Basic On "Communication"
August 26, 2004
The Day the E-Mail Dies
How One Company Learned
Shutting Down the PC In Box
Is Easier Said Than Done
By MARLON A. WALKER
Some people dream of a world without war or disease. Jeremy Burton dreams of a world without e-mail.
Like most office workers who sit in front of a computer all day, Mr. Burton noticed recently that he was spending more and more time simply going through his e-mail. But as a vice president of marketing at a big Silicon Valley company, Mr. Burton was in a position to do something about it.
And what he did, others just dream of doing.
Two months ago, he decreed that Fridays in his department would henceforth be e-mail free. The 240 people who work for Mr. Burton got the word: If they wanted to get a message to a colleague in the department on a Friday, they'd have to pick up the phone and call him or her, or, better yet, go over and chat in person.
Mr. Burton meant business, too: violators would be fined.
"E-mail is supposed to be this big productivity tool," Mr. Burton says. "But it's getting to the point where it is out of control."
E-mail, of course, has many advantages: It can cut down on meetings and phone calls, leave a written record of decisions and allow people in different time zones to stay in touch more readily. It's also easy to send -- though because of that fact there is a lot of it.
The number of daily e-mails in North America has tripled since 1999, to 11.9 billion, according to IDC, a Framingham, Mass., research firm. That figure doesn't include spam e-mails, which are another problem entirely.
All these messages, of course, take time to read. The ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, consulting firm, says 48% of all office workers spend one to two hours a day on e-mail. Some 10% spend more than half the day on the stuff.
Mr. Burton's company, Veritas Software Corp., makes products that help companies back up, or safely store, their computer data -- including their e-mails. The idea for the no-mail crusade came to Mr. Burton earlier this year during a trip to the company's London office, where he noticed a colleague's in box contained fewer than 10 messages.
Mr. Burton, by contrast, was spending up to two hours a day dealing with the 400 or so daily messages he received, many of them copies of notes sent to others, heads-up notices and other bits of electronic chaff.
His London colleague told him, "The more you send, the more you get," Mr. Burton recalls. It was then that he decided to try his little experiment.
The ban, he decided, would apply only to communications within the Veritas marketing department; people could continue to send Friday e-mails to other departments as well as the outside world. Violators would pay a $1 dollar fine for each proscribed e-mail they were caught sending, with the money going to charity.
The announcement of the ban was made, naturally, in an e-mail. (One, in fact, marked "High Importance.") "Now, this doesn't mean we can all goof off on Fridays," Mr. Burton wrote, presumably for the benefit of those workers for whom e-mailing had become synonymous with working.
The immediate effect of Mr. Burton's e-mail announcement was to set off a deluge of new e-mails, with employees asking each other if the message was for real.
It was. June 25 was the first e-mail-free Friday. Gallows humor prevailed that morning, as workers kept scurrying up to Mr. Burton's office to see who the first transgressor would be.
It turned out to be Michael Parker, a product marketing manager who, at 11 minutes after midnight the night before, had sent an e-mail about a product launch to a marketing colleague.
"I was human and I was weak," says Mr. Parker.
He was forced to pay a dollar fine. And since an example had to be set, Mr. Parker's photograph was posted in the department, and he was forced to walk the halls with a scarlet "E" emblazoned across his chest.
Other employees were nabbed sending e-mails that first day too. Many served up excuses of the "Dog ate my homework" variety. One person said it appeared he had sent an e-mail on Friday only because the clock on his computer was wrong.
As the weeks passed, though, employees got used to the ban, and managed to get their work done despite it.
They phoned. They talked. And they walked.
The marketing department is spread out in different buildings at the company's Mountain View, Calif., campus, and employees needed to adjust to the intradepartmental treks.
Corporate marketing director Dana Loof, for example, normally strolled no farther than the cafeteria for lunch; as a self-described "fashionista," she was thus able to indulge her taste for elegant heeled shoes. But with the e-mail ban, she found herself hiking nearly three miles every Friday. Since the heels hurt too much, Ms. Loof swapped them for a pair of functional, if gauche, gym shoes.
Sometimes, employees forgot about the ban despite making their best effort to heed it. Julie Parrish, Veritas's senior director of channel marketing, put yellow Post-It stickers all over her desk to remind her of the Friday rule. One Friday, though, she forgot what day it was, and went merrily e-mailing along. She had sent out 65 messages before realizing her mistake.
Rather than force her to pay $65, Mr. Burton commuted her sentence to $20.
Jeff Hausman's group of nine marketing employees, as a way of getting around the prohibition, began using instant-messaging software, which allows computer users to text-chat with each other in real time; it's a kind of e-mail light.
But the messaging technology violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the e-mail ban, and it was discouraged. "They were trying to get their fix through another electronic communication messenger," said Mr. Hausman, a group marketing manager in product marketing.
Many of Mr. Burton's workers say e-mail is a kind of addiction, and that giving it up was harder than they thought. Mr. Parker went so far as to find a 12-step-style buddy to help restrain him whenever he felt the urge to press the "Send" button.
The weekly ban, says Mr. Burton, has been a success, and he plans to continue it indefinitely. For one thing, the e-mail in his own in box has been cut in half those days. Not only does he gets his work done more quickly, his office is less cluttered because there are fewer e-mail printouts taking up space.
Other employees say there are other benefits. Art director Jeff Rennacker says that dealing with someone face to face eliminates the confusion and ambiguity of a poorly constructed e-mail; as a result, projects get done more quickly.
As for the e-mail violators' fund, it's nearing $70. The kitty continues to grow, says Mr. Burton, albeit not as quickly as it did at the outset.
"People are actually thinking about what they send electronically," he says.
Write to Marlon A. Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org
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