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How do people manage email effectively – individual and organisational strategies

In this video professor Marc Jones discusses examples of organisational and individual email-management strategies.
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One of the interesting areas where we got lots of feedback from companies and individuals is around the use of email and other forms of technology to remain in contact with our co-workers and clients and our managers. It has certainly changed work and working practises. I can remember in one of my early jobs I was working in a government office, the Welsh Office in Cardiff, and that was before the internet, and we had our own computer, and I only ever got disturbed twice a day in terms of receiving information, which is when we’d get the post, which included internal and external mail in the morning and once in the afternoon.
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So there was only ever twice during the day when I would receive information. Of course, people could ring me but that happened a bit less, a bit less frequently. Now is different. We get contacted through lots of different media, lots of different formats in a very consistent and indeed constant way. And the way we manage and deal with our email, as well as other form of electronic communication is, I think quite interesting. I just like to briefly cover some strategies that people have used at an organisational and national level as well as at an individual level.
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But I think actually this is one of those topics were we would really be interested to know what works for you personally, but also what works for you in your own organisation. So let’s consider organisational settings to start with. You may be familiar with the idea that companies like Volkswagen and Daimler, will actually prevent individuals receiving emails when they’re away on holiday. So if I were to email someone in Daimler, I would get a note back saying that I’m on vacation, cannot read your email, your email is being deleted.
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So they are there for you to pick up after after you come back, they have got rid off, and if I want to contact that person, I will resend it when that person comes back. Organisations can also do what they call batching email so that the organisation, the organisation can on a central server store those emails, but only send them out at certain points during the day, very much in the same way that I would receive post twice a day when I worked at the Welsh Office, the emails would only arrive at certain points during the day. People can also look towards countries and see what people have done in terms of national legislation.
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And perhaps the most famous and most notable example is the example of France who have suggested that individuals should not be penalised for not accessing their e-mails out of normal work hours. And in fact, the MP, Benoit Hamon used the often quoted phrase that e-mails are a kind of electronic leash. So employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work, they remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog. So emotive language, but I think the idea of emails or being connected to work constantly through our phones or our laptops, is something that probably strikes a chord with many.
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Intensive individual strategies that are different apps that we can use there is a link to an article by the economist Dan Ariely who looks at the Shortwhale app. If I were to email someone, I have to indicate whether it needs an immediate response or whether it what of type of response it wants, the onus is on the person sending the email to actually complete a little form out before the email gets sent to that person. And that’s actually quite interesting because one of the powers of email, the power of email lies with the sender. I can send something to you, it is off my desk and the work is onto your desk.
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People can use email signatures to indicate when they’re likely to respond and whether they are not likely to respond during outside of working hours. We talked about the idea that organisations can batch email, but of course, as individuals, we can do that as well. We can choose to open our email at certain points during the day and only deal with our email at certain points during the day. There’s some interesting research that we’ve covered elsewhere, that says that might be for some an effective strategy. I think when I say for some, there’s always differences in how individuals respond to many of these changes we’re seeing in work and working practises.
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And I think one of the challenges for some people who might have a certain personality type, if you think to the big five personality type who might be highly agreeable, highly conscientious, but higher neuroticism. They may very well find it difficult to, to manage their email account, they can’t say no but they can’t stop working and they have a high level of anxiety as a result of that. One of the drivers I think about email one question we should ask is why do we respond in this way? And I think there’s a couple of psychological explanations for this, one is intermittent reinforcement.
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So if we think about intermittent reinforcement, we see that or intermittent positive reinforcement, we see that things like gambling or fishing. it’s always the next bet that is going to win, its the next cast that is going to get me the fish. And so that type of reinforcement is very strong for reinforcing behaviour. And it’s a bit like email. A lot of what I receive is probably not worth checking my email for. But I always think, oh, the next, the next email might be really interesting or it might be something from a friend or it might be really important, good news, a bit of work.
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So we actually conditioned in a way to respond, and to check our emails because this idea that it might be, because it’s an example of intermittent positive reinforcement. I think the other thing that’s interesting is that we might see are engagement with email to a degree as being an example of dynamic inconsistency. So when I talk about that, idea that actually people value and recognise the importance of leisure time. But also think, or they think they might be able to actually clear their emails at this particular point to have more leisure time in the future. So our ability to make judgments about what’s going on in the future is different to how we see things now.
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So as an example, we always think we have more time in the future, there is a consistent bias to believe that they will have more time in the future they have today. And that we are unusually busy now. But actually the best indication of how busy we are going to be in three weeks time, is how busy we are now. The reason I think this links to email is that actually we think If I just clear my email now, I will have lots of time in the future to do the work that I should be doing now.
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But I tend to put it off because I will clear the email now and then I will make plenty of time in the future to be able to do the work, but actually I am just as busy three weeks down the line as I am now. So there are individual strategies, there are organisational strategies, there are national strategies, that people have used to manage email and to have a positive impact for their stress and their productivity. And we would really be interested to hear about some of the strategies that you find particularly effective.

If you would like to read more about Dan Ariely’s work then the following article in the Atlantic may be of interest: A behavioural economist tries to fix email

We would be very interested to know how you manage email in your work.

What strategies have you used individually, or seen done by other people that you think are effective. We would also be interested in your views on strategies used by organisations.

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