No email is an island

As one part of the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project, members of the project team are researching our own practice and providing autoethnographic data on interesting themes to emerge from the research. One of these is the fragmented nature of academic work, and the role that email plays in this.

We each received between 3 and 106 emails per day, with the more senior team members receiving by far the most. These included personal messages, newsletters, circulars, and spam as well as emails that required a response. One team member deleted 68% of the 84 emails she received on the day she tracked her email habits, and sent only 5 messages, but it is sobering to bear in mind that this is an academic who is semi-retired!

One team member pointed out that “no email is an island”; those that require action often include links or attachments to everything from events websites to manuscripts, often involving hundreds of pages of reading. Our common strategies for handling emails included checking multiple times per day, dealing with the quick and easy messages first, flagging or marking as “unread” those that require further thought, and aiming for (but never reaching) the Nirvana of “Inbox Zero”.

Many of our research participants have described checking email early in the morning, or late in the evening, perceiving email as a distraction from their “real” work. But are academics unusual in this regard? It would appear not. According to Chui et al. (2012, p. 46) high-skill knowledge workers spend 28% of their workweek managing e-mail. In 2011, French IT company, Atos, announced their aim of going email-free after estimates that employees got an average of 100 emails a day, only 15% of which were deemed useful (Chui et al., 2012, p. 30). The same year, in response to union complaints about work-life balance, Volkswagen limited its servers to sending emails to staff between 7:00 and 18:15.

How would you feel about imposed limits like this? Is email a distraction from your “real” work? How do you manage the volume of emails?