Kill off email to boost productivity

MAHESH SHARMA
Last updated 05:00, April 12 2014
OVERLOAD: Email has become abused. It's causing a lack of productivity, according to Cisco's Peter Hughes.
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OVERLOAD: Email has become abused. It's causing a lack of productivity, according to Cisco's Peter Hughes.

Employees' reliance on email as the primary mode of communication is hurting business productivity, according to an executive at one of the world's biggest technology companies, Cisco.

Peter Hughes, Cisco's director collaboration, has banned his staff from using the decades-old technology - modelled on the timeless letter - to broadcast messages to a group of colleagues. He's even introduced a system of fines to drag them away from it. It's called the "Hughsey email tax" and while not a corporate policy, he says it has reduced broadcast emails among his team by 95 per cent in a year.

"Email has become abused. It's causing a lack of productivity. The email thread [or] chain can go viral through an organisation but there are people don't need to be on the list," Hughes said.

He offers web conferencing and online collaboration - both markets addressed by Cisco products - as more productive alternatives.

In a bitter twist of irony, he fined one employee $100 for sending out a group email containing a link to a newspaper article that referenced comments he made Thursday at a the Future of Work conference in Melbourne. The money raised goes to a charity of his choice.

"He was fined $50 for sending out the original email and was fined another $50 when I forced him to 'reply all' and apologise to all the members in the team."

Reading and answering emails constitutes 28 per cent of an employee's weekly work tasks, according to a 2012 report from consulting firm McKinsey.

The firm argued that using social technologies, such as wikis and workplace collaboration tools, instead of email could improve productivity by up to 30 per cent. This improvement would come primarily from having a searchable repository of social messages, so people wouldn't have to send emails asking questions that have already been answered.

The report found that communications were shifting from email and instant messaging to social technologies around the time when some companies began setting rules to curb email and 24-hour connectivity.

In 2011, Thierry Breton, CEO of French company Atos, declared his intention to eradicate email use amongst the 78,500 staff. 

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While it appeared to have missed its December 2013 deadline to eliminate email, the company said the program is having a significant impact. Having developed its own internal collaboration tools, the new order is being evangelised internally by early-adopters, dubbed "Zero Heroes."

And French labour unions have secured an agreement that ensures the "always connected" modern, digital lifestyle doesn't infringe on 300,000 tech sector workers' rights to the country's famous 35-hour work week. 

Cisco's Hughes said there's no one-size-fits-all policy. While there are new tools such as video-conferencing and smartphone apps, technology represents only one-third of the overall problem.

"It's not constrained to technology. It's also about people and process."

"Companies need to have a 'human policy' of switching things off," Hughes said. "The policy must be driven from the top."

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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