Communication Overload – Life and Stress in the Email Habitat

too-much-email-02_200_parc (2)Between 2000 and 2006 my colleagues and I at PARC spent a lot of time studying how knowledge workers used email, quickly coming to realize that they essentially “inhabited” it all day long. Email was their information hub and interconnected to-do list, driving daily work and contributing to a sense of information overload.

Since then the evolution of technology has fundamentally changed the knowledge worker’s ecosystem, but email is still the primary habitat. Instead of being surpassed by supposedly superior and more advanced communication and collaboration platforms such as social networks, wikis, cloud-based SaaS tools, and the like, email still acts as the main information circulatory system.

Developments in mobile computing since then only increased the ease with which email can be used to reach someone at any time, in any place. Today, about 120 million people, including most knowledge workers, have smartphones, many of which are used to check email on the go., an email marketing company, determined that mobile email usage overtook web-based email in February of 2012 and desktop email shortly after. While we have many other online outlets that facilitate our working together, email remains the lowest common denominator to collaborate.

A key issue that our research delved into was email overload – the sheer volume of incoming traffic that is so hard to keep up with. Our research, which consisted of in-depth interviews and in-person observations as well as quantitative data collected from email clients, pointed to a more nuanced picture.

Apart from spam and trivia that can simply be deleted, we noticed that there are different kinds of actionable emails. These are specifically those that require fire-and-forget responses that take very little time and thought and those that trigger a sequence of activity before a response can be sent.

The emails contributing the most to overload require both work on the part of the recipient and sending out requests to others for input. These additional threads then must be managed, with the recipient waiting for responses from other overloaded colleagues, sometimes indefinitely, triggering even more emails to prompt a response. Every unfinished task has to be remembered and there can be dozens of these in play at any time, leading to a sense of unease as one starts to lose track. We simply can’t remember it all and we don’t know if we are dropping the ball or letting someone down. As one of our study participants put it, “I scroll up and down my inbox several times a day looking for things I might have forgotten.”

In other research we discovered that the tasks people care about and prioritize most are the ones that are done for or with other people. So it is natural that the complex interdependent and unfinished tasks lurking in our inboxes provoke a sense of anxiety and fear of failure.

Yet there still seems to be no cure for this email overload. The three most prevalent enterprise email clients (Outlook, Gmail, and Yahoo) show few signs of providing an adequate solution. Sadly, the existence of free, just-good-enough email clients has stifled innovation somewhat (who pays for an email client these days?) and despite a few brave start-ups inventing email enhancements or replacements, I predict that we are unlikely to see much change in the foreseeable future.

Here at PARC, we’d like to know your thoughts. Should we innovate new software or change the way we work to improve email overload? Do you have an idea for solving the overload problem?  We invite your comments below.

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