Do you feel as though your inbox fills up faster every day, making it harder and harder for you to stay on top of critical business messages? If so, you wouldn’t be alone.

According to a recent study, many of today’s knowledge workers deal with what’s called “email overload,” i.e., the perception that they send, receive and process more emails than they can handle on a daily basis. Believe it or not, on average, users who receive 100 or more emails each day are only able to respond to about 5 percent of them, the study revealed.

“Our analysis shows that email overload is evident in email usage and has adverse effects, resulting in users replying to a small fraction of received emails,” Farshad Kooti, a PhD student at the University of Southern California who conducted the research with four colleagues, tells the IGI. “Users tend to send shorter replies, but with shorter delays when receiving many emails.”

Indeed, the chaotic nature of email today in the workplace can be challenging—both for employees and information governance (IG) practitioners.

How Today’s Workers (Try to) Tackle Their Inboxes

Though email had been studied in the past, it had never been studied to this extent, Kooti says.

“Email is an essential communication tool, but our understanding of emailing behavior has been limited to small-scale surveys,” Kooti explains. “We addressed this gap in understanding by studying emailing behavior of 2 million people, who sent and received 16 billion emails over a period of several months.”

Some of the key findings of the research indicate:

  • People generally reply quickly to emails, with most responses occurring within an hour of receiving a message.
  • Younger users reply faster to messages than their older peers, but they generally send shorter responses.
  • Women are slightly more affected by email overload than men, but the difference is more or less negligible.
  • Emailing behavior, believe it or not, is actually predictable. With high accuracy, Kooti’s team was able to forecast the time and length of a reply, as well as when a conversation between two people will end.

“These findings could be used in designing better email clients that help people deal with email overload,” Kooti says.

Will the Email Overload Problem Get Worse?

Because they were reared on technology, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that younger users are quicker to respond to emails than their more senior colleagues; email is perhaps second nature to them. Though their replies might be briefer, younger folks generate more of them.

Though Kooti’s team hasn’t yet examined the growth of the data to see whether email overload is a problem that’s getting worse, one could conclude with a certain level of confidence that as more millennials infiltrate the workforce, employees will have to deal with even more emails, as it’s easier for younger users to stay on top of their inboxes. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials will likely make up the majority of the workforce this year; by 2030, they’ll comprise 75 percent of it.)

Also interesting is the fact that those who reply to emails on their smartphones do so the quickest. On average, they respond to messages in 28 minutes, compared to those on tablets (57 minutes) and desktops (62 minutes), according to the study.

As more and more workers become mobile, will they also become more prolific email writers?

Email Overload & Information Governance

In today’s fast-paced business world, the name of the game is productivity. As such, many workers are conditioned to stay in their inboxes all day long so that they don’t fall too far behind on email.

In addition to email overload causing workers to spend less time focusing on other projects, this mindset also translates into workers producing a higher volume of emails—and subsequently businesses having to manage more of them than they might be used to.

In other words, as the workforce gets younger and users generate more emails (albeit shorter ones), IG practitioners essentially have to manage an exponentially increasing level of corporate information, with loads more of it produced on a daily basis.

Remember, thanks to email overload, some messages might get lost in the mix, as workers may have a hard time tackling all of them. Additionally, employees might also fire off a bunch of emails over the course of the day, not remembering everything they wrote and everyone they contacted.

Altogether, these facts suggest IG practitioners need to take a proactive approach in order to truly understand the realities of email overload and the entire scope of their organizations’ communications. The good news is that by having strong IG strategies in place, organizations are better positioned to manage the ever-increasing number of emails that fall under their purview—making it that much easier to conduct e-Discovery should the need arise.

Proper governance of email continues to be a major challenge for organizations. However, they are making progress. The IGI hosted two recent webinars on the topic, detailing a massive case study where millions of email messages are being managed in an automated way. You can watch the webinars here and here.


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