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Personal E-Mail: An Office Essential

March 12, 2001 

Workers Say Online Interactions Speed the Day and Increase Output

In the Internet age, office workers are not limited to regaling their co-workers around the water cooler with stories about the weekend. E-mail and instant messaging technologies make it possible for office workers to maintain daily contact with friends and family during the workday all over the world.

Kim Green, a freelance Web producer in San Francisco, spends about two hours every day sending and receiving personal mail. "It keeps me happy," she said. "It doesn't negatively impact my productivity."

Her social use of e-mail has actually declined from when she was employed full-time. "There was something about being tied to a desk from 8 to 5 that made it that much more important to escape into e-mail," she said.

According to a study conducted in September by International Data Corp., a technology industry research and consulting company, 3.4 billion business e-mail messages and 2.7 billion personal e-mail messages are sent on an average day in North America.

"E-mail is no better or worse than the telephone," said Mark Levitt, research director at International Data Corp. "Well, it's a little worse in that people can do it more quietly."

Franklin Becker, who runs the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University, said that he generally did not see anything wrong with the social use of e-mail during the workday. "My sense is that it contributes to productivity," Mr. Becker said. "Nobody concentrates for a solid 10 hours a day."

Taking a break and communicating with someone via e-mail, he added, "keeps people engaged."

In some cases, these technologies even replace face-to-face conversations with co-workers in the same office.

Mr. Becker has been studying workplace habits in an Internet company in upstate New York. Employees there often send one another instant messages even though they are close enough to speak to each other. "It's silent all day," he said, "then someone will send a joke out, and a bunch of people will chuckle at once."

Michael Allen, a systems administrator at a Silicon Valley Internet company, said that socializing through e-mail and instant messages was a big part of his workday. He estimates that he spends at least an hour socializing every workday.

If conversing with a group of people via an instant messenger system, he said, sometimes he sets up an online "conference room." When using e-mail to talk to one other person, he said, "sometimes we'll put 10 people on the 'reply all' list so that if they want to chime in, they can."

Intel Corp.'s director of corporate affairs, Tracy Koon, says her company has adopted a policy that allows reasonable personal use of e-mail. "We assume people will use technology here," she said. "The question is, will it interfere with your work? Certainly it hasn't gotten any corporate attention in the sense of, 'Oh, God! There's an epidemic.'"

Beth Shapiro, who works for NotifyMe Networks Corp. in Sunnyvale, California, said that she spends an hour every evening at work, when business has slowed, catching up with friends and family. She is also in contact with her boyfriend, who lives on the East Coast, all day through instant messages. "When you work 10 or more hours a day, people understand that you need to do things like make social plans and schedule appointments with your dentist during work hours," she said.

Nevertheless, some people find social messages distracting. A woman who works for a clothing company's corporate office in San Francisco said that the time she spent on social e-mail was minimal. "It distracts me," she said, "so I try not to do it."

When friends send her instant messages, she said, she does not respond. But while her company has a policy that employees should not use work e-mail for personal purposes, she sometimes does. "This is the only e-mail account I have, so my grandma e-mails me here," she said.

Yahoo Messenger, a popular instant messaging service, does not keep data on what percentage of its users is using the service for work-related activities and what percentage is using it during the workday for social purposes.

Brian Park, a spokesman for Yahoo Messenger, attributed some of the popularity of silent communications like e-mail and instant messages in part to the trend toward offices with cubicles, which lack the privacy appropriate for making personal phone calls.

"I use instant messaging primarily for work," he said. "But maybe my social life's just not that great."

Copyright © 2001 Sally McGrane, The International Herald Tribune

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