Can a zero email policy in organisations improve efficiency?

Two years ago, Atos Consulting CEO and Chairman Thierry Breton announced his plans for a Zero Email initiative across the company. Understandably some were skeptical on the possibilities of eradicating all internal email across the business. But here we talk to Lee Timmins who is Senior Vice President of Atos Consulting to hear whether its been a success or not.

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Lee first of all, explain the background behind where this zero email initiative came from?

Many of us in the organization were not really prepared for Thierry’s announcement. We took some time to understand what we were going to do with it. We understood that he was serious about the commitment and that we were going to get engaged but quite how we in UK Consulting were going to use this took a bit of thought. It didn’t take long to get behind the zero email schemes and work out that it is actually a symptom of a broader frustration. How do the working professional classes, the knowledge worker if you like, make the best of the time we have got available during the day? Is technology helping us to become more effective and productive or is it actually getting in the way? So the way that we have taken on the zero emails initiative in UK consulting is to focus it on the professional working classes, the knowledge worker and to take email along with a range of other things as part of an approach to making our days more effective and more productive.

We are all aware of the time that we all spend sifting through email, but of course email as a communication is there for a reason, so in a zero email environment what is supposed to replace it?

Email as a tool is decades old and it tends to have become the default tool. So it is the only tool for communicating, collaborating, sharing documents and for working together on documents. But it is not always suited to all of those purposes, so the approach we have taken in UK Consulting is to address what the key staff groups, key roles and requirements are in terms of information, contents and collaboration. What is the best set of tools that meets their needs? So for example emails still have a place with our delivery consultants but it sits alongside instant messaging, it sits alongside an enterprise social networking tool, and it sits alongside SharePoint. Our role has been to help people understand for which tasks and under which circumstances email is the right tool for the job or whether one of the others is better.

Is the old-fashioned phone call perhaps part of the answer here, or the change in behaviour to ensure workers aren’t emailing a colleague who is only a few desks away?

I talked about the tools required for job but the behavior aspect is very important too and it is not just get off your backside and go and speak to people wherever possible it is about questioning some of the other behaviors. Regularly we are able to measure internal email generation for our staff and I talked to people who are having more difficulty in reducing volume and you get some surprising things coming out such as; “I am running a big project and I have got 20 guys in my project team and I need to make sure that when we have our weekly meeting that we minute all of the actions and then I send those actions out as an email and store all of that in my inbox and that is the way I make sure that we get things done.” We are trying to change the behavior that suggests that just because you write something down in an email and send it to somebody and store it, doesn’t mean they are going to get it done. There are different ways of doing it so trust people to do what they say they are going to do and cut down the email traffic as one example of the behavior aspects behind this.

Conversations are easy to backup, keep track of and be searchable on email so what is the answer to this using things like Instant Messenger?

I think for some organisations regular requirements that is quite a knotty problem to solve and I don’t think we are there yet is the honest answer, from my business there genuinely is not a need to store conversation in that way certainly by email so we are able to cut through it internally for example when we work with clients in financial services then this is an issue and we have to take a different approach.

There is a link you have with Team Sky the British cycling team and you have been working with them on efficiency improvements, talk us through what you have been doing with them?

The zero email thing is just one aspect of a broader goal which is about improving the productivity of let’s just say knowledge workers. I think knowledge workers are probably the final frontier in terms of efficiency and productivity improvement people who work in direct industry, in direct fields have had help in the past to improve their productivity. Knowledge workers have not and yet they represent 60% of the UK’s wage bill.

We conducted some research recently with a number of external organizations in the public and private sector and we were testing a view with them that a) there is an opportunity to become more productive in daily working life and b) that the concept of the aggregation of marginal gains which we borrowed from the sporting world is an idea that might help them to do that.

The example in the link to cycling is that we are all aware of the success of Team GB and Team Sky, their mantra is that if we can get 10% better overall in terms of an athlete’s performance by understanding everything that impacts the performance of that athlete. Also by getting just a little bit better in each area like the performance of the bike, the equipment support chain, the diet of the athlete, and recovery of the athlete, the psychology. They have a pretty relentless and exhaustive approach at driving these marginal gains and making them count. What is the equivalent of that applied to the professional worker as the athlete as the concept we are trying to work through.

Can you see the zero email methods of communicating you are employing shaping the behaviour of workplaces in the future?

I can really see the opportunity and we are not alone. 50% of the knowledge workers that we spoke to said that they believed that they could be up to 50% more effective so that is a big prize to go at. The whole point behind this marginal gains approach is it takes an awful lot of work and time, you need to move a lot of things forward on quite a broad front. Do I see the industry as a whole taking on the consequences of this? I don’t know but we are trying it ourselves with our own business and we are having some success. We have reduced the number of emails that we generate ourselves inside UK Consulting by more than 65% and we are finding better ways to put that time to use and our business performance is improving. Can I show a hard cause and effect correlation between those things not really, but we think it is having an effect.

Well it’s an interesting concept, what’s your final bit of advice for any organisations that are considering a similar scheme to your zero email policy?

My advice would be that there is not a silver bullet it is about moving lots of things forward in small steps every day. It takes time and absolutely the way to go about this is for it to be role based within any organisation there are a number of key roles and our objective to this should be to help people to perform better in their role. To all of this improvement stuff whether it is about email, whether it is about training, whether it is about collaboration tools, whether it is about reducing emails it should be focused back on helping people perform better in their role in that way I think you have got a chance in being successful.