Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos SA, has pledged to end the use of email in his business, Europe’s biggest information technology services company, within the next 18 months. Breton himself hasn’t sent a work email in three years, saying:

“If people want to talk to me, they can come and visit me, call or send me a text message. Emails cannot replace the spoken word.”

Soon, all of Atos’ staff will have to shift their communications onto social media tools, the phone or face-to-face conversations, reports Forbes.

“[E]mail is no longer the appropriate tool,” said Breton. “It is time to think differently.”

Breton’s decision isn’t based on some faddish love affair with social media but a genuine understanding of the problems email causes his company. He estimates that only 10 percent of emails received by his employees are actually important. The rest are what’s known as ‘corporate spam’ – useless emails sent by colleagues, customers and clients which have no informational value and simply clog up the inbox.

Email at work is a big waste of time. Getty Images

Breton also points to evidence that the interrupt cost of email, ie the length of time it takes someone to regain their train of thought after being interrupted, is 64 seconds. That means that every time an email alert comes in, over a minute is wasted.

And we aren’t very good at ignoring email alerts. A 2008 study by Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University found that:

It took the average employee an average of 1 minute 44 seconds to react to a new email notification by opening up the email application. The majority of emails, 70%, were reacted to within 6 seconds of them arriving and 85% were reacted to within 2 minutes of arriving. The time it takes the average employee to recover from an email interrupt and to return to their work at the same work rate at which they left it, is on average 64 seconds.

Other research into the way that people use email by Dr Karen Renaud of the University of Glasgow, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, found that people tend to underestimate how often they check their inbox. Whilst half guess that they check once an hour and 35 per cent believe they check every 15 minutes, the reality is closer to every five minutes.

That means that the worst offenders, who are checking their email every five minutes, could be losing as much as 8.5 hours every week simply remembering what they were doing before.

Atos employs nearly 80,000 people in 42 countries. Multiply this lost time and you end up with hundreds of thousands of person-hours wasted across the company every week. Put in that context, Breton’s decision to phase out email sound more sensible than many would like to admit.

Breton told The Daily Mail that email stole people’s focus away from more important tasks and that staff were having to work through email backlogs at home:

“It is not right that some of our fellow employees spend hours in the evening dealing with their e-mails.The deluge of information will be one of the most important problems a company will have to face.”

Breton isn’t the first to eschew email. Luis Suarez, who works in the IBM Software Group, gave up email in early 2008. In August 2011 he wrote:

So in the last 4 weeks, and what I have got this week so far, I have received an average of 9 emails per day, compared to 15 received last year over the same period of time, or compared to the 33 I received in 2008, when I was first getting things started.

Given that, according to ClearContext survey from 2008 people get an average of 129 emails per day, with 13 percent getting more than 250 emails per day, Suarez started off with a fairly low email load.

As can be seen by the media reaction to Breton’s plan, many are skeptical that it is even possible to function without email. Yet there are plenty of tools that make communication and collaboration easier, such as wikis, instant messenger, chat rooms and blogs.

Breton has the advantage of being the boss and thus able to shape his company’s policy. But for the rest of us who’d like to spend less stuck in our inbox, the challenge is in persuading people that there are better, easier ways to work.

Publish date: December 2, 2011 3:26 pm| Modified date: December 2, 2011 3:26 pm

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