Corporate email: Too much of too much

An abundance of email was stressing people out before the pandemic; now the overload is even worse. Here’s how to strike a healthier balance.

By Sally Ann O’Dowd for Ragan

Corporate communicators sent 72% more emails in 2020 than they did in 2019, according to a new study by PoliteMail.

While the company says email was a “corporate success story” last year, the significant jump in email content may actually have had a detrimental effect on employees, says Kristin Graham, a former Amazon communications executive now working as a culture and employee engagement consultant at Ragan Consulting Group.

“We have been getting too much email for years, because we have to read them,” Graham says. “It’s like having to endure PowerPoints in meetings. Emails have become a part of our corporate experience, not necessarily our preference in the corporate experience. And that was the dynamic before the world went uber digital.”

Inbox recovery

Several studies over the years have documented the ill effects of email overload. According to McKinsey research, the average employee spends 28% of the work week reading and answering email, compared with 39% of working hours on actual job-related tasks.

Reading emails is also a distraction. In fact, it can take 64 seconds for someone to “recover” from an email interruption (regardless of the email’s importance) and return to work at the same pace, according to an often-cited 2004 study by the U.K.’s Loughborough University. That helps to explain the findings of a 2012 UC Irvine and the U.S. Army study, which concluded that limiting email access reduces stress and helps people to focus better.

PoliteMail’s 2021 Internal Communications Benchmarks Data Report advances the global discussion with data based on 300 enterprise clients. Researchers analyzed 1.3 billion internal emails employees sent to 8.5 million employees around the world.

“This report provides visual evidence that email had more relevancy than ever during 2020, as a crisis disrupted the way people work,” PoliteMail Founder and Managing Director Michael DesRochers says in a press release.

The report’s findings include several year-to-year comparisons:

  • Corporate communicators sent 72% more email broadcasts than in 2019, averaging 68 emails a month last year. They also increased the number of content minutes by 58%.
  • Employees received on average 16 email broadcasts per month, which collectively contained nearly 35 minutes of content and 121 links to additional content.
  • Employees read 44% more minutes of email in 2020 and clicked 82% more links.
  • Overall employee engagement with the medium increased 71%.

“This study shows that corporate communicators have had good intentions – that in this last year, communicators were making a concerted effort to connect during these digital times,” Graham says. “That’s the good news.”

On the flip side, she says, “The impact of those intentions has been to put more heavy rocks on our employees to carry around all day long. We’re not solving a problem. We’re creating a problem.”

Do open rates matter?

The 475 words in the average corporate email take nearly two minutes to read. Of the employee audience, 60% will read 77% of it. Of recipients who open and don’t ignore the message, 20% will skim the content, reading less than 30%.

PoliteMail asks the burning question: Do open rates matter?

“An email open simply tells you the message was viewed by the recipient, including the preview pane,” PoliteMail writes. “Like a web page view, it is a simple measure of audience reach. What if the email is opened, but not more than a few words are read?”

For her part, Graham says it’s important to remember the employee perspective. “What’s important to us as communicators is not always important to them,” she says. “With our polite intentions, we’re eroding our productivity.”

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