Today’s guest post is from David Burkus and is an excerpt from his upcoming book, Under New Management, which will be released on March 15. You can find a link to pre-order his book and learn more about him below.
Could you imagine banning email entirely from your business? It sounds incredible, even crazy in this digital age, but to Thierry Breton, CEO of the France-based information technology services firm Atos Origin, it was an essential tool for increasing his employees’ productivity. What follows is the story of one CEO, one company, and one radical solution to a growing problem – email pollution.
When Breton realized that the constant stream of emails was distracting to both him and his employees, he took steps to eliminate what he believed were negative effects on company productivity. In February 2011, Breton announced that he was banning email. In three years’ time, he wanted Atos to be a ‘zero-email’ company. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives,” Breton said in a public statement released through Atos’s website. “We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.”
That statement seems surprising coming from the CEO of a technology company employing over 70,000 people in more than forty offices around the world. But perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. Breton actually adopted a zero-email philosophy for himself long before he announced it to the company. He’d stopped using internal email nearly five years earlier, when he was working for the French government, because he found it hampered his productivity.
Atos polled a sample of 300 employees and monitored the volume of their email. In just one week, the 300 employees sent or received over 85,000 messages. When the company surveyed the participants, it found that the majority of them felt that they couldn’t keep up with their emails, that the time spent trying was time wasted, and that the effort to stay current with email kept them from dealing with more important tasks. Breton found that his employees were experiencing the same issues he’d discovered years before. So he simply banned email.
Atos’s massive size would seem to preclude the banning of email, but in reality it was the size of the company that Breton saw as the reason for the communication bottleneck. “The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business,” he said. “Managers spend between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails.” Despite his seemingly radical thinking about email, Breton isn’t exactly the model of a rogue start-up founder testing out wild new ways to work. He’s a middle-aged former minister of finance for France and a former professor at Harvard Business School. Needless to say, he’d put a lot of thought behind his assertion that “email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business.”
Of course, Atos didn’t ban electronic communication outright. Instead, the company tried to find a more efficient tool for managing internal communication. The company bought a software firm called BlueKiwi and used its technology to build a social network for the entire enterprise. The network was organized around 7,500 open communities representing products, internal programs, and myriad other projects requiring collaboration. Like email, conversations are threaded so that newcomers to the community can see the past history of the discussion. Unlike email however, conversations are not automatically ‘pushed’ to employees’ inboxes, interrupting their focused work time. Instead, employees can choose to enter the discussion on their terms and their schedule.
The social network improved the sharing of knowledge across the enterprise, made it easier to locate subject matter experts, and most importantly, allowed for more efficient collaboration. The new system has also dramatically cut down on internal email. To help its managers adjust, Atos created training programs for more than 5,000 managers to teach them how to lead their departments and projects in a zero-email environment. The company also trained 3,500 ‘ambassadors’ to provide training and support to their peers as they adjusted to the new system. Now fully converted, the company certifies projects and communication processes as ‘zero-email.’
As radical as it seems, the initiative appears to be working. Although Atos didn’t hit its zero-email target, a study conducted in 2014 by an independent firm showed that by the end of 2013, the company had certified 220 programs as ‘zero-email’ and reduced overall email by 60 percent, going from an average of 100 email messages per week per employee to less than 40.
Possibly of greater significance, employees now report feeling far more productive and collaborative. Collaboration has been enhanced by the internal social network, which doesn’t distract employees by pinging messages to their inbox and actually provides a better-designed platform for group communication. Atos employees post in the company’s internal communities almost 300,000 times a month, and those messages are viewed nearly 2 million times per month. Most importantly, all of those views are by choice.
These email reduction efforts have been good for the company as well: Atos’s operating margin increased from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent in 2013, earnings per share rose by more than 50 percent, and administrative costs declined from 13 percent to 10 percent. Obviously, not all of these improvements were the result of banning email, but the correlation is certainly strong. So is the empirical evidence.
Increasingly, research is exposing the limitations and even the deficiencies of email in modern business. Whether or not companies decide to restrict email, or ban it entirely, both the research and recent experiences of a growing number of companies make a strong case that email may no longer be the most effective tool for communication in the 21st century and beyond.
David Burkus is passionate about leadership, innovation, and strategy. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies Generate Great Ideas and has just released his newest book, Under New Management. In addition to writing and speaking, David is an associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on organizational behavior, innovation, and strategic leadership. www.davidburkus.com
Dr. Jeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.