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Ballooning emails and unproductive meetings: where is it all going?

It was the usual office afternoon. I came out of a meeting feeling a little exhausted and bumped into my colleague Randel in the elevator. He said, “Oh man, what a waste that meeting was. I received one text message and two instant messages, and now I will have to deal with an overflowing inbox. I’m tired of this happening. These marathon meetings all discuss the same issues.”

How often have we felt like my colleague Randel? We have all passively sat through long and disengaged meetings, being physically present but our mind engaged in some other activity. This is true even for those managers and executives who spend 40-50% of their office time in meetings, leaving precious little time for other productive work. At the same time, executives and managers have observed that the more meetings they attend, the more emails, texts and instant messages they receive. This further reduces their precious time that they could utilise for planning, thinking or addressing the work place issues. 

How is the majority addressing this problem?

Let’s work more

Unfortunately the knee-jerk reaction is to stretch working hours. According to the research from the New York-based Center for Work Life Policy, the average corporate workweek has expanded continuously over the last decade, with many executives and managers regularly logging 60-70 hrs per week. Some people even take their work conference calls from the toilet and read their email messages while going to the bathroom.

Let’s email more

If you think your emails are showing strong growth year on year, you are not alone. Moreover, you should brace yourself for the future. A report by global computer and telecommunications research company The Radicati Group reveals workers will receive an extra 13 emails a day on average over a three year span, with the trend increasing to a prediction of 140 per day in 2018.  Should this trend be accurate, additions to an average inbox will be one email every three minutes of your “office hours”.

Let’s meet more

On a lighter note, a variation of Murphy’s law for meetings will go something like this: meetings multiply to fill all the available office time, so more meetings and emails arise from those meetings. So, if you schedule an hour and half for a meeting, people will use an hour and a half irrespective of what is on the agenda.

According to a 3M Meeting Network survey of office executives in the US, 25-50% of the time people spend in meetings is wasted. In a Robert Half International survey, 45% of senior managers and executives said that their employees would be more productive if their organisation banned meetings at least one day a week.

The two evils has introduced other options but are not the answer

We have heard of responses to ballooning inboxes as drastic as banning emails and the adoption of “no meeting” days. In looking at both solutions, it seems that although emails are a formidable competitor to meetings, individuals tend to choose email just because the flexibility of attending to emails at all hours of the day allows it to happen at a time of your own choosing.

In an approach combining the two methods of communication, individuals increasingly favour social networking, instant messaging, mobile IM and SMS text messaging. The result has been a barrage of other forms of communication attacking your work day, or even while commuting, in the grocery store, or at the football (outside working hours, of course). However, when this occurs also during the work day, Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found that office workers are interrupted roughly every three minutes and once interrupted, they lose focus on the task in hand and it can take 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task. Clearly, these means of communication can be effective, but equally as dangerous as email and meetings if used improperly.

The optimal solution is a balance

According the Harvard Business Review, “Email handled well reduces meetings. And meetings handled well reduces emails.”

While intuitively one would agree with this statement, we could not find empirical evidence to validate it. There has, however, been plenty of research indicating that approximately 7% of information communicated in person is verbal (the actual words that could be conveyed in an email) whilst the remaining 93% are contextual elements like non-verbal cues, tone of voice, context, and feedback. While this has been disputed as an overall generalisation and perhaps a misinterpretation of the research, all debates have supported that the vast majority of non-verbal communication far outweighs the verbal. In other words, it is highly likely that the reader does not understand fully the intent of the email and results in additional emails to clarify or, even worse, spread the wrong message throughout the company.

The above information leads one to validate the linkage between meetings and emails and to understand that meetings have their place for effective communication, dissemination of ideas and better decision making. Thus meetings should also be used appropriately and an understanding of the limitations is paramount.

According to University of Minnesota researcher and psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues, our cognitive capacities (aka “executive” resources) are limited. Once they are depleted, we are unable to concentrate and focus on the subject matter, analyse the issues and understand the root causes or comprehend the overall perspective. Hence, we start making bad decisions or select sub-optimal choices.

Next Steps

Meetings, emails and other forms of communication have their place within the company and can be effective, but can have a profound downside if used improperly. The evidence is overwhelming and alarming. If you believe your organisation has an issue in this area, the first step is to understand the root causes (what is working well, what should be done differently) which should be accompanied with clear protocols, as well as recognising the limitations.

If your inbox overflows, review the quality of the emails. Is it possible they are often written in a hurry and in shorthand that usually does not articulate the clarity of the direction, so there is a good chance the action will not be fully understood and multiply? Surprisingly, you might find a meeting is more efficient.

If meetings within your organisation are considered poor, what types of meetings are you referencing? We once reviewed the effectiveness of an organisation that had meetings for decision making which always consisted of 20+ participants. Many would have considered this approach doomed from the start, as the ideal size would be six to nine. Given buy-in was a consideration, the improvement was to have a meeting of the ideal size and then distribute the options and rationale for the decision to the larger group via email. The result was a more effective approach, with surprising outcomes for the organisation as to how much more they were able to achieve: less meeting time and the 20+ participants no longer received the side bar emails and IMs. Better yet, they all agreed they were better at decision making overall.

Somehow we have lost the notion that meetings and technological advances in communications should help with your work, rather than being a hindrance. We need technology to become our servant not our master. It’s time to become serious about this issue — the upcoming trends in meetings, emails and other communication means it will only become worse unless you choose your destiny.

Erick Fibich and Vinay Goswami work for Potomac Asia Pacific, a firm that specialises in organisational performance, with a core focus on meeting efficiency and effectiveness for boards, management, and projects. Questions are welcome and can be emailed at [email protected]

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