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The dark side of email

?Email has become both the boon and bane of workplace communication

Most of us are ‘networked workers’ – that is, we pervasively use means of electronic communication, e.g. email or the internet, at work. The positive consequences of email are well known and valued – they include flexibility, convenience and accuracy of information transfer. What is now emerging to the fore is the ‘dark side’ of email – that is, consequences of email use that are not beneficial to employees.

Why does the dark side happen?

The reasons lie in the workplace demands that email makes of employees. For instance, email carries with it expectations of response. Employees often feel that just because an email is lying in the inbox, it has to be responded to as quickly as possible, sometimes immediately. Another form of demand is that of constant availability. Because many of us are able to access email on our smartphones and tablets, we can ‘see’ it as soon as it arrives. Irrespective of the time, there is a surreptitious burden of looking at it, which means that we are constantly ‘ping-able’. It often takes an effort not to respond to email in real time. A third kind of demand is increased workload. Email left unanswered can pile up very quickly, as we all experience, especially after returning from holidays. It can take entire days just to clear out the inbox, if we can clear it at all.

What has HR got to do with email-induced demands?

Plenty, because they lead to a number of problems for employees. For one, employees experience stress and fatigue. The pressures for immediate response and constant availability can keep employees continually checking their email in case they miss out on something important or delays on their part are perceived to be an indication of less than prompt response to workplace requirements. Dealing with email-related work overload can cause exhaustion and poor work performance. Research shows that using smartphones at night for work-related activity such as checking office email can cause depletion and loss of energy at work the next day. Moreover, work-life balance takes a hit – it is difficult to demarcate a sensible boundary between work and home. All of these problems have traditionally been the domain of HR, except that now they are caused by email.

So what can HR do about this?

Dealing with the adverse workplace effects of electronic communication is new territory for HR departments. One place to begin is simply to make employees aware of the dark side of email. While most employees experience these adverse effects, a coherent, systematic and organisation-wide effort by HR to articulate them will go a long way in educating employees and acknowledging that a problem exists, which is the first step. Building on that, HR can design email intervention policies. We are still in the very early stages here in learning about what such policies might be, primarily because HR practice is still getting to grips with the negative aspects of email. But some companies have taken a first step, polling their employees to explore to what extent the downside is a problem in their particular organisation, for example.

Technology is likely to be one of the key matters that HR departments of the future will find themselves occupied with. While most HR departments have not yet taken concrete steps to understand how communication technologies such as email can be harmful to employees, the good news is that those that are beginning to do so will be at the cutting edge in terms of constructively harnessing the power of these technologies.

Monideepa Tarafdar is professor of information systems at Lancaster University’s Management School. She is also a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management