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Out of office: Time to free ourselves from email overload

Pilita Clark: Office life will always be grinding if we do not stop the torrent of communications

When it comes to office tedium, I had thought there was little left to say about the draining, unkillable cockroach of the internet that is work email.

I discovered last week there was, when a friend at work told me how thrilled her 10-year-old was to have his first email account.

“He gets unbelievably excited whenever a new mail lands in his inbox,” she said. Most came from her or his teacher, but he counted them as they arrived and had just announced he had a whole 175.

As I absorbed the poignant thought of how soon his joy would turn to dread in the face of groaning inbox overload, my friend said: “Guess how many emails I have. Unread.”


“100,000?” I said, certain she would have less than my own 120,000. “No,” she said. “300,000.” When I told a colleague at work about this, he said it was nothing because he had more than 500,000. Assuming journalists were at special risk of inundation, I asked an investor I saw the next day how many unread emails she had. “More than 400,000,” she said, wincing.

Like the rest of us, she had given up trying to combat a ceaseless digital bombardment. As a senior member of her firm, she was copied into endless internal dross, while unwanted external bilge washed in from all manner of marketers, promoters and pitchers.

When I mentioned this to another colleague last week, he said he was thinking of doing something I have been considering myself: setting a permanent out-of-office message to warn that due to email deluge I may not reply any time soon.

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And this is just email, which US workers were checking for more than three hours a day in 2019. Add in the nonstop pings from Slack, Teams, G-chat or WhatsApp, and it is a wonder anyone gets anything of importance done ever.

Some messages are of course necessary, as are some of the online meetings and calls that have surged since the pandemic began. But we have reached the point where the benefits of communication are being outweighed by a dispiriting loss of production.

This was confirmed by a Microsoft report last month that found workers around the world are struggling to keep up with a “crush of data, information and always-on communications”.

The research showed people are spending 57 per cent of their workday on email, meetings and other communication but just 43 per cent on productive creation.

According to Microsoft, a large investor in generative artificial intelligence, the solution to this dilemma is, incredibly, artificial intelligence. The tech giant claims AI will free stressed employees from time-sucking drudgery and unleash their creativity.

Maybe. But it will take much more than that.

For a start, employees need to stop thinking the remorseless advice on “productivity hacks” will help. You can do as much email filtering, subscription blocking and notification stopping as you like, but it will never fix your overload problem because it’s not you causing it.

Rather, it stems from organisations that adopt layer after layer of communication technologies without thinking about how it affects their wider aims – or the productivity and mental energy of their employees.

I have come across very few companies like GitLab, a software company with detailed guidelines on when to use email, Slack or something else for various tasks.

It did this out of need: it has long had to corral a large remote workforce. But its efforts to avoid what it calls “the chaotic splintering of communication” that bedevils larger organisations apply widely.

It is heartening to see a company such as Germany’s VW try measures such as switching off access to emails outside normal work hours, even if they are tricky to implement in practice.

I also like the step by the Daimler German car group to allow employees to use settings that automatically delete incoming emails while they are on holiday. The spread of right-to-disconnect policies that limit work contact out of hours is also welcome.

But it is the way we do work in-hours that needs attention. Until that is fixed, we are doomed to endure office life that will always be a grinding, frustrating shadow of what it could be. - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023