Can Digital Collaboration Solve our Email Overload Problem?

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Email overload costs American business around $1 trillion annually, according to studies.

If you’re like me, you know first-hand about the open secret in business today: email overload is a huge productivity problem. And it’s only getting worse.

But can digital collaboration — tools like Asana, Atlassian, Basecamp, SmartSheet, Podio and others — come to our rescue and save us from email overload?

That’s the question suggested recently by Mercedes De Luca, chief operating officer at Basecamp, the Chicago-based collaboration platform provider, in her recent post, “It’s urgent! (Really?).”

Email Overload — a 1 trillion dollar productivity problem

Just how bad is the email overload problem? Really bad, if you consider just the time many of us spend shackled to our inbox reading email every day.

According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, the average knowledge worker in America spends 13 hours a week just reading and responding to email. (Source: McKinsey Global Institute, “The Social Economy — Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies,” 2012)

What’s worse, according to recent data compiled by SaneBox, a Boston-based software company specializing in solutions for email overload, only 38 percent of the emails in the average inbox contains relevant, important content. That means we spend a majority of our time in email just sorting through the 62 percent of content that’s irrelevant to find the 38 percent that’s useful.

Death by a Thousand Electronic Interruptions

Consider that it takes 64 seconds for us to recover from just one interruption looking at an email, relevant or otherwise, amounting to an enormous source of productivity losses — or big opportunity for productivity gains, depending on how you look at it!

And it gets worse when you consider the amount of precious knowledge that’s lost through the proliferation of email attachments, including multiple, duplicative and redundant versions of documents and spreadsheets that mushroom each time they are shared.

It’s no surprise then how employees spend about 1.8 hours every day — or 9.3 hours every week — about a fifth of one’s work week! — just looking for the right information. (Source: McKinsey Global Institute, “The Social Economy — Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies,” 2012)

That’s as though one in five of every one of us at work is off looking for documents and not creating any value.

But for Digital Collaboration to become a real solution — one that goes to the root of a problem like email overload — we need to consider how it’s more than a technology platform — it’s a mindset.

Digital collaboration represents one of the biggest opportunities for cost savings and increased productivity in the world. Solving the email overload problem alone would increase the bottom line of American business by $900 billion to $1 trillion annually, including cost savings, reduced interruptions from irrelevant emails, and untapped value creation, according to McKinsey’s 2012 report (op cit).

Old Habits Die Hard

The truth is, banning email isn’t going to overcome the email overload problem (see studies by the Grossman Group about why banning email doesn’t work), just like banning ridiculously unnecessary meetings isn’t going to solve the meeting overload problem.

Overcoming email overload will require changes in mindsets; it will mean breaking long-held habits founded upon false assumptions about productivity. (For good insights on this point, see books like Faster Cheaper Better, by Charles Duhigg, and Rework, by Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

It will mean building trust and maintaining security.

Digital collaboration requires cultural changes at work. It means changing norms around work — sharing more knowledge where we can, and hording it less often. It means creating cultures based on transparency and openness, ones where the best employees — the ones who share the most — get promoted. It offers new values of work and new ways workers can become empowered to decide how — and why — they work.

— Perry Brissette

Science Writing for Humans

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