Need a Productivity Boost? Try E-mail Training

Time Wasted on Inboxes Is a Crisis Agencies Must Tackle

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Brian Sheehan
Brian Sheehan

Today's buzzword is "downsizing." As clients trim their budgets, agencies have no hard assets that can be sold off or machinery that can be put in mothballs. People must be let go. Last year, the top 10 advertisers cut their budgets an average of 15%. As a result, almost 30,000 advertising jobs have been lost since the start of this recession.

The problem with downsizing is that clients don't stop demanding high levels of service; they just spend less money. In fact, clients increasingly expect the same work on shorter timelines. As GE's global director of advertising, Judy Hu, put it recently: "We used to have 10 weeks for [creative] development. This time we gave a week and a half."

Just as client budget increases create economies of scale that help drive agency profits, decreases in spending can create reverse economies of scale. In doing so, they often make agencies less efficient. The combination of fewer staff and less efficiency creates an economic trap that can lead to more job layoffs and even lower efficiency.

With fewer people, agencies desperately need increased productivity. But how can they increase productivity in the midst of layoffs? One answer comes from a surprisingly obvious place: e-mail.

Takes up 40% of the day
According to a Harvard Business Review survey, office workers who used computers every day spent 40% of their workdays, or three hours and 14 minutes, on e-mail. At an average of three minutes to read and respond to each one, an executive who gets more than 100 e-mails a day spends five hours a day on e-mail.

This is a problem, but for agencies it is a crisis. An agency's main product is ideas, and ideas are rarely developed by e-mail. In fact, a typical creative director can spend four hours or more a day on e-mail. Those are hours not spent developing ideas or inspiring creative teams.

A solution is surprisingly straightforward: Companies need robust e-mail training. The training goes way beyond what is appropriate or inappropriate. It goes right to the heart of transforming e-mail in the workplace from an inefficient quasi-social tool to an efficient business tool.

At first, e-mail training may sound silly to employees, but they quickly applaud the effort when they realize that it will help free up hours of their day. A strong program, either developed in-house or outsourced, can cut the number of e-mails sent within a company 40%. It can shorten the time needed to read e-mails 50% and increase the communication ability of remaining e-mail 50%. It can recapture more than one hour per day for each employee to be more productive. For senior executives, it can add about two hours. For an agency of 300 people, that equals well over 90,000 recaptured hours per year.

Reduction strategies
Effective e-mail-reduction strategies fall into two key categories: anti-proliferation and simplicity.

Successful anti-proliferation strategies include defining what not to use e-mail for. For example, conversations by e-mail when both user and sender are in the office are counterproductive. One phone call, or an office flyby, can save 10 e-mails. It is also common for e-mails to be CC'd to lots of people, particularly at the beginning of a project, when many people don't need to be directly involved but need to be aware of the project. Unfortunately they continue to get CC'd on every following e-mail. Those "wasted CC's" lead to thousands of hours of wasted time per year.

Simplicity strategies include training on basic business-writing skills. E-mail today is often a lazy, confused mix of personal and business communication thrown into unformatted paragraphs. As a result, people often need to read e-mails more than once to gather all the pertinent business information. Back when business writing was more formal and structured, major agencies had training programs that taught young professionals how to write better. The emphasis of those programs was clarity and concision: Keep it short and keep it clear.

Brian Sheehan is an associate professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Brian spent 25 years in the advertising industry and was CEO of agencies in Los Angeles, Australia and Japan, working with clients such as Toyota, DuPont, Hewlett-Packard, Ritz-Carlton, General Mills and Procter & Gamble.

So think about it. E-mail training is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to save hundreds of hours in lost productivity. Meantime, here are five e-mailing tips to pass on to your team today.

1. The subject line is a secret weapon. An e-mail titled "Pepsi" needs to be read by everyone working on Pepsi. One titled "Pepsi—October Ad Casting" does not.

2. Save "reply all" for emergencies. Encourage employees to cut down on the number of CCs during every response. Offer prizes if necessary.

3. Master the use of headings. Headings turbo-charge reading speed by enabling people to scan for key information. Strategic bolding, boxing and underlining do too. Appearance counts.

4. Always write from general to specific. That gives readers the opportunity to bail out when they've gotten the level of detail they need.

5. Differentiate between social networking and e-mail. Facebook and Twitter are a blessing and a curse. They can be a tremendous time suck in their own right. Use them strategically as a way to cleanse socializing from e-mail, then build solid rules about their appropriate use in the office.

There are numerous strategies for cutting the absolute number of e-mails and for decreasing the reading time committed to each one, but few companies put any effort behind them. In today's economy, e-mail is the most obvious place to increase productivity.

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