Are You Ready (and Willing) to Ban Email From Your Workplace?

I missed this story last week, and I’m sorry I did because it is one of those shortsighted workplace edicts that drives me nuts.

According to London’s Daily Mail newspaper, a large information technology company has decided to ban all employee emails because the CEO believes that 90 percent of the email his workers get are a waste of time.

I don’t know about you, but I had two reactions to that:

  1. Yes, a lot of emails are a huge waste of time, but;
  2. Unless the rest of the world decides to get rid of emails, the company that bans them puts themselves at a distinct competitive disadvantage to everyone else still using email to communicate and do business.

“Email is no longer the appropriate tool”

Here’s a little more background from the story at Mail online:

One of the largest information technology companies in the world is to ban e-mails – because it says 90 percent of them are a waste of time.

The extraordinary measure was announced by Atos, which employs almost 80,000 people in 42 countries including Britain. It believes that too many of them waste hours dealing with irrelevant e-mails, so wants them phased out within 18 months.

Instead they want people to spend more time talking to each other – either on the phone or in person – and to use tightly controlled ‘real time’ messaging interfaces.

Thierry Breton, Atos’s 56-year-old chief executive officer who is a former French finance minister, said the ‘zero e-mail’ policy could be in place within a year-and-a-half. …

Claiming that only 20 out of every 200 emails received by his staff every day turn out to be important, Mr Breton said: ‘The e-mail is no longer the appropriate tool. It is time to think differently.”

A black-and-while solution

I have problems with this on a number of levels, but here’s the big one: unilateral workplace edicts that are handed down from on high, like God giving Moses the Ten Commandments, fail to recognize very real nuances of people, the workplace, and the business world at large.

When CEOs get on their high horse and demand that everyone stop doing something, it simply injects a black-and-white solution into a shades of grey-colored world.

One of the responses over at The New York Times online Room for Debate” makes this very point. As Luiz Suarez of IBM puts it:

Banning corporate e-mail for good is a blunt and perhaps too harsh of a move. This may seem ironic coming from someone who has been trying to work without e-mail for some time.

We know that e-mail is perhaps not the best of collaborative and open knowledge sharing tools out there. We also know what’s seriously flawed isn’t e-mail per se, as a technology, but rather, how we have abused it over time to get our way in the business world.

Yet, there are some strong reasons for needing e-mail. It is probably one of the best tools out there for private, one-to-one conversations as well as an efficient synching system to your work calendar and schedules. Used in the proper context, it can effectively facilitate workplace communications. … Instead of banning corporate e-mail … we should focus on finding better use for it within today’s complex social and collaborative environments.”

Email gets a bum rap

Or as productivity expert Peggy Duncan puts it so succinctly in her Times‘ post:

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E-mail continues to get a bum rap. But e-mail is not the problem; it’s the company’s e-mail culture that needs to be dissected. If you peel back the onion of e-mail overload to get to its core, you’ll find bad habits, poor etiquette and a lack of training in the software being used. When you deal with these issues, you’ll solve the problem.”

Yes indeed; email DOES get a bum rap, but even if we all agree that it gets overused and overwhelms us with a lot of junk, why resort to a throw-the-baby-out-with the-bathwater solution? Does banning something all of a sudden stop it when the rest of the world hasn’t bought in?

Banning something that is universally used and accepted doesn’t generally work in the organization or area doing the banning. That’s one of the big lessons from Prohibition, as followers of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire undoubtedly know.

A shortsighted solution

Getting employees to spend more time talking to each other is a noble and worthwhile goal. I can see where an executive might get exasperated with the silly back and forth that can take place in emails and want to do something to break the cycle.

But overly broad, shortsighted solutions aren’t the answer either. An outright ban of email not only won’t stick, I bet it will simply drive more people to find ways to get around the ban and do it anyway, and then they’ll be both emailing AND working overtime to get around the ban and cover their tracks. What does that do for workplace productivity?

My experience is that executive edicts like this don’t work, focus employees on the wrong thing, and are generally bad for business. Do you see it any other way?

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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2 Comments on “Are You Ready (and Willing) to Ban Email From Your Workplace?

  1. Hope they have a change management plan for this, because they are going to need it. The risk of miscommunication or indequate communication is real until there are some major behavioral changes with our workforce.

    I agree that email hasn’t been used as effectively as it could be or as it is intended.  Could be because we don’t know when it is best to use email vs. phone vs. in-person communication, etc.  Perhaps we are just lazy.  Perhaps we just do it ‘because we always have done it that way.’

    In any case, whatever happens won’t happen overnight and there will be issues along the way to this company’s transition away from email, but it will be interesting to watch.  And who knows; they might pull it off…

    Kit Stookey
    Practical Matters Consulting
    http://www.practicalmattersconsulting.com

  2. The idea of outright ban on email system is counterproductive. The workers will waste more time on their smartphones, work extra time hence wasting more man hours. Secondly, this company cannot survive in a techno -survvy era without email; it’s a must for them to embrace this technology for them to remain relevant in this generation

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