How to Collaborate More Efficiently: Tackling That Mountain of E-Mail

E-mail overload is the leading cause of preventable productivity loss in organizations today. By revealing the top five tactics for moving e-mail communication to more efficient and effective collaboration, Knowledge Center contributor Ross Mayfield provides insight into how to tackle the daunting mountain of e-mails pushing employees to the brink of overload.

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The average number of corporate e-mails sent and received per person is expected to reach over 228 a day by 2010. Businesses lose $650 billion annually in productivity due to unnecessary e-mail interruptions. The problem is fundamental to what otherwise makes this technology great. The problem is largely behavioral, and new practices and technologies are emerging to solve it.

From a user's point of view, e-mail is what you could call a Push medium. Beyond your control, anyone can push an e-mail into your inbox at near-zero cost. By contrast, new Web 2.0 mediums emphasize Pull. You choose who or what you want to subscribe to, pull information to you when you want it, and unsubscribe when you want.

Ideally, we would use Push mediums for directed, private or time-sensitive communication, and use Pull for less formal, more public or less urgent communication. The point is, now there is a choice-so long as you can gain agreement on which to use for what and how to use it.

Commercial e-mail spam filters and virus protection do a reasonable job. What remains is behavioral-not how e-mail works but how we work with it. Roughly 30 percent of e-mail is "occupational spam," characterized by excessive Cc, Reply-to-All and Bcc use-we are stretching e-mail into a broadcast medium.

But there are effective ways to decrease e-mail volume by 30 percent and move this communication from e-mail (best for one-to-one or one-to-few) to collaborative work spaces (designed for one-to-many or many-to-many communication). The following are the top five tactics for moving e-mail communication to efficient and effective collaboration:

Tactic No. 1: Gain agreement on internal e-mail practices

Within your organization, review your current e-mail habits. Consider gaining new agreements on the formality, tone, brevity, distribution, responsiveness and timing of messages. Then, try bold experiments such as "E-mail Free Fridays"-not necessarily because they will work, but for learning what could work and raising awareness of the cost of e-mail.

Or company management might try to help to heighten awareness of work/life balance issues by taking a break themselves from being always on and using mobile e-mail. For example, the CEO, the COO and the Publisher/CRO of one company have created a weekend program experiment they call "Take 48." The three senior leaders of the company have agreed to not send a single e-mail to any member of the team from 6p.m. on Friday to 6p.m. on Sunday. (But there's nothing in the rules saying they can't DO e-mail over the weekend-just that they can't SEND it during the weekend.)