Banning e-mail

John Caudwell, president of Phones 4U says he banned inter-office e-mail from his company and reaped an immediate productivity increase of three hours per day per employee. If we accept this claim at face value, we’re forced to ask whether every organization should follow his lead.

The short, and short-sighted, answer is, “Of course we should.” The problem with initiating an automatic ban based on his results is that Caudwell’s company isn’t your company, and therefore his solutions are not necessarily your solutions.

We should assume Caudwell did not impose the ban on a whim. He likely examined employees’ usage of e-mail and decided they could better spend their time answering the phones. Without meaning to sound trite, e-mail didn’t kill productivity – his people did.

The banning of internal e-mail is a valid solution if, and only if, the use of e-mail is causing a problem. The dozen queries I’ve received in the past few weeks asking, “Should we ban e-mail?” ignore this unsubtle point.

The timing of this e-mail banning discussion is perfect. Many organizations are currently sniffing around Instant Messaging (IM). What better time to ask “Why should we?”

IM is a growing hot topic. In the UK, Small Message Services (SMS) recently generated more than 30 million messages nationwide in a single day. Whether we like it or not, IM will undergo the same growth pattern, especially if the telecoms convince us that IM is the next silver bullet for productivity problems. The telecom strategy is to suggest that IM increases productivity by allowing us to contact anyone, anywhere, anytime.

What a wonderful and desirable thing! Busy, and hence very important people need information now. Just call out to the nearest assistant and get our informational needs filled immediately. There is no argument. If we can reduce the time between informational need and gratification, then we have become more efficient and productive.

I have a very different perspective on IM. Interruptions significantly reduce our effectiveness, productivity levels and, perhaps most importantly, the quality of our work. If we are rational, logical human beings, we must assume this is true for everyone else.

There is also a question about the quality of messages. How much of our daily e-mail is non-work-related? How many mimic nothing more than the childhood pastime of “passing notes” in school? Is there anything to suggest we will IM differently? Will it degenerate into the communication of sports scores, who got voted off the island, and jokes?

Trying to hold it back is a pointless exercise. IM will edge its way into our organizations, simply because it’s new and fashionable. So what, if anything, can we do to minimize the negative and maximize the positive benefits?

Plan ahead. Create usage standards before we find ourselves surrounded by a white noise with zero content. Define in advance the types of messages we’ll send on IM. Set reasonable guidelines on when we can send messages. What is a “timely” response? Must we respond immediately, regardless of who we are speaking with at the time the machine chirps?

Preliminary guidelines, created during pilot projects, might help us avoid operating under the belief that the beeping machine (“expletive deleted” coincidental, but probably appropriate) is more important than the person attached to the hand we were warmly shaking.

We will inevitably embrace IM. The irony is that we complain people resist change, but when we should resist change, we don’t.

de Jager is a keynote speaker and consultant on the rational assimilation of technology. Contact him at