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E-GOV SUPPLEMENT - E-MAILSTROM

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Are the nation's workers really drowning under a flood of e-mail, or do they just need to pull themselves together,...
Are the nation's workers really drowning under a flood of e-mail, or do they just need to pull themselves together, Chris Mahony asks?

It is, it seems, a narrow line between boon and bane. The arrival of e-mail in the mid-1990s held out the promise of streamlining communications among the white collar workforce.

Now, we are warned, it is hastening us all towards burnout.

If revolutions consume their own children it seems the e-revolution consumes its own workforce by burying us beneath a mountain of e-mails.

Or at least so a recent survey claims. But there is a health warning around this survey - it was carried out by a company which earns its keep by training workers in the 'effective' use of e-mails.

Their survey of staff in six English councils showed 'that e-mail can cause as much bureaucracy, stress and time management problems as it is supposed to solve'.

Six out of every 10 members of staff agreed that 'e-mail was controlling their day' and the same proportion felt stressed by the sheer volume of messages. A quarter claimed e-mail-generated stress was a frequent visitor.

Just about everybody, 97%, said they received e-mails that simply waste their time, half reporting this as a frequent occurrence.

'Our experience shows these problems are common with individual employees across the public and private sectors, but when taken on the large organisational and administrative scales of many local authorities, they can have a major impact on efficiency and budgets,' suggests Bob Hallewell, TeamIT Training's director.

The survey covered participants in the company's 90-minute effective e-mail management seminar. Two weeks after the training the employees reported a 12% drop in the number of e-mails received and a 46% drop in the number of times people checked their e-mails - all of which added up to a 25% fall in the amount of time they spent using and managing e-mails.

That latter figure translates to 20 minutes a day per member of staff - resulting in savings of £ ;1.4m a year in staff time for the average council, the company claims.

One of the big problems, he suggests, is the insistent, demanding aura allegedly triggered by an e-mail.

'If people are plugged into e-mail all the time then it is a constant source of interruption. The perceived demand that an e-mail makes means people feel they should respond pretty quickly.'

One fairly obvious solution is to turn off the e-mail alert beep, a point Mr Hallewell agrees is made in the seminar.

But surely any office worker born before 1975 can remember that at times we used to be annoyed or even 'stressed' by the seemingly constant shrill of the telephone.

Mr Hallewell claims we use e-mail differently to the telephone - ie more.

'People send more e-mails than they used to make telephone calls. Very often if people send e-mails they will copy people in. People think they are keeping colleagues informed and it is a matter of courtesy. There is also some back-covering going on though which is part ofthe organisational culture. Sometimes that can be acceptable when it is a summary of what has been agreed in a discussion, but it can also get into 'just for the record' or letting 25 people know how busy I have been.'

Hard-nosed cynics out there might be thinking either that this is a company over-egging the pudding to boost sales or that staff feeling stressed by having to delete a few worthless e-mails should just get a grip.

But personnel experts agree it is an issue for large organisations.

Diane Sinclair, adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, says: 'Managers and employees do send e-mails where the message would be more effectively delivered face-to-face. The problem is that e-mail is used where a different form of communication would be appropriate.'

She suggests that in many jobs it would be a good idea for staff to set aside specific times to deal with their e-mails and forget about them at other times.

'People should manage their e-mails in the same way they manag e other aspects of their jobs. It is an effective and quick form of communication, but people are communicating things that do not need to be communicated, so staff feel snowed under.'

However, she cautions there is no off-the-peg solution in terms of policy.

'Each organisation has to determine for itself the most appropriate response. There are many organisation and a one-size-fits-all policy will not be appropriate to different circumstances.'

At least one council - Liverpool City Council - has gone for its own purpose-built solution, declaring Wednesdays e-mail-free days since last summer.

Early evidence suggested it worked - a 70% fall in

e-mails on Wednesdays with no particular rise on Tuesdays or Thursdays to offset the Wednesday restraint.

But Mr Hallewell cautions: 'I know of organisations who have implemented that internally and it has lapsed. People set out with good intentions, but we are dealing with a strong attraction to the medium and in terms of the 2005 e-government targets what does that mean for the electors and the city of Liverpool?'

It is safe to say that it should have no impact as the initiative is aimed at internal e-mails only.

But even Liverpool may not yet have evidence that it has steered e-mail back over the line from bane to boon for its staff.

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