tasks. But when you're concentrating really hard on a task, nothing is more irritating than to suddenly get an e-mail from your manager requesting that you take a 'little break' from what you're working on to do something else – and to get it done yesterday rather than today.

Shutting down e-mail can have interesting consequences for this delegating behaviour. One participant in the research often received these requests for rush jobs. The result, of course, was a high stress level. After the e-mail programme was shut down, this person no longer received these rush job requests. Even though the manager could just as easily have picked up the phone, this didn't happen! Apparently, shutting down e-mail leads to a drop in the number of tasks that usually get passed on to someone else.

What happened after the research?
So what will happen if your e-mail suddenly stops working tomorrow? Most of the effects are positive!
  • Reduction of stress
  • Working more effectively and with better concentration
  • Improved work relationships
  • More enjoyment in work
  • Increased personal initiative (fewer meaningless tasks)
  • Colleagues and managers are just as satisfied with the resulting cooperation and communication
The participants in the research experienced only one fundamental disadvantage. Since their colleagues still had e-mail, they thought they were missing out on getting important information. This fear meant that after the research, practically all of the participants went right back to working with e-mail even though they again became more stressed.

What could it mean for you?
There are some wonderful advantages to working without e-mail, but we can't do without it entirely, if only because of our need for contact with customers. But how can you benefit from this research?
  • Wait a little longer to answer an e-mail, no one has ever ruled that it has to get done in 6 seconds. If it's really important, they'll give you a call.
  • If you feel as if you're getting behind in some really important tasks for your work and that you're constantly being interrupted by e-mails, turn off your e-mail notification.
  • Would you like to get more out of your workday? Try a morning without e-mail sometime and then look at your e-mails later. The world will keep on turning if you don’t read your e-mails. Just think of what you can get done if you first work for 2 (preferably 4) hours on tasks.
  • Maximise the number of times that you 'just' check your e-mails to 4 times a day and then reduce this to twice (halfway through your workday and then an hour before you go home).

What do you think, is it worth a try?



References

Czerwinski, M., Horvitz, E., and Wilhite, S. A diary study of task switching and interruptions. In Proc. CHI 2004, ACM Press (2004), 175 – 182.
González, V.M. and Mark, G. “Constant, constant, multitasking craziness”: Managing multiple working spheres. In Proc. CHI 2004, ACM Press (2004), 113 – 120.
Hewlett, S.A. and Luce, C.B. Extreme jobs: The dangerous allure of the 70-hour workweek. Harvard Business Review 84, 12 (2006), 49 – 59, 162.
Mark, G and Voida, S. “A Pace Not Dictated By Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email. In Proc. CHI 2012, ACM Press (2012), 555 – 564.




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