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E-mail blamed for wasted work time

June 21, 2001 

Six years ago, employees sent an average of three e-mails a day and received five. But that has grown to 20 e-mails sent and 30 received daily, according to one survey, and an author on the subject says employees are spending up to two hours daily on e-mail, with much of that wasted productivity.

"I'm not saying we need to go back to the time we didn't have e-mail. It's a wonderful tool if it's used well," said Dianna Booher, a Colleyville, Tex.-based author and consultant.

"The problem is, it's not being used well."

The New York-based Rogen International consulting firm found in a study of 1,400 top and middle management executives that e-mail use by business has jumped six-fold since 1995, but a third of it is not relevant to their jobs. It also found that e-mail hasn't reduced face-to-face meetings.

Bill Vicary, director of corporate marketing for SSOE Inc., said the Toledo, Ohio-based engineering firm has found that e-mail is effective in linking its six worldwide offices -- "if you're good at managing it."

"But it can be very impersonal," he said. "People will write e-mails the way they talk. So spelling's poor, grammar's poor and they are often saying things the way they feel about it," he said, adding that it isn't always the best way to communicate.

"I encourage some people to use the phone or go face-to-face. But it is good if you have to have some remote access."

Ms. Booher — whose new book, E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication,tries to resolve problems created by poor e-mail skills -- said productivity is being sacrificed as e-mail's popularity grows because of the informal nature of sending notes via a computerized system or the Internet.

"People write a lot more trivial stuff that doesn't need to be communicated," she explained. "I won't say they sit around sending spam or jokes, but they don't think about or organize their e-mails very well. Many times they will send six or seven e-mails on the same subject.

"It will start with a premise, an elaborate e-mail, a response, then a response to the response, and so on."

For her book, Ms. Booher surveyed 900 employees at more than 30 companies. The results indicate that 67 per cent of workers spend at least two hours a day on e-mail. The informality of e-mail has supplanted a well-written message, she said.

And "because e-mail is so quick, we're making a lot of bad decisions based on knee-jerk responses."

And e-mail has also become as disruptive as incoming phone calls, pagers and other forms of communication, she added.

"I call it the 'ding effect.' If you've got your computer set to play a sound when e-mail arrives, it breaks people's concentration."

Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. spokesman Bill Hamilton is a firm proponent of e-mail, but agrees that it can be a waste of time if not used effectively. The company first used it in 1978, he added.

"Some people tended to write long, time-consuming memos before. Now with e-mail people are able to write fragments of sentences. I've gotten back e-mails that just said 'no' or 'yes,' or 'approved,' " he said.

On the other hand, some e-mail writers will have incoherent thoughts and copy their message to dozens of people who don't need to get it, he said, adding that Owens-Corning "had suggestions here on etiquette and how to use it. We actively discourage people from blindly copying e-mail to everyone."

by JON CHAVEZ, Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.

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