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Putting the Kibosh on Internal Spam

The latest source of unwanted e-mail in the workplace is coming from an unlikely corner – inside the business. Here's how to deal with so-called "internal spam."
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These days, not even the pros are immune from getting too much internal e-mail. Just ask the San Diego Padres.

'I was getting 100-150 internal e-mails a day,' recalls Richard Andersen, executive vice president of the San Diego Padres and general manager of Petco Park, the 42,000-seat stadium that the major-league ball club calls home. 'It was taking me hours, and, in many cases, it was a lot of time spent on less important tasks.'

Then Andersen heard a presentation by Vicki Halsey, co-author of The Hamster Revolution, a book about e-mail management, and a leadership trainer with The Ken Blanchard Companies.  He read Halsey's book, which compares responding to endless e-mails to a hamster forever spinning on its wheel, and started taking its advice. He bought copies of the book for his 100-odd full-time employees who use e-mail.

The results have been dramatic. 'I'd say I've gotten 20-30 percent of my time back,' says Andersen. 'And I'd say the people in my department have gotten about 10-15 percent of their time back.'

Unwanted internal e-mail

So-called "internal spam," is unwanted e-mail generated not over the Internet, but by your colleagues in the office. It's unnecessary 'reply all' messages, chit-chat, misguided FYIs, chain letters, jokes, or those you-just-have-to-see-this links to YouTube.

Because there's no spam filter for internal postings, the result is a major time-management problem for American businesses. According to 20,000 U.S. businesses surveyed by Guilford, Conn.-based Cohesive Knowledge Solutions, an e-mail training firm, more than 40 percent of the average workers' day is spent managing e-mail. Of that, between 20 percent and 30 percent is unnecessary. The company estimates that U.S. firms are losing some $300 billion annually in lost productivity and profits to e-mail overuse.

'We're talking 40 percent of the day spent on this,' notes Mike Song, CEO of Cohesive Knowledge Solutions and one of Halsey's co-authors. 'This is time taken away from other endeavors, time that affects the work-life balance,' he says. In addition, sexually or politically inappropriate e-mails can endanger jobs and even result in lawsuits against the sender, Song warns.

How to curtail internal spam

Experts like Song and Matt Cain, vice president and lead email analyst at Stamford, Conn.- based Gartner, recommend in-house training to help companies use e-mail more efficiently. 'People need to learn to write better subject lines, let their readers know when action is required, and when it's just an FYI,' says Cain.

But they also offer the following tips:

  • Develop a standard. Song recommends setting some ground rules in your office for what constitutes proper use of e-mail. For starters, tell employees that chain letters, amusing photos, or website links are not welcome in the office.
  • Nix 'FYI lite' messages. Most 'FYI' messages are probably irrelevant to most of the office. 'Raise the bar in your office so that only timely, relevant messages get sent,' says Song.
  • Skip 'reply all.' Gone are the days when employees want to be in the loop on every e-mail, says Song. In most cases, reply only to the sender. 'We had one client who removed the 'reply all' key from their computers, and e-mails fell by 50-60 percent in that office,' notes Song.
  • Use 'no reply needed' or 'NRN' in the subject field. This will help cut down on those 'thank you/you're welcome' e-mails that gum up your in-box.
  • Be concise in the subject field.  Start the line with terms like 'Action:' 'Request:' ‘Confirm:' or 'Delivery:' to tell your reader what's to follow, and what you expect from them.
  • Is it appropriate? Think before you send that e-mail skewering a co-worker's performance, admiring a short skirt, or poking fun at the big boss. If you wouldn't want it appearing on the front page of the local paper, or in the CEO's e-mail queue, hit that 'cancel' button.
  • Write tighter e-mails.  While easier said than done, try to use short sentences and paragraphs in the body. Use bullet points to save the reader time. Consider offering employees professional training.
  • Consider e-mail alternatives. For some offices, blogs or collaborative wiki pages may be better places to have a conversation than a group e-mail thread, says Gartner's Cain.

And sometimes, picking up the phone or walking across the office to talk to a co-worker can save time, too, says Song. 'E-mail isn't always the best form of communication,' he notes.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2007




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