A few years ago the French multinational company, Atos Origin, decided to get rid of email. Email had to disappear completely within 24 months. It could still be used for external communication, but email was banned for internal consultation and information exchange. That was the plan.
Why such a drastic measure? It all started with a survey among 300 Atos employees. The survey indicated that the employees spent an insane amount of time on their in-box. On average, they sent nearly 60 mails a day. 80% of the employees barely managed to control the incoming emails. And more than half the employees complained about the mass of email messages with no added value at all.
PLAN SEEM TO HAVE FAILED
Around the world, communication and email specialists watched this experiment with suspicion. Would it be possible to get rid of email after all? Would a company with 70 000 employees really manage to banish the communication medium par excellence from the workplace? Was this ambitious intent to be taken seriously, or was it only a PR stunt to prove Atos really cared for the well-being of its employees?
Six years have since passed and we now know how the email free adventure ended. The critics who predicted Atos would fail in its intent, proved to be right. After all, email is still being used today. Also for internal communication.
There is however some surprising news too. The story is not just black and white. Gartner, an American consulting firm, had the opportunity to study the experiment and their findings were more positive::
Atos reduced internal emails by 60% within the predetermined 24 months. When you consider that the number of electronic messages increased by 20% in most other companies over that same period, that result is nothing short of spectacular.
Overhead expenditure dropped by 23% over the same period. That phenomenal cost-saving boosted earnings per share by as much as 50%.
Of course, sceptics who claim that you cannot prove the direct link between the drop in email and the increase in productivity in black and white, are right. But as far as culture is concerned, such a proof is never possible: causal links between a change in attitude and operating results are hard to detect. But facts are facts. At the time that Atos Origin focused obsessively on the email use of colleagues, the company performed markedly better than the market.
CREATE SMART GOALS
What conditions must be fulfilled successfully to control the email monster in your organisation? What are the forces you must consider when you want to reduce the number of mails and you want to help people regain control over their working day? Can we draw lessons from the Atos account if we would also like to work towards a healthier email culture in our organizations?
Work on a "sense of urgency". Make it clear to your staff that it isn’t a non-committing target, but that reducing the number of mails for an extended period of time is the number one priority. Make your goals SMART so the new arrangements don't just remain a non-committing exercise:
Specific: what exactly do we want to achieve? Do we want to minimize the mails just like ATOS, or do we strive to achieve a concrete target (e.g. - 20%)
Measurable: what parameters do we use to chart the e-mail use? Do we only look at the number of incoming and outgoing mails or do we also measure the employees' subjective experience through surveys?
Acceptable: does this ambition tie in with what people really want on the work floor? Are they willing to participate in this account? Where is the resistance and what should happen to remove that quickly?
Realistic: aren't we setting the bar too high? Should we rather work in small achievable stages to increase the likelihood of success, or do we immediately go for an ambitious end goal? (Note; one of the criticisms against SMART is that goals do not have to be realistic in order to be successful. Those who dream of an impossible ideal, often achieve more than those who build in limitations from the start...).
Time-based: Within what time frame do we want to achieve the results? Are there interim goals? How and when do we check to see if the results are permanent?
Reducing the flow of email requires more than just some free tips and advice. The involvement and even active engagement of the Executive Board and management are the primary conditions for success. Not only because they can serve as an example, but mainly because the active participation of employees is only possible when they feel supported by management. For example, many emails are the result of uncertainty or the need to create visibility in larger, anonymous structures.
DO LIKE ATOS: START WITH A SURVEY
If reducing the electronic communication flow is one of the spearheads of your organization, you should best start like Atos Origin, by checking the health of the patient. You often learn more from a simple survey among your employees than from a thousand Power Point presentations.
If you plan on setting up such a survey, be sure to consider Master Your Email-survey. The benefits of this survey are two-fold. First, you collect results fast at a very low cost with which you can then convince management or the Board of the need for action. Secondly, the survey allows you to benchmark the situation in your organization: in which areas do your business score less, the same or better than the competition?
Looking for a project that will really make your organization more effective next year? Go for a healthier email policy. Atos proves that you don't have to give up. The fatalistic attitude that electronic communication is a given on which we have no impact, leads nowhere. Those who take the first steps today, can quickly achieve spectacular results.