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Going on an e-mail diet

A CIO is waging a campaign to cut office e-mail traffic by 25%.

By Mary K. Pratt
August 10, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - CIO Tony Murabito surveys workers at his company every year, asking them about their experiences and expectations regarding the IT systems they use. The responses usually focus on technical issues, which is why last year's comments about e-mail shocked him.

"Let's blow up the Reply-to-All key!"

"Why can't people get to the *&!% point!"

"I am in the field all day selling and come home to 60 to 80 e-mails."

"There was just an overwhelming sense that there were no controls [on e-mail] in place," Murabito says.

CIOs are in the business of delivering technology, not curtailing its use. But after seeing those comments, Murabito decided to do just that. His goal for his company, Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Lexington, Mass., is to cut the number of e-mails by 25% by training employees how to better use one of the basic tools of the modern office.

This e-mail problem isn't unique to Cubist, says Dianna Booher, CEO of Booher Consultants Inc. in Grapevine, Texas, and author of E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication. "I hear a lot of complaining, and there's not a lot of people doing something about it," she says. "But I think people will have to do something, because it's blocking productivity."

E-mail Regimen

Hoping to cut both the volume of e-mail and the amount of time workers spend on it, Cubist Pharmaceuticals is doing the following:
  • Asking employees to put non-business-related messages, such as appeals to buy Girl Scout cookies, on the corporate intranet.
  • Limiting the ability to send messages to all employees to only those people who have a business need to do so.
  • Training workers to use the subject line to provide more detail and some direction, such as "for your action" or "for your information."
  • Reminding employees that they don't need to acknowledge every e-mail that they were cc'd on.
  • Encouraging people to stop sending e-mails that simply say something like "Thanks!"
  • Adopting the ABC format for e-mails: action, background and close.
  • Increasing the interval at which the system refreshes in-boxes from every two minutes to every half-hour, so people don't feel the need to constantly break away from their work to check their mail.
  • Routing certain e-mails, such as Google news alerts, to folders other than the in-box, so workers can check them when they have time rather than every time they appear.

Booher's surveys of clients have shown that 58% of workers spend up to three hours a day on e-mail. Though some of that e-mail time is undoubtedly related to getting their jobs done, she says, much of it is a waste because messages are either poorly written or have little or nothing to do with business.

To be clear, this isn't a spam problem. Workers at Cubist are complaining about the excessive amount of business-generated e-mails, Murabito says. They say they trudge through confusing and pointless messages because senders mindlessly hit "Reply to All" just to say something like "Thanks."

"It's a kind of internal spam. It's low-value, low-priority communication that clogs up in-boxes and creates a nonstop stream of interruptions," says Mike Song, lead author of The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You, and CEO of Cohesive Knowledge Solutions Inc., an e-mail and meeting training company in Guilford, Conn.

Song says he's not surprised by the situation, because most employees don't receive any training on how to effectively use e-mail.

Big ROI

Murabito says his research showed that cutting e-mail communications could help each Cubist worker recover an estimated 15 to 20 days of lost productivity annually -- or 7,000 to 9,000 days every year for the whole organization.



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