Do workers spend a lot of time in their inbox ? So what ?

Summary : we’re being told that workers spend too much time on email and that may be true. But contenting ourselves with this single argument to make them switch to other tools is a little bit too easy : what would be different if they spend the same amount of time elsewhere ? So the matter is not the time spent on one tool but the value of the time spend. What should make us embrace social approaches with a other point of view : activity and goal focused rather than community and conversation focused. This will change both the scope and the change management program.

Months ago I was reading an article saying that US workers use to spend 650 hours a year on emails. Reactions on twitter were predictable : thats a lot, that’s really to much…poor guys, their time should be better used elsewhere.

In fact that’s a lot. Depending on workweek duration that may differ depending on jobs and countries (and even if these numbers are from the USA), that’s around 2 and 3 hours a day. That said, these numbers are based on what people feel so their scientific value is weak. Let’s consider a trip in train or plain : there are many factors that make a 3h trip look like a 6h one and a 12h one look like a 5h.

Moreover why being surprised ? Being shocked to see knowledge workers spending time on emails is like being surprised by a taxi driver spending most of his time behind the wheel, a hairdresser with scissors or a cleaning lady with a vacuum.

But we all know the reasons for that : email must be replaced by social networks. But if this idea looks appealing in some circles, it still make people smile or leaves them doubtful in others.

As a matter of fact, 650 hours will always be 650 hours, either spend on email or anything else. And if we’re quite convinced that the time spent on email is not productive, most people and among all managers still need to be convinced that the time spent on enterprise social platforms is work. Result is a draw since if there’s a consensus on the issue, many questions remain bout the solution.

We even saw cases where employees were forced to give up their old tools (email and MS project…) to switch to a social platform that made their job more fluid and conversations easier but had so poor specific functionalities that in the end they spent more time trying to cope with the new platform and try to male their problems fit it than they saved. Pity but not that rare.

In short what matters is not the time spent in one tool but the value of this time. A new tool can increase the value of time if :

– it males exchanges and coordination easier

– it allows to solve problems quicker

– it allows to find information faster

– it allows other people to find any relevant information in the future even if the “owner” of the information left the company meanwhile.

– it allows to turn local knowledge and experience into an asset available for the entire organization. It makes things and thoughts traceable for future reuse and learning.

– it’s at the center of the workplace, brings all kind of work models and interactions together regardless of their nature or source, not requiring users to continuously switch from one tool to another and is even able to take information in a tool to process it in another.

– it provides users with at least the same functionalities and capabilities they had in the tool it replaces to do their job.

So it seems that a social network has a real potential to make people much more productive than email.

But that’s only a potential. To make it actual, people’s activity needs to refocus on the social platform. What has many implications in terms of functional requirements and change management.

– from a functional and technical standpoint : the platform should be fully integrated in the IS, interoperate with third part applications and even be able to display and manage alerts, events and information from these application. On this point some vendors crossed the border but not all. Among the big ones let’s mention Salesforce, Tibbr and IBM who’s even going further with its “embedded experience”. Let’s also add that the platform should be able to host any kind of work. Not every need will be fulfilled with a big conversation flow “a la Facebook” that makes it impossible to find things in the future and structure work. I saw of couple of companies that have been seduced with such a nice looking tool because its “a la Facebook” nature made it easy to use at first sight. Result : most of their users refused to use the platform and moved to another one because they needed to document things, structure their work, and manage advanced tasks (even in a social fashion) and the lack of a real wiki and task management system was an adoption-breaker to them.

– in terms of change management the fact everybody should use the same platform is a game changer. Many organizations still want to change without changing and make their social platform optional (what, I admit, is the only solution when the platform does not cover people’s need….). Result : it’s impossible to use it for anything related to managing work and teams on a day to day basis since some people may refuse to use it. So the platform may cover all needs but there must also be a will to make it become the center of the work environment. What will become more and more obvious as the concept of social networks will be replaced by digital workplace or social platform which implies the coverage of all needs : networking, emergent and structured collaboration… A trend that can been seen in many recent announcement from major vendors.

So spending 650 hours in a social network is better than 650 hrs on email. Provided all work related activities could move to the social network and not only some side conversations happening over and around the flow of work.

It requires organizations to be very careful when they chose a vendor. It requires a goal and activity, even process driven approach rather that a community driven one.

Last, it requires the courage to fully take responsibility to make, not the platform, but a new way of work and collaborate central in the organization.


Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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