Blog post

Why Will “Zero Email” Policies Fail? Bureaucracy!

By Brian Prentice | December 11, 2011 | 11 Comments

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Atos’ CEO Theirry Breton’s plan to implement a zero email policy for internal communications. According to Breton, only 10% of emails received per day are useful. 18% of all email is spam.

I’m curious – what percentage of emails generated internally are deemed as being useless by the people sending them? I’m guessing that would be something closer to 0%.

I’m not being flippant. I think it’s the crux of the problem. While I applaud Breton’s desire to increase productivity and to reduce the encroachment of work into people’s personal lives, I’m afraid he’s misdiagnosed the problem.

The problem with email today is not an ever-decreasing signal-to-noise ratio. Spam filters are doing a pretty good job. And while I concede that I certainly get a lot of unimportant emails every day, I find it takes me no more than 30 minutes to clear the rubbish out. I’d rather spend my 30 minutes doing that than waste it sitting in a meeting room getting nothing done at all. And, prior to the world of email that’s what we spent our time doing. The most common phrase uttered in the 90’s across work cubicles the world over was – “skip the meeting, send an email.” Email emerged as the centerpiece of collaboration and workflow for good reason.

The problem with email is not the volume we see each morning, it’s the stuff left over after it’s been cleared out. It’s the list of things we can’t avoid doing. And that list keeps getting bigger. That’s the true essence of most people’s complaints about email. It’s not a volume problem. It’s an obligation problem. Email “inboxes” have become a misnomer. What we have are email “to do lists.” Woe unto the person that doesn’t stay on top of their email – whether it’s on holidays, at dinner, or on a date. For that person faces a stress-inducing mountain of obligations when they eventually have the heart to log onto their email account(s).

The essence of the email problem is that a global asynchronous one-to-one/one-to-many communication system radically increases the ability of people to seek assistance, create and delegate tasks, update colleagues and coordinate activities.

There is no technology solution to this problem. You can try to parse this out into different applications but the problem remains – as I believe Atos will soon find out.

The only solution, IMO, is to tackle the ballooning administration and bureaucracy overhead in organizations that is fuelling the number of emails being generated. Specifically, our criticism of email as a collaboration tool needs to shift towards the unchecked growth of bureaucracy it enables. And in this context, it is but one piece of IT that is driving the problem. Ask sales reps what they think of CRM. It doesn’t increase their productivity – it drains it as they have to spend increasing amounts of time filling in the system which, in turn, generates more email requests. BPM can standardize best practices – it can also spin out a set of obligations which land in people’s inbox. Every exception to these practices requires streams of emails to associated cc lists, forwards and reply-to-alls.

There are parallels with the argument “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Email doesn’t erode productivity and encroaches work into our personal lives, bureaucracy does.”

So don’t fault the tool. Fault what it enables.

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  • Email have definitely not eroded the productivity, but still I will go with IM kind of tool which will be more hassle free, as per my personal experience. Change is inevitable, If we look at the past exchanging messages electronically existed long past since mid 1800s in the form of Morse code telegraph, the message exchange techniques have undergone several techniques since then, even early emails had a limitation of both recipient & sender being required to be online, but now it has changed.

    Theirry Breton’s idea is to bring a change in the form of facebook like IM, which can replace the email. I personally feel lazy sometimes to go through all the emails which really have much of spams, when I say spam, it also includes all the unnecessary forwards which are exchanged internally amongst colleagues.

    IM too can have one-to-one/one-to-Many conversation, I can get all my messages for future reference in IM history. I can instantly ping my colleagues to get an instant response.

    Both have their pros & cons but when it comes to internal messaging pupose and not with external clients, I will go for IM and not email

  • Brian Prentice says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Niraj. Please remember that the gist of my comments is that I’m not sure what difference it makes if my to-do list expands through Facebook and IM as opposed to expanding in an inbox.

    Let me offer to other observations. First, I seriously doubt you can move workloads to Facebook. Most people cordon that off for personal interactions. And I can’t think of anything worse than being pinged left, right and center via IM for stuff people want me to do or want to tell me. IM only works when someone is logged in. So people will simply not log on which closes off the channel.

    Again, I want to stress that I’m not debating the merits of different collaboration technology. What I’m saying is you can only tackle the volume of interactions and expectations an asynchronous communication tool like email generates by tackling the bureaucracy it enables.

  • pydel says:

    Stress and lack of productivity also come from a deficit of common sense on shared best practices.
    People don’t think on how to leverage technology, they use it as it is not as it can help them.
    Another big issue related to email overflow is that it leads people to slavery: it is amazing how people react to their manager’s emails right away. Sometimes I feel I should postpone an email because I know the receiver won’t be able to prioritize my request. Sometimes I’m surprised that people are expecting an email to do there work.
    So to me email is far to be dead, but there is a huge deficit of common shared usages of technologies, that could ease or lives.

  • Tarus Balog says:

    A friend of mine, Paul Jones, has been an advocate of “no email” for awhile, going as far as to remove it from his life.

    I’m not sure that I agree with him that e-mail is the problem – I think that abuse of e-mail is more the issue. I remember awhile back there was a Windows virus that caused e-mails to be sent to entire companies and the question was raised as to why people were able to send a single e-mail to an entire company. It seems like it is a process problem and not systemic.

    In the book “Simplicity” by Bill Jensen he suggests the “CLEAR” system, which basically means that before sending any e-mail to another you should state:

    C: How is it Connected to their Job
    L: Give a Llist of things you want them to do about this information
    E: What are the Expectations with regards to this information?
    A: How do those expectations match that person’s Abilities?
    R: What is the Return on investment (for them or the company)?

    It gets rid of a lot of unnecessary cc’s, and it has made my e-mails a lot for useful, such as:


    Hey, can you check out Ticket #123? The customer is reporting an error message in the code you wrote. Can you look at it and reply to him with a solution or a bug report? Their support renewal is up in a month and I want them to be happy.

    Without having to state each aspect of CLEAR outright, this short note covers them all, and would beat just forwarding the trouble ticket e-mail to Matt directly.

  • Though I support your main point, don’t blame the tool but how it is used.

    IMHO It is also a volume problem especially for the people who get CC-ed on too many emails. E.g. I’ve suspected some senders to CC people just to advertise themselves within the company.

    As you have to read/scan the email before deciding to filter it out, this does not only cost time but also energy and lost productivity due to task switching.

    On a different note: One thing that helped me quite a bit is to turn off Outlook (or at least the notifications) and schedule a few times a day to update on the emails. However, I feel one of the implicit obligations of email is that it is constantly being checked…

  • Brian, some great points and observations, In my opinion, Social Business Tools are able to create an environment to enable people to connect with expertise and conclude their own obligations or harness a team to “get it done”. But only if there are governing principles and guidelines, set by management from stakeholders workshops, to use the right tool for the job at hand to get over the bureaucracy hurdle. A mechanic needs more than a hammer and rusty pen knife to fix a car, he needs best practice instruction, guidance, access to expertise and the right tools.

  • @Jeroen Habets – I completely agree with you that CCing and forwarding are used too often and that increases the volume of emails. But we will never be in a position where our communication with others is noise free and perfectly efficient. As I mentioned, I well remember the days of sitting in meeting after meeting and wasting far more time than I ever do with a cluttered email inbox. I get close to 100 emails a day. If 99 of them were cc or forwarded messages I’d spend a small part of my day on email. But the problem isn’t the raw numbers of unread messages – it’s the actionable read messages. And that’s a problem which is not simply the making of too much use of ccing and forwarding.

  • @Marty Buckley – I hope I’m not misreading your comments but I agree that social business tools are not going to be a replacement for email (read asynchronous one-to-one/one-to-many communication system) as much as they’ll enable new forms of collaboration. Perhaps that will mitigate the use of email. Personally I doubt it.

    There are two points I’d add. First, many of the complaints about email are linked to the less than positive behaviours it generates. But social media/business tools are as susceptible to this problem. The is a growing problem with increase social media noise being driven by people trying to achieve expertise rankings. In fact, there was an excellent blog on this today at the Harvard Business Review –

    The other point I’d add is that while management can be instrumental in setting guidelines and principles for social business tools, it’s been my experience that the ultimate driver of social behaviour comes from the mandates within the community itself. In fact, without buy-in and reinforcement within a social community, management edicts are futile.

  • Mandar says:

    I agree on the point that tool does not really a Problem. Problem is how you use your tool to its advantage. Even though you implement Zero Mail policy, you can not guarantee increase in productivity.
    Also removing/filtering out unnecessary mails does not really decrease the productivity. If not mail, people will find a way to pass their time/productivity in some other way.

  • Brian,
    Very provocative and interesting argument! But I’m not sure agree.

    Email is great for private, 1-1 communications, but it increases workload geometrically when used for multi-person collaboration.

    The tool itself encourages bad behavior. In aggregate, it takes less effort to send a message than it does to receive one. Forward, Reply, and (horror of horrors) Reply-to-All are weapons of mass destruction. With one click I can increase the workload–anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes–of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of colleagues.

    Social tools handle group collaboration far more efficiently. I can easily opt out of conversations that don’t interest me–no deleting or filing required. I can follow a discussion thread in one place, instead of reconstructing it from 12 different emails. I can edit a document with confidence that I’m working on the master version.

    Perhaps social is another version of the in-box, but at least it’s a version that works.

  • @Michael Idinopulos – Many email clients allow you to nest conversation threads – where is that different than a conversation on a social media application? A fundamental component of a social tool is that you can select your community. That, in itself, radically limits interaction. But you can’t do that in a work environment. You can’t prohibit people in your company from communicating with you because you decided not to friend them. The minute your community expands then so does the quantity of interaction.