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Staff meetings. Project meetings and associated notifications. Notices from Human Resources. Email messages about staff departures and arrivals. Digital displays showcasing key news of the day or week. Town hall meetings. Your company intranet. Vlogs. Blogs. Text messages. Webinars. The amount of information employees receive and often must respond to is staggering when compared to the workplace of the 80s. And it’s likely only going to increase in the coming years. With no end to the challenge in sight, the big question for communicators is, “What are we doing to curb this information overload?”

Let’s consider email for a minute. According to a study by The Radicati Group, the average number of emails employees received each day in 2015 was 88. This number is expected to reach 96 by 2019. And this is only the number of emails received! When you add in those sent, the total number of emails is expected to reach a whopping 126 per day by 2019. What’s worse? A study commissioned by Adobe Systems showed U.S. employees spend an average of 3.2 hours each day reading and responding to work-related emails. This is on top of another 3.1 hours spent looking at personal emails. That’s more than six hours a day staring at a computer, tablet or smartphone!

The same study found that 42 percent of Americans check their email in the bathroom. Now that’s a cause for concern and some life introspection. Are we really that busy that we can’t put down our electronic devices long enough to go to the john?

Psychologists and experts who weighed in on the study said the information glut is becoming a major issue for companies. So much so, that many are searching for realistic answers to the problem. The good news is the communications function can influence this area by providing counsel on systems and processes that can help your organization manage information better. In doing so, you help reduce the noise for employees, allowing for greater productivity, efficiency and awareness of and action on topics that are important to your organization. And isn’t that the essence of internal communications (IC)?

Drivers of information overload at work

For the purposes of this article, we define information overload as the point at which any additional information thrown into the mix reduces your ability to process it. This information overload comes from many different forms of communication. Here are just a few that your employees likely get in any given week:

  • Project-related emails
  • Registration requests or deadline reminders (e.g., events, completing performance evaluations, etc.). Some of which are likely system-generated through software platforms (e.g., Workday).
  • Social media (e.g., Yammer, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, etc.)
  • Networking or connection requests via email or LinkedIn
  • Company newsletters (electronic and paper)
  • Surveys
  • Meetings, including 1:1, conference calls and webinars
  • Probably a million others we’ve missed

Technological advances are a key driver. As we discussed in a previous blogpost, social media channels alone are overwhelming. Some of these tools were originally designed for personal enjoyment but have become strong marketing channels for companies. Just two examples are Facebook and Instagram. Over time, there’s become an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) expectation that employees engage with these platforms. Especially if you work for a consumer products company. And with internal communications, we’ve seen the rise of various employee social media channels such as Yammer and Slack.

Another key driver is that many companies don’t do enough to help employees better cope with this constantly connected world we live in. Left unchecked, this constant barrage can lead to stress and psychological illness. And it can cost companies lost productivity. Not to mention the fact that most of the information we receive daily is duplicative of other information or should have gone directly into the junk or spam mailbox!

How IC can help curb information overload

Despite the bleak picture we’ve painted, not all hope is lost. Corporate and internal communicators can support organizations by providing valuable advice and tactical help to help employees deal with information overload. Throughout this and other future articles, we’ll explore a few of these ways. First up is tackling the dreaded inbox.

Improving email correspondence

Email is a consistent sore spot for employees. According to a 2011 study done by Loughborough University, it takes a person 64 seconds to recover from reading one email. So, if you’re reading 100 emails per day, you’re spending an hour a day being unproductive right off the bat! And in a poll we recently conducted, many people commented on poor email management by their bosses and peers. We’ve seen companies develop entire playbooks around the topic of email management. There are many ways to improve emails to ease the email pain. We’ve broken out daily emails from email newsletters.

Daily emails

Avoid sending duplicate emails

One topic raised in our poll was the amount of duplicative email people receive. Managers and supervisors often unwittingly add fuel to the email overload fire by forwarding emails that people have already received. Sometimes these managers do it because they genuinely don’t know the person is on the distribution list. This may be simply because there are 1,000 people on the list and they don’t take time to vet it. In other cases, they may not be able to see who’s on the distribution list because it’s a group email. Then there are times when they forward an email to give weight to it. By doing so, they’re indirectly saying, “Hey, you’d better read this.” But, we’re all professionals and can read, right? If not, then we probably shouldn’t have the job.

One suggestion to improve this issue is to include making the group email name self-explanatory. For example, use a title like “Our great people managers” to clarify that anyone who supervises someone is on the list. Another option is to publish all the group email lists with everyone’s name and title. That way, over time, managers and all employees understand who’s on what list.

Also, managers should be discouraged from forwarding emails to people they know already received the email. Unless they include some sort of call-to-action like “Let’s schedule a meeting this week to discuss next steps on this.”

Give context to information

How often has someone forwarded an email to you with the phrase, “Hey, I thought you’d find this interesting” or “Passing along for background information.” We suspect more than once!

It’s great when managers send information to us so we are aware of what’s happening. But, as one respondent to our recent poll said, passing on information without context is a waste of valuable time. What if instead, the manager simply spent an extra minute adding 3-5 bullet points covering the highlights of the information? That way, the employee gains valuable perspective on what’s important to his or her boss, while saving valuable time. The full information is still there for the reading, but only if needed.

Strike the right balance on length

Next, there’s the whole question of how long emails should be. We used to be super mindful to make our emails short and to-the-point. And, if needed, attach a memo that goes into more detail. Over time, our thinking has changed. Why? For one, people rely on their mobile devices more and more, and mobile users do not love attachments. Also, employees are discouraged from printing everything on the basis of cost and environmental impact.

There’s also research that supports that longer emails are actually less disruptive than short ones. The study found that emails between 50 and 125 words received responses at least 50 percent of the time. Shorter emails received less response. But longer emails, 200-word communications, still received responses 48 percent of the time. Of course, there’s a point of diminishing return. People responded less than 35 percent of the time to emails that were 2,500 words. So, 50- to 125-word messages seem to be the sweet spot.

Make emails meaningful

And then there’s content. Encourage your organization to use process-centric response to emails, which anticipates and addresses some of the basic questions that still need to be answered. This model can eliminate some of the back and forth “one-liners” that drive us all nuts! This article describes the model and gives some good examples.

Enewsletters

In our humble opinion, many organizations don’t spend enough time thinking through the various components that make a great email newsletter. Here are a couple of key things to think about when drafting and sending enewsletters.

Distribution and timing

For one, consistency is key. We all like a little predictability in our lives. If you plan to issue an enewsletter on Monday mornings between 8 and 9 a.m.—the time which averages the best open rate—and you start gravitating toward the afternoon, then expect your open rate to decline. Similarly, consider the time of day. An enewsletter pushed out at 4 p.m. will not be opened as often as one in the early afternoon. Consistently issuing your information helps build trust over time.

Length

Another point is to keep email newsletters visually shorter. According to the Adobe research referenced previously, 28 percent of those surveyed found it annoying to have to scroll excessively to read an email. And 24 percent are flat out turned off when layouts are not optimized for mobile. According to Luke Direct, mobile phones are now the most common device to access emails, so make sure your email templates are minimalist and the copy tight. And, while gifs and emojis can be eye-catching, videos are also popular and have become increasingly easy to create and distribute. They’re 50 percent more likely to get attention than images, so try and include them whenever possible.

Parting thoughts on email

  • It should go without saying that your copy needs to be crisp yet meaningful. And we’re not just referring to the body copy of the newsletter. These tips can help ensure your emails get read.
  • Use your subject line to alert the reader that a call-to-action is needed: “For approval by 4p: newsletter article.”
  • Use subheads within the body copy of your email, as they help guide a reader through the content more quickly. And, if an employee doesn’t have time to read the whole email, he or she can skim the information to get the gist of it.
  • Use your email options! For example, if you know you won’t need a response after a week, set the email to expire in a week. No reason for you to get a reply a month after the deadline. And you’ll have eliminated some of the clog in others’ inboxes.
  • End your email with any next steps or a call-to-action.
  • Keep it real.
  • Finally, know thy audience. Is email the best tool? Should you pick up the phone instead and talk it through? If it has to do with someone’s performance, you should call or meet with him or her. And if it’s a detailed topic that requires numerous emails, then pick up the phone. If you know the person is notorious for not replying to email, find another route altogether. You can’t make someone respond, but you can change how you communicate.

Also, depending on your organizational culture, be mindful of pleasantries. Some companies might not care if you say “please and thank you” in your correspondence, while others will care a great deal.

Summary

Sending and responding to email communications are a big part of our daily work. Organizations that have a strategy and set cultural expectations around the use of email provide a great service to their staff. Internal communicators play an important role in developing this strategy and counseling their team on ways to improve retention of information. Remember, even incremental changes can improve productivity. If you’d like more about developing an email strategy that improves productivity within your organization, we’d love to talk!