«You’ve got mail! Research report 2015 About the Future Work Centre The Future Work Centre conducts innovative, high quality psychological research ...»
You’ve got mail!
Research report 2015
About the Future Work Centre
The Future Work Centre conducts innovative, high quality
psychological research about people’s experience of work.
By openly sharing the results and actionable insights,
we hope to improve the quality and experience of work,
both now and in the future.
We know that high quality research is already being
carried out in academic environments, however,
often the data remains within this domain.
This means organisations and the wider public fail to benefit from these powerful insights.
The Future Work Centre aims to bridge this gap.
Our research agenda:
‘Technology at work’ During 2015/16, we will be focusing our research on the role and impact of technology at work.
Technology plays an increasingly significant role in our experience of work.
The proliferation of mobile communication, never-ending email and the reliance on technology to connect virtual teams, is in one form or another impacting our experience of work as never before.
The boundaries between work and home life are becoming less clear.
Advances in technology mean that more of us are bringing personal devices into work, accessing social media and living an online experience that crosses the work/home divide. The collision of these two domains brings both advantages and challenges.
Our aim is to quantify the impact technology is having on work, from a psychological perspective. We will explore how people manage the impact of technology differently, and identify practical actions that can be taken on the back of our research – whether that be for the individual employee, the manager of a team or the leader of an organisation.
During this series, we will look at the following
Email communication at work Flexible working, virtual collaboration and work-life integration Learning, development and training Wearable technology Social networking in the workplace Cyber-bullying techn logy Contents Executive summary / 1 You’ve got mail!: our study / 4 A double-edged sword: the pros and cons of email / 8 One size does not fit all: our key concepts / 13 Our gadgets: email and technology / 18 Under pressure: our experience of email / 23 Tipping the scales: perceived email pressure and work-life balance / 27 The X factor: personality as a moderator / 31 What should we do? / 36 Conclusions and next steps / 41 References and further reading / 42
We’d like to acknowledge the contribution of the following people in conducting this research study
and providing their valuable insight and expertise in compiling this report:
Ciara Kelly – Doctoral Researcher University of Sheffield Management School Dr. Richard A. MacKinnon – Insight Director Future Work Centre Megan McCrudden – Intern Future Work Centre Nicola Tatham – Principal Psychologist Future Work Centre Executive summary Email is part of most people’s lives.
Since its creation in the 1970s, its growth has been unprecedented, facilitating quick and easy communication between individuals across borders and time zones, for both business and personal use.
But despite its widespread usage and popularity as a communication tool, for some individuals and employers, it can be a source of major frustration, anxiety and lost productivity.
As the volume of email continues to rise, many of us are feeling the impact – struggling to prioritise work effectively and constantly being interrupted by the flow of messages and demands, resulting in decreased productivity and stress.
In order to understand more about how email both facilitates and negatively impacts the employee experience, we conducted a survey of just under 2,000 people across a variety of industries, sectors and job roles in the UK.
Our aim was to explore whether factors such as technology, behaviour, demographics, work-life balance and personality play a role in our perceptions of email pressure and consequently in our coping strategies.
People who leave their email on all day were much more likely to report perceived email pressure.
Checking email earlier in the morning or later at night is associated with higher levels of perceived email pressure.
Managers experience significantly higher levels of perceived email pressure when compared to non-managers.
Our research also highlighted some interesting group differences in the role personality plays in our experience of email and how email has the potential to both positively and negatively impact
our work-life balance:
Higher email pressure was associated with more examples of work negatively impacting home life and home life negatively impacting performance at work.
We found that personality appears to moderate the relationship between perceived email pressure and work-life balance.
People who rate their own ability and sense of control over their environment lower find that work interferes more with their home life, and vice versa.
Future Work Centre / You’ve got mail! 2 So, what should we do?
We know that everybody is different and therefore, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions for email. But what we are able to do is put forward a selection of practical actions that individuals and organisations can adopt, based on what works best for them given their individual circumstances.
We have divided our recommendations and suggestions for individual employees into two areas - behaviour changes (i.e. what you can do differently) and mindset changes (i.e. how you think about email).
Research has indicated the role of email behaviours in our experience of pressure and stress, but we also know how important the role of our expectations and mental ‘rules of thumb’ are in how we respond to the outside world.
Our recommendations to organisations focus particularly on what the people who set email policies and those in a position to role model positive email behaviour can do to help their employees.
These research results represent just a snapshot of the email experience of a large, UK-wide population. We want to continue to examine these themes in more detail, to build the evidence-base for advice regarding email and better understand how it can be used to best effect. We’re particularly interested in learning which approaches to email management are most effective for different kinds of email users.
We’d also like to understand more about how users derive meaning from emails and how this contributes to their sense of email-related pressure. When it comes to email behaviour, we’d like to understand how much of this is because of explicit rules in organisations (e.g. ‘employees must respond to customer queries within four hours’) and how much is due to implied ways of working (e.g. ‘I’ve noticed people don’t tend to email at weekends here’).
If you’d like to find out more about our research, or get involved yourself, please contact us at email@example.com
Future Work Centre / You’ve got mail! 4 Email is an important tool in many people’s working lives. It has the potential to add value, but also to contribute to employee dissatisfaction and to even be detrimental to our well-being.
Over the years, much has been written on the use of email and its effect on our lives.
But when we reviewed the relevant scientific and popular literature, we felt one area in particular needed further exploration – the relationship between personality and individuals’ experiences of email.
On average, adults spend over one hour of each day on email (Ofcom, 2014) Future Work Centre / You’ve got mail! 6 Psychological research from the previous three decades has demonstrated how people differ in terms of what motivates them, what leads to stress and what they want from work. So why would one-size-fits-all advice about email work for everyone?
There are many examples of how organisations (and governments) have attempted to tame the email beast by applying generic rules over usage, such as when employees can check and send emails.
But these haven’t worked for everyone, as such rigid rules don’t account for the needs of those with flexible working arrangements, who may want to use their email in the evenings.
We know that individual differences – in what employees think, feel and do – help us understand their experience of work and the success of teams and organisations.
However, email is an area that has received less research attention from a psychological perspective. We want to reverse that trend by taking an evidence-based approach to the study of email usage and its impact on people’s lives, and share our findings in a way everyone can understand and, more importantly, use to improve their own experience of email.
About the study We surveyed just under 2,000 people across a variety of industries, sectors and job roles in the UK.
Our survey tapped into attitudes towards email, daily use of email, aspects of personality, experience of the interface between work and home (sometimes called ‘work-life balance’) and the technology people use to access their email.
Our results highlighted some interesting group differences in the role personality plays in our experience of email and how email has the potential to both positively and negatively impact our work-life balance.
It is important to recognise that this study is cross-sectional, as we have only looked at the experience of using email at a single point in time. This means we can’t attribute causality (i.e. x leads to y) at this stage, but we can use this snapshot of data to highlight potential relationships, put forward initial recommendations and identify areas for further study. We will follow up this research with the analysis of various interventions (e.g. changes to email checking behaviour) to examine their impact and add to the evidence-base around email.
We also conducted a literature review, looking at existing pieces of research and commentary on email usage. We recognise that lots of good work has already been done in this area, and we felt it was important to review current theories in order to identify potential gaps that we can fill or areas we can expand on.
The purpose of our study is not to show that what has been done previously is wrong – instead we wanted to bring together new and existing research in order to confirm trends and put forward tangible actions that will help improve people’s experience of email.
So, let’s take a look at what we’ve uncovered…
Future Work Centre / You’ve got mail! 8 One of the overriding themes emerging from our review of existing research is the unintended consequences of email.
The scientists who first developed ‘electronic mail’ could not have foreseen how email would become such a large part of so many people’s working lives - or its potential for misuse.
Email was originally used to exchange useful information between professionals in different physical locations. Now we know that emails are often exchanged between people sitting in the same building – or even in the same room! And it’s safe to say that not all emails contain useful information. So, how did we get to this position?
Research carried out over the last decade has clearly illustrated that email is a ‘double-edged sword’ – in other words, it has definite advantages but also some obvious drawbacks.
In the UK, email is rated second only to telephone calls in terms of communications importance (Ofcom, 2014) Future Work Centre / You’ve got mail! 10 Some advantages of email as a
communications tool include:
As a written form of communication, email can be accessed at the recipient’s convenience. Unlike speech, emails can be read and reread, printed for offline consumption, revisited and considered long after the initial message has been received. Practically speaking, this means colleagues in significantly different time zones can communicate easily, reading messages and responding at a time that suits them.
Email makes it easy to share information with different people at the same time. This makes it potentially more efficient than face-to-face or telephone communication, especially when people are based in different locations, or when other reasons make it impractical to bring a group together for a meeting.
Information contained in an email can be received almost instantaneously, underlining the speed with which important messages can be distributed.
Email has a built-in audit trail, including when it was sent, by whom and to whom. This can make it easy to search for and revisit the information contained in emails. We know that human memory is fallible, making conversations difficult to recall with similar clarity and accuracy.
Future Work Centre / You’ve got mail! 11 However, there are also disadvantages of using
email in our day-to-day communications:
The absence of clear email norms. People approach email very differently in terms of the language they use, levels of familiarity expressed to the recipient, frequency of checking and speed of response. This lack of established norms can lead to misunderstanding between email users and perceived pressure to constantly check for new emails or respond more quickly than is convenient.
Unlike face-to-face communication or contact via telephone, email has no non-verbal cues, such as body language or facial expression. It is therefore easy to misinterpret ambiguous emails or take away an unintended negative (or positive?) message.
Some research participants have highlighted the view that email is perhaps too spontaneous, as it provides too easy a channel for communication and results in people sending messages they might not otherwise deliver to someone’s face or over the telephone. This increases the volume of emails sent and received, which can make it harder to keep on top of incoming email and prioritise those that require action.