Yesterday's NYTimes featured an article addressing the steps that some of the biggest technology firms, including Microsoft, Intel, Google, and I.B.M., are taking to stanch the overwhelming flood of email. Last week they formed a nonprofit group to study the problem, publicize it and devise ways to help workers — theirs and others — cope with the digital deluge.
And why are they taking this step?
Their effort comes as statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.
The big chip maker Intel found in an eight-month internal study that some employees who were encouraged to limit digital interruptions said they were more productive and creative as a result.
The article mentions a variety of approaches that the companies (and departments within the companies) have taken. An engineer at Google, for example, has created "E-Mail Addict," an experimental feature for the company’s e-mail service that lets people cut themselves off from their in-boxes for 15 minutes. And as I've mentioned before, there have been efforts at creating email-free Fridays and quiet (email- and interruption-free) working hours.
Intel ran an experiment in which a team of engineers had four hours on Tuesday mornings when they were encouraged to limit both digital and in-person contact.
In a survey, nearly three-quarters of participants said the quiet time routine should be extended to the rest of the company.
“It’s huge. We were expecting less,” said Nathan Zeldes, an Intel engineer who led the experiments and who for a decade has been studying the impact of technology on productivity. “When people are uninterrupted, they can sit back and design chips and really think.”
I'm quite sure there's no silver bullet solution. However, I'm equally certain that something has to change. The fact is that the deluge of email has created an untenable situation in which people aren't accomplishing what they -- and their organizations want.
Ultimately, people within companies must start a conversation -- with each other, and with their superiors -- about service level agreements. How should conversations be conducted? How quickly are people expected to respond? How should truly urgent issues be communicated?
We have an amazingly powerful tool called email. Yet we haven't yet figured out how to harness its capabilities. As a result, it slows down our ability to do the very work that it was supposed to expedite. We spend the majority of our time dealing with email, rather than dealing with our actual work. Until we have this conversation about how to utilize the technology, we run the risk of, to quote Thoreau, becoming the tool of our tools.