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Are You Infecting Your Employees With Toxic Email?

A new study shows that those at the top of an organization set the tone when it comes to email and can lead the charge when it comes to cutting down.

Email can feel like a force of nature -- a great flood of messages into your inbox which you are powerless to stop and which sucks up incredible portions of your day.

But if you’re the boss, here’s a newsflash from some eye-opening recent research: email isn’t so much a tsunami as it is a virus, and you’re spreading it. 

Like a sick person who comes in to work sneezing, top managers spread the emailing impulse around the office like a bad bug, according to new research from the University of Glasgow and U.K.-based Modeuro Consulting due out in next month’s Harvard Business Review. The analysis shows that bosses set the tone when it comes to email at a company. If they send a lot, they spread the idea to the employees to send a lot and they end up with an overflowing inbox themselves.

The research team took an in-depth look at the email habits of the executives of London-based company International Power and found that while managers felt they received a ton of email they also sent way more than they realized -- 56 messages a day on average for a total of 1.5 hours a day spent on email.

All that sending proved catching. "Before you know it, you’ll spark a ripple, a flurry of emails across the organization," Modeuro founder Andrew Killick, told the WSJ At Work blog about executives’ email habits.

Don’t Panic, There’s a Cure

Facing up to executive complicity in email overload may be require a certain amount of open-mindedness, but taking a hard look at your own email habits pays big dividends, the researchers found. International Power bosses didn’t just get a scolding for their excessive emailing, they also got help reducing the glut -- an effort that cut emails sent by those at the top by 54% and also had impressive organization-wide benefits. When executives cut down, WSJ blog reports:

The company’s 73 other London-based employees began following suit, even though they hadn’t received specific instructions. Their drop in output was 64%. Ultimately, the company gained 10,400 hours annually, freeing them up to work on bigger, more important projects. Killick said most companies could realize 5% to 30% productivity increases if they cut back on email.

Keen to know exactly how they accomplished this feat? Check out the HBR write up for many more details.

Are you setting a bad email example?

Last updated: Aug 19, 2013


Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

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