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Adrian Wakeling: In recovery - the diary of an email addict

Friday 29 September 2017

Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Analyst at Acas, discusses the modern-day reality of constant waves of emails.

Adrian Wakeling Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser windowAdrian Wakeling

Adrian is a Senior Policy Analyst at Acas and is part of a team responsible for informing the future strategic direction of Acas and influencing the wider debate on the value of employment relations.


When it comes to email I'm a bit of a cow - as one of the participants in Acas' new research said "I graze on it all day". I acknowledge that this may not be the best way to work and the report by Kingston Business School has made me reflect on how I use emails (or, more aptly, how they use me).

I'm not usually mad on statistics, but there are some great ones in the report. For example, fellow grazers, consider this if you will - it takes 64 seconds to recover from every email interruption. This means that many of us spend a fair chunk of our day 'in recovery', in that weird place between our brains being fired up and being able to focus properly on the task in hand. For those of you old enough to remember it feels a bit like staring at the 'test channel' when BBC2 was off air.

One of the overarching messages in the report is that we all develop strategies for coping with the modern-day reality of constant waves of emails. Some of these reflect personal preferences, some we pick up from the workplace environment and how our managers behave, and others we might actually learn through training.

The research shows that emails can be all things to all employees: they can be addictive, as we can't stop ourselves constantly checking for that illusive reward or sense of meaning; they can be comforting, because, oddly, they are a very tangible representation of our ability to manage our workloads; and they can be protective, as we use them to create audit trails as proof of our competence or lack of culpability.

The link between email use and organisational trust is interesting. The signs of low level trust environments are:

  • excessive cc-ing
  • delegating responsibility without negotiation
  • broadcasting achievements
  • keeping email audit trails
  • ignoring others emails
  • avoiding face-to-face contact.

We are all aware of that awful email 'ping pong' when communication becomes strangely stilted: you can become VERY ANGRY and personal or very formal and all 'herewith attached is the report you requested'.

There is also the issue of work emails spilling over into home and leisure time and the report certainly paints a very vivid picture of the very modern tussle between convenience on the one hand and personal space on the other. Of course, it is convenient to be able to receive emails on the train, at tube stops, while walking the dog at the weekend ("it might be important"), but we all also need our head space to think and reflect without interruptions.

The report has some very practical recommendations and does debunk a few myths. There is no easy solution for any of us - changing behaviour takes time - but the report will make you think again about your relationship with emails.


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