Managing email communications: Winning the battle … losing the war?

many emailsHere’s a statistic that won’t come as a big surprise to many office workers … but it still looks pretty stark when you see it on the page:  According to research by McKinsey Global Institute, knowledge workers, including managers and professionals, spend nearly 30% of their work time managing e-mail communications.

This means that for a typical 50-hour work week, a total of 15 hours are sucked up in the e-mail vortex.

It’s nothing new, of course.  And for years, companies and individuals have been making efforts in big and small ways to manage their e-mail.

One method has been through the use of IM social collaboration platforms, but that solves only some of the problem.

Other methods include aggressive pruning of spam mail … sending unsubscribe notices … and tightening incoming mail filters.

e-mail inboxBeing more aggressive with e-mail unsubscribe requests can lighten the inbox, but other pruning efforts can sometimes be counterproductive, with “good” e-mails getting sent to junk e-mail folders, thereby requiring workers to scan those inboxes every day as well.

Another popular e-mail management technique can work at cross-purposes, too.  Research by Carnegie Mellon Institute has found that about a third of office workers file their e-mail messages into folders right after they’ve been read.

But according to Alex Moore, who heads up e-mail management service Baydin, Inc. creating files associated with different clients, projects or people turns out to have its own inefficiencies when searching for e-mail messages later.

It seems counterintuitive, but searching for older e-mail correspondence is often easier to do when using a single chronological file coupled with a search function, because it’s just one search instead of potentially many.

inbox managementSpeaking as someone who receives around 200 e-mail messages each business day, give or take, I find that the following strategies work best for me:

  • Unsubscribing – as best as possible (even with the shortcomings of attempting to do so)
  • Keeping my settings so that e-mail messages download every 20 minutes instead of right away
  • Aside from important client messages, “batch-processing” e-mails just four times each business day: early morning, late morning, mid-afternoon, and end-of-day

Adopting these practices makes it easier for me to concentrate on my other work tasks, keeping those Job 1 and relegating e-mail management to being “ornaments on the tree” rather than the tree itself.

If other readers use particular e-mail management techniques and tactics that are effective for them, let’s hear about them.  Please share your thoughts below.

Personality and Productivity in the Workplace: When Grumpy is Good

NoWhen it comes to which characteristics people consider the most important for being successful in the working world, we hear same traits cited so often, it becomes like a litany.

A recent survey of ~500 business managers in the communications and technology fields, conducted by digital education company Hyper Island, confirms it yet again.

When the survey respondents were asked to identify which traits were most important, here were their top answers:

  • A winning personality (e.g., creative, open-minded, positive):  ~78% identified as among the most desirable traits.
  •  Cultural alignment (making decisions that reflect the values shared with their organization):  ~53% identified as among the most desirable traits.
  •  The skill-sets of the worker:  Only ~39% identified this as the most important trait.

Regarding skill-sets, it seems that despite the inexorable increase in technical expertise and acumen required of workers in nearly every business discipline, many people continue to believe that personality, attitude and a team mentality trump capabilities and expertise.

In other words, it’s the notion that it’s easier to educate someone with a positive attitude than it is to work with someone who really knows his or her stuff, but has a bad attitude, is a wet dishrag, or whatever.

unhelpful employeeWell, hold that thought.  Because now we have new research from analysts at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois which is giving us another angle to consider.

In their studies, these researchers have found that workers with “net-negative” personality traits appear to be more efficient in their jobs than those who possess “net-positive” personalities.

What’s going on?

To come to this conclusion, the university researchers had their study participants meticulously document all of their activities over a prescribed period of time, along with completing a survey that measured attitudes about their jobs, their workplace and their colleagues.

As it turns out, it’s not that one group puts in more time than the other at the office.  It’s that workers with “sunnier” dispositions are more open to performing tasks that may be outside of their comfort zone.

They’re more inclined to “have a go” at different activities, because they’re naturally more curious … and more willing to step in and support the larger work team.

… Especially if their boss requests it.

By contrast, grumpier employees are less open to novelty … more suspicious of taking on other tasks … and more likely to put up subtle (or not-so-subtle) psychological barriers when it comes to being approachable about taking on those tasks.

By their behavior and body language, they may often be successful in dissuading their superiors from even asking them to take on new and different job tasks.

And if they’re asked, they’re less likely to acquiesce.

As a result, these employees tend to spend more time on a fewer variety of tasks – the ones they already know.  Which, in turn, makes them more likely to further hone their skills in those areas.

I don’t think these new findings challenge the underlying idea that employees with a positive attitude are a strong asset to companies.

But perhaps a smidgeon more credit may be due to the employees who are on the other end of the scale.  When you find them sitting alone in the break room, or avoiding gathering around the water cooler, they may be investing more amount of time in their work tasks — and developing a higher level of skill as a result.

I guess every cloud has a silver lining …

Is it time to change daylight savings time – and time zones – once and for all?

changing the timeEach time we Americans need to change our clocks, it’s accompanied by an undercurrent of grumbling about how disruptive it can be to our daily routines.

Indeed, in certain states that are in close physical proximity to time zone boundaries, the issue can be controversial enough to affect the popularity of elected officials, as has happened in Indiana and Arizona.

Daylight savings time, an innovation that became popular in the 1970s, continues to be a nettlesome issue because of when it is in effect in the United States – nearly a month earlier and a month later than before … and no longer in sync with other countries (if they even observe DST — and many of them don’t).

Daylight savings time is supposed to be more energy-efficient.  But it turns out the energy savings are minimal if any.  Uncoordinated time changes could very well undermine economic efficiency far more than any positive impact in energy savings.

A case in point:  Lack of synchronization with European time changes is estimated to cost the airline industry nearly $150 million in travel disruptions each year.

Moreover, some investigations have found that daylight savings time may actually cause worker productivity to be lower.

Does the current time zone structure have to be cast in stone?  Of course not.  The history of “time” is actually one of pretty constant change, dating all the way back to when time zones were first implemented in the 1880s.

Before then, each city and town had its own local time which was established by calculating the solar time in the local location using sundials.  Effectively, this meant that there were more than 300 different time zones in the U.S.A.

The American railroads were more streamlined:  They operated with only about 100 time zones.

Clearly, introducing four time zones for the continental U.S. was a way to introduce simplicity while compromising only a little regarding human biorhythms.

Of course, it took awhile for the time zone system to be adopted worldwide, but eventually it happened.

The economic and commercial landscape looks far different today than in the late 19th Century.  We are no longer bound by the physical limitations of geography in terms of how we do business.

As a result, some economists are suggesting that it’s time to overhaul the time zone structure and to move to a system that is even simpler and less disruptive to people’s lives.

One economist, Allison Schrager, has come up with the most radical solution I’ve seen yet.  Drawing from economic models plus her own experiences working across multiple time zones, Dr. Schrager has put forward the following recommendations:

  • Scrap daylight savings time altogether
  • Consolidate and reduce the four current continental U.S. time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific) to just two (Eastern, Western)

Under the Schrager scenario, the new time zone map for the continental United States would look like this:

simplified time zone mapDr. Schrager points out that, while a fewer number of larger time zone geographies would seem to remove some people further from their “true” time zone, the realities of global commerce are already doing that anyway.

By contrast, she sees the benefits as more major.  For example, frequent travel between time zones under today’s four zones causes jet lag, robbing employees of productive work time.

With just a one-hour time difference between New York and California, bi-coastal travel would become almost effortless in that regard, Schrager maintains.

As for the disruption such a change might cause to international business coordination, Dr. Schrager contends that just as it took one or two countries to start things off in the 1880s, someone needs to step up to the plate today to start a new trend.

She says:  “… America won’t line up with the time zones of countries directly north and south unless this catches on as a global trend.  But the discontinuity ship already sailed when rich Western countries haphazardly adopted daylight savings time and most other countries didn’t.  Time is already arbitrary; why not make it work in our favor?”

Does Dr. Schrager raise some good points?  Would simplifying the time zone map and ditching daylight savings time be a “net positive” or not?

Some of her arguments seem to make sense to me.  What do you think?  Please share your thoughts with other readers if you’re so inclined.

The 24/7 Work Week

The 24/7 work weekIf you’re thinking that work demands are increasingly encroaching on your life at home … you’re not alone.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in survey results released earlier this summer, more Americans are using their weekends to get more done on the job. The results came from a survey that involved interviews with ~13,200 people over the age of 15.

Non-self-employed persons in office or administrative positions are less likely to be working on weekends. Only 20% of those folks report doing weekend work, compared to ~82% of them working on weekdays either full- or part-time.

But on a typical working day, nearly one in four employed Americans reported that they do at least some of their work at home. Not surprisingly, self-employed people are likely to do so, but those working in business management are more likely to do so as well.

The BLS reports that employed men spend, on average, 8 hours and 9 minutes per day on work or work-related activities. That’s a bit more time than employed women spend on work-related activities (their daily average was 7 hours and 26 minutes).

However, the trajectory appears to be upward for women and downward for men … so it may not be long before any difference between the genders completely disappears.

And for those people who work more than one job … that’s where weekends have lost most of their meaning as a time for R&R, because fully half of the people with multiple jobs find themselves working weekends.

As things evolve, it’s becoming pretty clear that the “Protestant Work Ethic” for which our society is so well known remains pretty robust, 200+ years on.

It reminds me of how a teacher of Russian History explained things to us students in class at Vanderbilt University back in my college years. Speaking of Southern Europe, this professor claimed, “People work to live” … whereas in Northern Europe, “They live to work.”

For some folks, as their working years grind on, they might be thinking that the whole enterprise has become a little sucky. But hopefully, most of us are performing tasks we like or love, so that it doesn’t seem quite so much like “work” … or apply whatever other coping mechanism does the trick!

How “social” should your office environment be?

In the early years of the Internet, companies worried about the loss of productivity if employees were tempted to surf online in amongst their work duties. There was also the issue of the “appropriateness” of the web content being viewed. In response, various web tracking capabilities were introduced that enable companies to monitor online activities on networked computers.

On the other hand, as the Internet became all-pervasive in daily life, many companies also adopted a policy of allowing a modest amount of web surfing during work breaks to allow employees to conduct personal business such as shopping and bill-paying.

Now, with the rise of social media, the whole issue has been brought to the fore once again. The proliferation of Facebook accounts in particular has resulted in a new spike of personal online activities at work. A recent study by Nucleus Research bears it out. Based on study findings, Nucleus deduces that companies allowing employee access to Facebook lose an average of 1.5% in total employee productivity. And in an era of cutthroat competition globally, 1.5% of productivity is no slouch amount.

To reach this conclusion, Nucleus Research found that slightly more than three-fourths of the employees surveyed have a Facebook account. Of those who do, nearly two-thirds admitted to accessing their account during working hours.

The average amount of time spent per day on Facebook on office time is about 15 minutes – although the study uncovered a few employees who spent upwards of two hours daily during work hours. (Shame on those employees … but shame on their employers, too, for being so utterly clueless about those employees’ behavior!)

Of course, some people’s activities on Facebook have a business purpose, don’t they? Well … it is true that some employees manage “fan” pages for their company as an adjunct of their personal Facebook account. But that shouldn’t represent more than a small portion of any firm’s workers – perhaps those in the marketing, sales, HR or shareholder relations departments.

And the Nucleus Research study findings reflect this as well, because nearly 90% of the respondents who access Facebook at work could not articulate a business justification for doing so.

Perhaps the study’s most surprising finding was the ~5% of respondents who never access Facebook anywhere but at work. What this may mean is that they built their entire Facebook profile on work-time as well. Chalk up some more wasted hours!

The Nucleus Research findings demonstrate that as time progresses and various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter become even more pervasive communications tools for people at all levels in the organization, the old guidelines for balancing work and personal life must continue to evolve.

The kneejerk reaction is to simply block access to Facebook on all office computers. But there will always be some employees who have a legitimate business reason to be on Facebook. And then there are the the ever-growing ranks of telecommuters working offsite, who surely have access to alternate laptops or PDAs even if their company-issued equipment blocks access.

As is usually the case with situations like this, the easiest fix is sometimes not the best one. And at the end of the day, “big brotherism” could reduce employee morale even further — hardly the result one would hope for in the current difficult business climate where “improving company morale” is far more just an abstract concept in an HR textbook.