I agree with InformationWeek's Jonathan Feldman: The email onslaught is as fierce as ever and we have only ourselves to blame. I'm just not sure willpower is going to cut it as a solution, for the same reason that most of us will have forgotten our New Year's resolutions by the time Valentine's Day rolls around: We have none.
We can't help it. Email is easy. Email is "free" -- perhaps not for IT budget makers, but certainly in the sense that anyone with Internet access can get a no-cost account with a nice heap of storage in about two minutes. Worst of all: Email makes us feel like we're Getting Things Done.
It's why we send email at night and on weekends: Look at me, I'm Getting Things Done. It conveys a quantifiable sense of importance in the great corporate scheme of things. It's why we brag about how many hundreds or thousands of messages were waiting in our inbox when we return from vacation: Look at how much I was missed. It's a minor miracle this place is still standing.
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If we really want to thin out our inboxes, more severe actions are required. We could go "scorched-earth" and ban internal email altogether. But let's be pragmatic, not drastic. For your consideration: Eight modest proposals for reducing the use, misuse, and downright abuse of email inside businesses and other organizations.
1. Get rid of group emails. Lose the distribution lists, departmental aliases, and company-wide email broadcasts. Make email a one-to-one medium. Use social networks, collaboration platforms, or good old-fashioned intranets for mass communications. If your message must be heard by the masses, Ms. Bigshot, send it individually and let the viral plague of replies -- most of them redundant or pointless -- invade your inbox and yours alone. Better yet, hack the cc: line and "Reply All" button right on out of the interface. Remember our mantra: Save us from ourselves.
2. Slash the supply. Reduce wasteful email by making it a valuable commodity, like oil or gold. Limit employees to a certain number of emails per week -- 15, for example, or 20 if you're feeling generous. Perhaps Jeff from accounting will think twice before sends that message asking everyone in the department to buy his daughter's Girl Scout cookies. Make email an employee benefit, like paid gym memberships. Need more than 15 emails a week to do your job well? Better negotiate that alongside your salary and other compensation, Mr. Rainmaker.
3. Eliminate the excuses. We make much of the massive benefits of mobility. But these devices are a collective pox on our inboxes, adding an incalculable multiplier to the messages we send and receive. And we add insult to this injury with our mobile signatures, those of the "Sent from my iPhone -- please excuse typos" variety. It's time to take a stand: We will not excuse your sloppiness as inevitable. The Grammar Police will judge harshly those 27 emails you fired off just before your plane pulled back from the gate. Think twice before hitting Send.
4. Get up off your tookus. If you sit two desks over from someone, get up and speak to them in person. Give the finger-tapping a rest. Get up, stretch those legs. Most of us could stand to shed a few pounds. (See also: Willpower.) Communicate the necessary information in an actual human conversation. Ban email between any employees who work on the same floor. Achieve further results by adding floors -- or the entire building -- at your discretion.
5. Please, no more manners. Stop being so darned polite. Consider how many emails we'd prevent if we deleted every "thank you" or "you're welcome" or "no problem" from the digital lexicon. The thank-you economy is in hyperinflation mode. By all means, be good to people -- but for the sake of the inbox, do it offline. Even the golden rule applies: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Stop sending so many pleasantries to coworkers; they'll stop doing the same.
6. Cc: the CEO. Indeed, a fundamental problem is the ease with which we can send email. My almost-three-year-old can send one. (It might not make much sense, but then, neither do many of the messages we receive from grown adults.) Let's raise the bar: Automatically copy the CEO on every message. She might not like it at first -- but surely she has an assistant and others who can help. Put the pressure of executive power on every email, and suddenly it doesn't seem so easy.
7. Embrace the email perp wall. Convenience stores post bad checks and Polaroid mugshots of shoplifters behind the cash register. Law enforcement officials make the bad guy do a perp walk past the prying eyes of news cameras and onlookers. So too should email offenders feel the brunt of public judgment. You know the ones: They confuse the corporate email server as their own inner sanctum. Or as their Facebook account, in the parlance of our times. (Example: I once worked at a startup where an employee -- who worked in HR, no less -- sent an all-staff email asking for advice on getting permanent marker out of a dog's fur.) Create a Wall of Shame for wasteful (or downright awful) emails. Put it in the lunchroom or next to the water cooler. If your company is spread across multiple floors, post them in the elevator. Share them on social networks and in staff meetings. Can you believe this email Steve sent? Public embarrassment is a great behavioral modifier.
8. Meter email usage. The fastest, most bankable means of cutting down on email? Charge by the message. If wireless and broadband providers can do it, so can IT. How does $0.25 sound? We could round up to $1 to simplify the math. Better yet, charge a flat percentage of an employee's base salary every time they hit Send. What a great way for cash-strapped IT departments to stretch their budget. Or get the accountants and lawyers involved -- make it a pretax payroll deduction and donate the proceeds to a deserving charity. An interesting exercise: Calculate what your Sent folder would cost you in a given day, week, or month. How many of those emails were worth the money?
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