what if your office banned email?

A reader sent me this article about how a large European company is getting rid of internal email altogether and expecting its employees to rely on instant messaging instead:

Atos CEO Thierry Breton says that only 15 percent of the 200 e-mails his staff receive on average are valuable, and that staff are wasting between 5 and 20 hours a week handling e-mail. Instead of e-mail, he wants staff to use instant messaging and other chat-like communications media. Breton himself claims not to have sent a work e-mail for three years, saying that if staff want to communicate with him they can visit his office, call, or send a text message.

This would annoy the crap out of me. And it’s also bad business practice — email is extremely useful for documenting decisions and remembering questions you need to answer, items you need to follow up on, and so forth. And instant messages are more demanding than emails — they’re good for something that needs to be handled right now, but they’re hardly good for circulating a project plan or sending an FYI that you’re going to be out tomorrow.

I hate this office.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Dawn*

    I understand the sentiment- there’s a growing movement in the tech world to abandon email in favor of face-to-face communication, so that you’re not tethered to your inbox all the time and so you’re more likely to wrap things up in a 5 minute conversation.

    I think that perhaps we (the workforce as a whole) are loath to abandon email because it’s been the norm ever since computers started showing up on desks instead of typewriters. I’m sure that back in the day there were plenty of people who resisted the transition from face to face and phone call to email communication, so perhaps this is the second wave of changing communications in the workforce.

    Also, my company uses Office Communicator extensively (not in place of email, but in addition to) and it makes things so much easier when I have a quick question or a simple follow up. I think IM, plus a way to log IMs for review later, can work very well.

  2. Devilled Avocado*

    While I partly agree with your sentiments I actually like the fact that they are trying to do something to address the 85% of unnecessary emails. And if I understand correctly they are trying to encourage real live human interaction between employees. Surely you can’t hate them for that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I can! :)

      I think it’ll lead to more interruptions and less efficiency. I’d rather see them teach people better email skills and change their culture around how to use it.

      1. Joanna Reichert*

        Absolutely agree.

        If people are already inefficient with email – which is leisurely compared to instant messaging – why would they assume that instantaneousness would somehow solve that issue?

        They should implement it anyways just to see how soon it would fall on its face.

      2. Nichole*

        I find it hard to know when it’s appropriate to just stop by someone’s office with a quick question. I don’t use IM much (though I will probably be learning since it seems to be used quite a bit here) and I hate the phone, so it’s not unusual for me to e-mail non urgent questions and just go to the person’s office to ask for urgent ones. Hopefully learning to use our IM system will be the solution for those situations where I would normally go to their office because I’m somewhere in between “I need you right now” and “I need you whenever you can get to me.” I always feel bad when someone’s clearly busy, but they tell me to come in anyway for something that’s important, but could probably wait until they’re done with whatever they’re doing. We do a lot of files, charts, and powerpoints, so banning e-mail completely would definitely be a shot in the foot here. We should use IM with e-mail and ban the phone instead. :)

      3. Devilled Avocado*

        I wonder if the goal of no internal email is partly for effect, an aim high statement to drive the desired behaviours, and that in practice the legitimate uses of internal email will survive.

        That or we’ll be reading articles on how they scrapped this idea in a year’s time!

  3. Alyssa*

    An all-out ban is hardly the way to address people over-using email or using it inefficiently. We use email constantly at my office—I basically use my inbox as a to-do list. This would drive me absolutely crazy.

    1. Kate*

      I also use mine as a to-do list. As well, my office uses email as a tool to create, electronically file and circulate file notes all at the same time. This works really well for us, and having to do it separately would take way more time.

  4. Anonymous*

    I understand how emailing your coworkers about some issues is much easier, but sometimes even people who are sitting next to each other send each other emails, just asking some simple questions. I agree when he said that if they want to talk to him they can visit his offie. If there is all electronic communication and no in person communication between the employees, how are they going to build a sucessful team, or relationship between them. It is completley different when you speak to someone in person than just email. Because these days everything is electronic, we can not completley say that emails should be eliminated, but using emails for everything and anything all the time is not good either. I think this employer needs to manage employee’s emails; email when necessary ( if it’s a document or something) but regular conversations should be just that- talking conversations.

    1. KellyK*

      I don’t think this is necessarily true, and I think we tend to overestimate the value of face-to-face conversations. I’m not in the same office as most of my primary coworkers, and yet I have stronger relationships with them than I do with people who sit across the hall from me. All communication can be relationship-building, whether it’s e-mail, phone, or face-to-face.

      Also, there’s a pretty low bar for the relationship you need to work successfully with someone. You don’t need to eat lunch together or go to each other’s weddings–you need a basic level of friendly respect and enough familiarity with their working style that you can find good ways to work together. That’s it.

      1. Anonymous*

        Exactly! I have some international contacts at work (who are not native speakers of English). The time difference and the language difficulties makes email so much better. (it’s easier to read a foreign language than to speak and hear over the phone). I’ve developed really great working relationships mostly over email (and the occasional phone call). One contact (in Europe) even said that she loved working with me because it felt like I was in the office next door and not on the other side of the Atlantic…and I only telephoned her once!

    2. FreeThinkerTX*

      I haven’t read all the way through the comments, but one of the reasons I email coworkers who sit right next to me is to get their wise, informative, answers in a format that I can save. . . and then forward to anyone who has the same question I did; while being able to quote the original “subject matter expert” so that everyone knows the answer I’ve provided is the correct one. I’ve had questions asked of me in person, in email, in online company group forums, and via IM that I was able to *definitively* answer via a forwarded email.

      That’s just not possible if all conversations must happen in person, over the phone, or even via IM that is saved. [A capability available in Outlook when using Microsoft Communicator Enterprise Edition.]

      I, for one, have trouble fully answering someone’s question via IM, because it is so *immediate* and doesn’t allow for time to verify facts, edit what I’ve written, and pull together links to documentation. I cannot imagine being able to answer the question: “How do I position Office 365 against Google Apps in a prospect that is currently running Office 2007 and doesn’t want to upgrade?” via IM, telephone, or in person – without also having some way of providing that person the documentation to back up the conversation they want to have with the customer. And, no, I am NOT going to print out 50+ pages and hand-deliver or inter-office mail them to the person who needs the info. It’s so much easier, and much more cost effective, to email the docs and/or provide links. And – again – NO, I will not be able to come up with all that stuff in the space of an IM, telephone, or F2F conversation.

      Sheese. What a dumb company!

      1. Anonymous*

        Thank you for clarifying. Now this would really annoy me if I’m working on something and a message pops up and I have to answer it right away.

  5. Alli*

    I am old enough to remember when people thought email was the worst thing that ever happened to business. The fact is, this probably won’t fail. The chances are they are using other tools like SharePoint to document workflows and keep track of decisions and important project documents, and they are providing SharePoint workspaces where people can blog and keep track of To Do lists. It’s much easier for companies to maintain one copy that many people have access to, not just because they don’t have to worry about multiple (incorrect) copies floating around, but because of regulation and compliance.

    As part of my job, I interview companies about business productivity, and this trend is only going to increase. (And no, I don’t work for Microsoft.)

    1. Anonymous*

      I would think if your staff aren’t using email efficiently, chances are that they are not using other products like SharePoint efficiently either… I mean if your solution to inefficiency is wholesale banning of email, your grasp on using other products effectively must be off!

  6. Jamie*

    I can think of very few policies over which, if enacted, I would quit – but banning email?

    That would do it. You’d cripple my productivity less if you cut off my fingers.

  7. fposte*

    I don’t get why IMing removes any of the downsides of email, and it seems both to lose the upside of documentation and to give people yet another communication mode they need to track. (I don’t actually IM myself, so I may be missing something, I admit.) It also seems even more peremptory and “drop what you’re doing right now” than email to me, which isn’t a good thing.

    But I’m another “I love email” person.

  8. Under Stand*

    Are the laws for keeping IM messages as strict as the laws for keeping Emails? I could see that as a reason for it. No paper trail for an opposing council to subpoena.

    1. Kimberlee*

      I would guess (though I’m not a lawyer) that IM’s would count as memos and general inter-office correspondence, which should generally be kept for 3 years. Though I’m not sure if that’s a legal requirement or a generally accepted practice.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m pretty sure that it’s a best practice rather than a legal requirement. (Although it probably IS a legal requirement for places covered by Sarbanes-Oxley, etc.)

        1. FreeThinkerTX*

          And it’s required under HIPAA, along with security protocols to prevent unauthorized distribution/access of information.

  9. Joshua*

    Its an IT company, and I’d say it’s probably easier for them to do this than a “normal” company. I don’t know if the linked article mentions it, but another one I read mentioned that for planning and documenation purposes, they will be using internal forums.

    Can’t say I agree with them, and if they are worry about wasting time, I’m not sure forcing everybody to go to a communication workflow that is new and probably very strange probably won’t help, at least not for awhile.

    Where I work, I basically just use email internally if I need something documented, or am forwarding a file, which IM can do now too.

  10. Kelly O*

    I wouldn’t want to work there either.

    As you’ve mentioned, email functions as a t0-do list for me in addition to sharing information. I can go back to the message, make sure I’ve covered everything, mark it complete and move it to the appropriate folder. Three weeks from now if Mr. X calls to ask whatever happened with the widget shipment to store four, I can tell him exactly what happened without hesitation.

    And yes, sometimes I email people in the office with me. I may not have the time to get up and have a conversation of indeterminate length, but I can shoot a quick email and follow up in person later when we both have time. Conversely, I might have time to talk about this issue and you might be swamped with something higher up on the priority scale. If I email you, that allows you to respond on your schedule.

    Plus, I can outline a lot more detail sometimes in an email. I can give you hard numbers in a bullet point list. I can send you the spreadsheet or document that needs your input. And you can respond in an equally valuable level of detail.

  11. Laura*

    I’m also horrified at this. Email is great for documentation, and the logs of IM don’t even begin to come close to email for a historical perspective. Too much static.

    At my former company I was horrified at the amount of proprietary/confidential information that was floating around on instant messenger, which led to my concern about the fact that this information was stored on the provider’s servers and could easily be spoofed. I could go to Yahoo or AOL or whatever and register the name AllisonAskAManager and pass myself off as the author of this blog, for example. The security and data integrity aspects of this action make me shiver.

  12. Esra*

    Ugh, no thank you. They must have some other source of organizing projects (like Sharepoint /shudder, mentioned above), but this would still drive me nuts. Twenty blinking im windows at the bottom of my screen constantly with no way to sort anything or easily refer back to conversations without digging through chat history? Horrifying.

  13. FlyByNight*

    Most IM programs at least have an option to save conversations for later referral, so it is possible to keep documentation on hand. I suspect it’d be a pain to dig through for old messages, though.

    Personally, I would NOT want to encourage people to stop by my desk. It’s a big part of my current job to be available to everyone at all times, so I won’t complain about it, but more frequent interruptions is the last thing I want. Email and even IM doesn’t interrupt me in the same way as someone stopping by my desk.

  14. KellyK*

    Wow, that’s a terrible idea. IM, e-mail, phone, and in-person conversations are all useful tools, with different pros and cons.

    Email gives you a written record that you can organize a lot more easily than IM conversations even with IM programs that do give you a record. It also gives people the opportunity to prioritize, where stopping by someone’s desk might mean interrupting their “A” priority that needs to be done in the next hour with your “C” priority that just has to happen this week.

    Writing also gives you a way to organize a bunch of thoughts into something coherent, where IM and phone conversations, because they’re spur of the moment, can be rambling.

    If people are using a tool poorly, you don’t take the tool away, you find ways to improve how they use it, or teach them how to use it better. If people are hitting their thumbs, sure, taking away their hammers will prevent injuries. It will also make it a lot harder to actually build anything.

  15. KellyK*

    Another issue with this is what it does to the productivity of people working remotely–whether that’s a full-time telecommuter, someone on business travel, or someone checking in during a weekend or vacation day. And, for that matter, teams with members in multiple offices, even multiple time zones.

    It’s easy to quickly check your emails when you have a minute, but harder to squeeze in a real-time conversation. IM is also really only efficient for communication if you’re a good touch-typer. (Whether that’s old school keyboarding or texting with your thumbs, you need to be quick or the conversation drags forever.)

    1. Anonymous*

      Similarly, I work in a library that’s open seven days a week, and email is definitely the best way to communicate about problems that came up when people were off. I suppose in a 9-5 office this would be less true, but still. What if somebody is out at a meeting and you need to send them some info? Are you supposed to remember and hand it to them in person later? That seems like a logistical nightmare – I would forget to do so much!

  16. Wilton Businessman*

    “And it’s also bad business practice — email is extremely useful for documenting decisions and remembering questions you need to answer, items you need to follow up on, and so forth. And instant messages are more demanding than emails — they’re good for something that needs to be handled right now, but they’re hardly good for circulating a project plan or sending an FYI that you’re going to be out tomorrow.”

    I read this story yesterday at a different site. The general idea was that a lot of this information that is trapped in emails should be available on a “facebook-like” internal site. For example, “I’m out today” is a perfect example of something that should go on your internal facebook site instead of sending 80 “I’m out today” emails via autoresponder.

    In addition, I disagree that email is a great tool for documenting decisions and laying out project plans. In fact, that’s _EXACTLY_ what an internal site is for. Why should you have the decision to go ahead with project XYZ locked up in your email when other people may need to know your justification? Publish it and let those that need to know find it.

    The IM aspects of Mr. Breton’s plans are troublesome. In my environment (IT) IMs are just as bothersome as Phone Calls. Email is useful for private conversations, but too many people abuse it.

    1. ThomasT*

      I often disagree with Wilton Businessman, but he’s spot on here. All the attacks on this policy in this thread are based on the very scant information provided in the Ars Technica article, and the commenters’ personal experiences with business & personal email and consumer-oriented IM tools, with a few exceptions. And yes, if the idea was to replace internal email with AIM or Yahoo Messenger, that would be stupid indeed.

      But as other articles have pointed out, that’s not what they’re planning to do, though Ars Technica’s description “instant messaging and other chat-like communications media” is quite inartfull. They’re using other collaboration tools that give their internal communications much BETTER context and archiving than email does. They’re an IT firm, so project communications go in the project management tool. When you’re collaborating on a document, you make comments in-line, and everybody works on one version of the document, and you can check on/revert to previous text at any time, rather than digging through your folders for the most recent version and trying to figure out how to use Word’s merge changes feature. If you’re in sales, your Customer Relationship Manager now supports exchanging brief messages with colleagues right on the page that shows the deal you’re working on. Need to grab the attention of another sales engineer who knows a product feature really well? Start typing his name in a chat message attached to the deal you’re working on, and it auto-completes, with a linked reference, and he gets notified the next time he logs in that his expertise is required. He drops into the thread, gives his knowledge as required, and goes back to what he was doing, rather than being added on to a massive Cc: chain whose subsequent exchanges clutter his inbox long after he’s no longer involved. Or maybe he’s “following” any sales leads that mention his area of expertise, so that when the new sales guy hits a wall, and doesn’t even know which of his 70,000 colleagues to ask, it’s no problem – just by adding that product to the quote, the appropriate sales engineer can start to keep tabs on the deal.

      Email takes you out of the tools where you actually do your work, and now we can communicate right alongside the work, and have the communications more available for reference.

      I’m the IT Director in a mid-sized nonprofit, and we have many of these tools available to us, but it’s hard to push adoption when people are set in their ways and used to falling back on email. Collaborative editing on an attached document is an incredibly inefficient thing to do, both from the perspective of the collaborators, and from the IT perspective of storing all those outdated versions of documents in mailboxes. The alternatives have been around for a while, but are now getting to the point where ease-of-use is acceptable. There are times when it’s important to accomodate different workstyles, but sometimes you have to force people to try working in a new way that you are convinced is more efficient. The transition is hard, but often turns out to be worthwhile.

      It probably wouldn’t work for most of you right now, but I suspect that the Atos CEO knows his company and his workers and really believes that they’re ready to move away from email.

      1. land of oaks*

        well, this makes a lot more sense, thanks for the clarification, ThomasT. I would welcome more functional collaboration systems at my job. But, I still think it’s weird to completely ban email. I think there are a lot of situations where email would be the most efficient way to communicate, and it would be frustrating to have to figure out what to do when I want to send an email but can’t. I think it would be more helpful to provide several trainings to teach employees how to figure out the most efficient mode for each task, and how to use each mode most effectively. I still think that for some people, face-to-face interruptions can be very distracting, for example, and there might be some need to adjust these different methods to different personality types.

  17. Anonymous*

    I completely agree with KellyK. I work at an international company on a team with MANY remote members that are spread across the entire world. It is difficult enough to try and get emails exchanged within one day with them. We also have a no-travel policy except for mission critical or customer facing events, of which 99% of the company is not involved with.

    Also working in marketing, the thought of having to everything via IM and phone is terrifying to me, especially when decisions that involve, say, verifying legal claims for publications of outward facing sales materials are part of it. It is difficult enough to keep the right people at the right time involved in communication, let alone multiple time zones via IM and phone. IM can also be a huge time suck. I sit in multiple hours of meetings a day and can’t be productive if I’m trying to monitor and respond to multiple conversations as well as participate in a meeting.

    I agree that more real time communication should be encouraged, but this policy is much too extreme.

  18. Anonymous*

    And you know the funniest thing? This CEO used to be France’s Minister for Economy! Luckily, not for a long time…

  19. Anonymous*

    And you know the funniest thing? This CEO used to be France’s Minister for Economy! Luckily, not for a long time…

  20. Liza*

    I agree that’s it’s not the way to solve the problem. My company once sent us all to a course called Email Etiquette. I was hoping the course would talk about effective uses for emails and share some best practices. Instead it was a grammar course :( Too bad – we could have used a course that taught us some protocols. Between all these tools to enable communication (email, IM, Sharepoint, wiki, Yammer, etc.) it seems we’re having more trouble communicating.

  21. land of oaks*

    I agree with your overall take on this, I think it would be dumb to ban email. However, I do like IM and often use it with coworkers to quickly make a decision, or to help each other think through something in real time. But, I think the key to good office communications should be to accept that everyone has different communication styles, and some modes work better for some and not for others. Banning one kind of communication for everyone and forcing everyone to do the same thing is lame and ineffective, and it would be better to help employees be more intentional about their own communication choices, and figuring out the most effective ways to use different modes for different needs.

    And, I have to say that I love IM for having surreptitious conversations during horrible meetings and conference calls, some days it is the only thing that makes my job tolerable. ;o)

  22. Anonymous*

    I’m a senior manager at the organisation in question. Internal email isn’t “banned”, that’s the spin from the article. Thierry has also sent internal emails for company-wide communications at least twice this year alone.
    It’s an ‘aim high’ aspirational target and something to get some press with. You’d never get any attention (with our employees or the wider market) with ‘we’re banning 80% of emails’ – but ‘we’re banning 100%’ gets more, even if the real target is actually 80…
    If you look carefully, you’ll find the exact same ‘zero email’ policy was announced months ago and this is a co-ordinated PR barrage to get press attention again (the policy hasn’t changed).

      1. Anonymous*

        Three options

        (a) we don’t think it does make us look silly
        (b) we think it does make us look silly but did it anyway
        (c) any publicity is good publicity, or more charitably, the positive press outweighs the negative

        I’d say the thinking is option (c), and considering we have a reasonably low profile for a company with 75,000 employees, looking at the press reports I’d say that’s right.

  23. Karen*

    Wow…he wants people to call him whenever they have a question? That would make me want to stab my eyes out with a pencil. I’d much rather get an email and have adequate time to respond thoroughly than listen to a colleague blather on, and then possibly not even be able to give them an answer after the ear-torture they subjected me to. Hello, phone call #2…

  24. That HR Girl*

    I would be completely useless without email… I communicate with so many different people in different time zones, with different client groups, and different expectations of urgency. Plus, due to the nature of my job I SAVE EVERYTHING. I archive every last little email on the off chance I might have to dig it out someday and prove/back something up or just C my A.

    At my previous company I worked for a psycho boss that would randomly declare “no email days” and mandated that we either call or get up and walk to the person we needed to speak to and handle our business that way. Wasn’t very fun in a 350,000 sq. ft building.

    She also mandated “Whisper Wednesdays” where we were not allowed to talk above a faint whisper. I kid you not. But that’s a story for a different day ;)

    1. Sensible Shoes*

      Heh! Here, if I don’t answer an email within 5 minutes, they will come wandering by and say, “Heeeey, how’t it going? Er, I just sent you an email, did you read it?”.

      Its soooo Office Space. My cube mate and I laugh everytime it happens.

  25. Ashley*

    While Breton might be criticized for his decision, there is sound proof backing his judgement. Most communication within the office gets done through IM. It’s simpler, more informal, and it gets things done easier. And as the name suggests, it’s instant. No more waiting for a coworker to check their inbox and graciously respond.

    Moreover, in Breton’s defence, he plans to make the move only in a couple of years. And the move is supported by his employees, at large. The company also plans to build and implement a in-house messaging system for internal communication. You can read more on this here:

  26. Sensible Shoes*

    Email is a time suck but without it, I’d be out of a job. I have little fact-to-face interaction with these people, most of whom, I have never met in my life!

    My filter is setup to instantly delete anything with: funny, joke, xxx, youtube, potluck or baby shower in the Subject Line. So that cuts down on the inane and keeps me out of trouble, since IT can read all of it.

    I also never respond to an email after 4:00 pm on a Friday afternoon. No good can ever come of it. Heh!

  27. Anonymous*

    I am in between here. I work for an enormous company who spends and inordinate amount of time emailing everything. I can spend forty-five minutes going back-and-forth on a single email thread, however, if I don’t choose this route, the immediate answer is to schedule a conference call which on a scale of minimal time-sucker to maximum time-sucker is above maximum, in my opinion. Honestly, I feel like if you were working for a company like mine, a huge corporation where fully 70% of email is unnecessary or not directed at you at all (like when you’re just arbitrarily CC’d on things that have little impact to no impact on you), I believe it’s much easier to see this guy’s angle. And it’s not for lack of access to IM or other communication methods that we get emailed like this mind you, it’s IN ADDITION TO those that we receive this volume of mail. Anyway, not sure what the real answer here is as it’s a corporate culture thing to an extent, but from where I sit, minimizing emails sounds fantastic.

    On the flip side my #1 rule is CYA, and email makes that task a simple one for sure.

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