How do you use email at work?

I was having a conversation with Norfolk branch team member Peter Elliott recently about the use of email at work.  It began after he sent me a BBC story on a company that has banned the use of email at (I should perhaps have retorted with this cracker about the recruitment consultant who told 4,000 other consultants + the job candidate to fu$k off via email).  We had a bit of a debate about it all, Peter suggesting it might have legs, myself protesting that I'd much rather ban telephones than emails.

So it was interesting to come across a research paper recently on our email usage patterns and how they shape our email usage.

For better or worse email has fundamentally changed how we communicate, and indeed who we communicate with.  The research found for instance that we email more with people we actually know the least.  This could be a new colleague, a potential client or any manner of weak ties we connect with all the time.

Email facilitates such exchanges perhaps better than any other means of communication.

“These are folks you almost certainly wouldn’t talk to on the phone,” Brian Uzzi, lead researcher, says. “You also probably wouldn’t bump into them on the street. But email allows us to communicate with them all day long.”

The research team sifted through approximately 1.5 million email messages sent by over 1,000 employees at a medium sized company over six months.  They also had details of the social map of the company, ie who knew who and who each employee had strong relationships with.

By comparing usage data with the social map the researchers found they could predict the nature of the relationship purely by analysing the emails exchanged between the two parties.

“We didn’t need to read the messages or anything like that,” Mr. Uzzi says. “Just looking at the speed of a reply was more than enough.”

For instance they found that we respond much faster to close contacts than we do with strangers or people we're not so keen on.  A typical reply for someone we like would occur within 7 hours.  Those we don't get on with so well however are forced to wait closer to 11 hours.  Those we barely know however typically have to wait around 50 hours for a reply.  All of which makes it pretty easy to gauge our relationship by the swiftness of our correspondance.

“Although these messages [from people we don't know well] account for the majority of messages, people replied much more slowly to them,” Mr. Uzzi says. “We clearly give email priority to our close friends, just as we do in real life.”

The researchers believe that this sort of understanding does a much better job at giving managers insight into how we work together than formal organisation charts do.  They also suggest it could lead to more effective teams that combine people close to one another and relative strangers.

The research also provides reassurance that despite technology such as email and more recently social networking making it ever easier to meet new people, we still give most attention to those people who we've developed a strong relationship with.

Adi Gaskell is a social media professional for Oil and Gas IQ.


Adi, this is an interesting survey.

Having used email for about 25 years I think I probably have developed a pattern of reply but it differs from the above in some aspects. For example I won't be waiting 50 hours before responding to people I don't know. If I did that I wouldn't get any new clients!

My personal philosophy is to respond to everyone within 24 hours unless a more urgent response is needed. For those that need information which will take longer then I will tell them that and indicate when they will get a fuller response.

Having said all the above I still prefer phone calls/meeting in person.

Can't say that this research throws up too many surprises for me apart from the timeframe for responses - most of my responses can be counted in minutes rather than hours - and these are prioritised in relation to importance to the project priorities in hand.

That we 'respond much faster to close contacts' makes perfect sense - my closest contacts are team members with whom I am working at the current time - these will change from project to project.................

I still like to talk rather than email but, as in my discussion with Adi, I tend to confirm telephone conversations with an email which may be purely 'covering my backside' or, as I prefer to think, provides an audit trail within the company's QES system........

I have to agree not much of a surprise of how we deal with e-mails. The time frame is a bit worrying though.

Not responding for 50 hours is not good for customer service, and probably the loss of that customer or client.

I also follow up phone calls with an e-mail to cover my arse. Its to easy for the other person to deny knowledge passed on to them via a phone call and let you down at a critical moment.