3 Signs of a Toxic Email Culture

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We all have bad habits that undermine our effectiveness at work, whether it’s procrastination, poor time management or lack of organization. But email is an area where other people’s bad habits can undermine us—and vice versa. « Tweet This

Your office email culture has a big impact on productivity and workplace satisfaction. It can also be an insidious thing, developing over time out of bad habits that spread from one employee to another. If company leaders aren’t consciously guiding and managing email culture, you could end up with a dysfunctional or downright toxic one.

“The costs of email are disproportionately loaded on the recipient, who constantly has to divide attention between email and other tasks,” says the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. “Recipients have to engage in constant monitoring to live up to the sender’s expectations according to acceptable reaction times in answering emails.”

This type of pressure can lead to elevated stress levels, disrupted work-life balance and loss of productivity, just to name a few.

Below are some red flags that indicate a toxic email culture, with suggestions on how to help clean up email usage within your office.

1. Urgent Emails

When email becomes your go-to channel for delivering urgent messages, you’ve got a problem. Employees quickly learn they can’t afford to ignore that notification ding for fear of missing something important. And when employees feel they must examine every email as it arrives or check their email more than five times a day, productivity suffers.

“When you’re interrupted, you don’t immediately go back to the task you were doing before you were interrupted,” says Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a leading expert on workplace issues. In fact, her research has shown that when we’re interrupted at work, it takes us, on average, 23 minutes to resume our original task. Usually, we have to deal with an additional two tasks in the meantime.

That means just three email interruptions can cost us up to an hour of time on whatever we’re working on.

Solution: Eliminate urgent emails and set the expectation that colleagues will address pressing matters via a more appropriate form of communication, such as phone or face-to-face conversation. A good rule of thumb is that if something requires a response within three hours, don’t use email.

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2. After-Hours Emails

When employees—especially leaders—get in the habit of sending emails in the evenings or on weekends, they can inadvertently contribute to a 24-hour email culture that makes co-workers feel pressured to monitor their email around the clock.

In a study on how a 24-hour email culture impacts work-life balance, nearly 39 percent of employees said if they saw a new email in their inbox, they would always open it—even if they were not supposed to be working. Researchers also found that even though employees felt negatively about emailing after hours, many believed their job required them to check email at home and on the weekends.

The bottom line: Employees within a 24-hour email culture spend an average of 33 minutes per day on email outside of work hours. That adds up to almost four hours each week of uncompensated time taken from their personal lives. If your company claims to support work-life balance, it’s especially important to prevent this type of culture from developing.

Solution: It’s time to start managing email expectations. Clearly, discourage employees from sending emails outside of business hours. If you do compose an email after hours, save it as a draft and send it in the morning.

3. Too Many Recipients

Constantly copying multiple people on emails can signify a deeper problem within your organization. It may be a symptom of a sense of insecurity among employees, who feel the need to cover all their bases by copying everyone.

Excessive copying can also pose several practical problems. First, it magnifies the potential productivity drain of every email, since that each recipient’s work will be interrupted. Additionally, it provides a loophole for punting responsibility; with so many recipients, it may be unclear as to who needs to respond or take action. Finally, it can open up a string of “reply alls” that can cause confusion and send everyone involved spiraling down a rabbit hole.

Solution: Clean up email confusion by copying only those who truly need to receive the information. If you’re asking multiple people to take different actions, send them separate emails with clear action items.

A company’s culture doesn’t change overnight. Rather, it’s made up of the small daily actions of each individual. However, by taking steps to manage email expectations within your office, you can start shifting in the right direction.

It’s no secret that email can be a huge distraction. SaneBox keeps you focused by only showing you the emails that matter when they matter.

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