Brain power

Has research finally uncovered how to conquer work email?

Academic research has focused on narrow aspects of work email use, such as managing interruptions or dealing with incivility. And it often only considers how work email affects well-being or work performance, but seldom both. Emma Russell and Tom Jackson make evidence-based suggestions on how people can manage their work email in a way that improves both work performance and well-being.

More than 50 years ago, Ray Tomlinson sent the first email. By the mid-noughties email had overtaken the telephone as the most common way for people to communicate at work. Today, despite a plethora of alternative communication options emerging, from zoom to Slack and Teams), work email remains top-of-the-pops as the business communication tool most widely used.

Despite email’s longevity and ubiquity, reports of constant connectivity, cyberbullying, and email overload abound. It is arguably one of the great failings of modern working life, that people at work still don’t really know how to manage their work email effectively, given how reliant on it we have become.

Part of the problem is that the academic research to date has tended to focus on very narrow aspects of work email use such as managing interruptions or dealing with incivility. Studies often only consider how work email impacts well-being or work performance, but seldom both. Without comprehensive guidance on how to manage work email as an integrated system with multiple purposes, managers and organisations have been left floundering. This has led to a proliferation of self-help books and websites proclaiming how best to tame the email inbox, and a reliance on email gurus to offer (often unsound) advice on how to get on top of work email.

In an increasingly digital, flexible working world, it really is now time for academia to provide evidence-based answers to working people about how best to manage their work email in order to enjoy healthier, more productive working lives.

Our research

To that end, we have just published a systematic review of 62 academic papers on the actions that people use to deal with their work email. In our review, we identified how different actions relate to both work performance and well-being, with the aim of understanding how the most effective work emailers actually deal with their email.

We considered effectiveness to be defined as the achievement of higher levels of both well-being and work performance in relation to work email use. Our review found 13 different categories of actions reported in the papers, which were associated with different levels of (i) well-being (work-life balance, feeling in control, not feeling overloaded, and feeling engaged/satisfied by work), and (ii) work performance (effective task performance, effective work relationships and collaborations, effective email performance).

For most of the actions we noted there were trade-offs. For example, responding quickly to email notifications had a positive relationship with work performance (facilitates positive working relationships), but a negative relationship with well-being (feels out of control). However, there were four categories of action that we found positively influenced both work performance and well-being. We labelled these “super actions”.

The four super actions

Twenty-five years of research point to these four super actions that will help you manage your work email:

Communicate work email access boundaries. When workers clearly stated their availability to deal with email, adhered to this, and avoided emailing colleagues when they knew they weren’t working, they were more likely to be effective. By providing clarity of expectation and showing understanding of colleagues’ agendas, appropriate communication boundaries could be drawn and respected.

Regularly triage work email. The most effective workers were those who regularly checked in and reviewed their work email, dealing with it by filing, deleting or actioning messages according to priority. These workers neither avoided work email nor were in servitude to it, meaning that they were able to stay on top of their work.

Only use work email to communicate about work. When work email was used to communicate work-relevant or congruent messages, colleagues learned that a message was likely to be important and worth responding to. By removing personal chitchat, group-wide irrelevant comms, and other non-critical messages from email exchanges, workers experienced better work performance and well-being.

Be civil, courteous and considerate in work email exchanges. A wealth of research found that when email messages were ambiguous, abrupt, direct or contained rude or disrespectful language and tone, then people were less effective. Contravening social norms (relevant to exchange partners and organisations) was a particular concern. Showing courtesy, civility and clarity in the crafting of email meant people were much more likely to receive a response, build positive relationships, and receive positive messages in return.

Why do the four super actions work?

So, what is it about the super actions that help people to be more effective? We observed that each of these four action categories required people to engage in more conscious and careful action regulation. Effective work emailers were focused on attaining three goals – using email to facilitate task success, using email to help manage personal (self and well-being) goals, and using email to facilitate positive social exchanges and help others get their work done well. This three-pronged focus on task, self and others meant that no significantly negative ramifications emerged, as a result of engaging with work email. Understanding what the secret to a superemailer’s success might be means that, as new technologies emerge to replace email, we can apply our super action principles to predict how best to manage these.

What can organisations and managers do?

We uncovered a wide range of recommendations across the 62 research papers that could be helpful to managers and organisations wanting to encourage their workers to engage in super actions. We outline these in full in our paper, but our suggestions broadly involve:

Managing notifications: Disable disruptive notifications while maintaining periodic email check-ins. Notifications can severely disrupt cognitive processes and attention, impacting productivity. However, leaving notifications turned off for long periods can lead to inbox overflow. Regularly checking and managing emails, such as categorizing, listing tasks, deleting, or responding, ensures effectiveness. Some studies propose doing this at natural intervals, like every 45-60 minutes.

Avoiding imposing arbitrary response times: Unless in a client-facing role requiring immediate responses, emails should be treated like other work tasks. Employees should have autonomy to handle emails within appropriate timeframes based on priority. Clear communication about response expectations prevents colleagues from feeling ignored if immediate responses aren’t feasible.

Adjusting workload allocation for email handling: Organisations using workload models should allocate specific time for email management, especially for individuals with disproportionately heavy loads (such as part-time employees handling full-time email volumes, managers).

Providing etiquette training: Educate staff on proper email etiquette and the significance of maintaining professional exchanges. Encourage concise, actionable, courteous and timely emails to enhance communication efficiency.

Establishing connectivity policies: Digital presenteeism should not be glorified. Encourage employees to disconnect from work during non-working hours for psychological recovery. Daily detachment from work promotes better sleep, well-being, and performance. Organisations should support all employees in choosing their optimal disconnection times, considering factors like global work arrangements, neurodiversity, health, and caregiving responsibilities. Disabling work email during these periods prevents disruption from colleagues with different work schedules.

No two jobs or workers are the same. The beauty of work email lies in its flexible application. Yet too often workers find themselves compulsively, habitually, and dysfunctionally subjugated by it. Whether work email remains the top dog in the communication hierarchy, we cannot predict. But our research can offer some definitive answers about the actions you can take to make it work for you.

This article is based on Getting on top of work-email: A systematic review of 25 years of research to understand effective work-email activity, by Emma Russell, Thomas W Jackson, Marc Fullman and Petros Chamakiotis.

About the authors

Emma Russell Emma Russell is a Reader in Occupational and Organisational Psychology at the University of Sussex Business School.
Tom Jackson Tom Jackson is a Professor of Information and Knowledge Management at Loughborough University’s Business School.

Article source: Has research finally uncovered how to conquer work email?, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. This article represents the views of the author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Header image source: Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels.

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LSE Business Review is a new knowledge-exchange initiative designed to share the best of modern social science ideas, theories and evidence with business decision-makers and professionals, and to learn from them in turn. We present the expertise of professors in finance, economics, business studies, law, management, accounting, social psychology, mathematics, public policy, sociology, geography, philosophy, media, cultural and gender studies, and political science, in accessible and relevant ways for business.

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