Michelle Rodger: Give us shelter from office email blizzard

INFORMATION overload. It’s driving us crazy, affecting productivity and stifling our businesses. But we hunger for more, even while we fail to keep up with what we already have.

According to a recent survey, we waste two weeks a year searching for information we have previously read but forgotten or lost.

The average employee receives 36 emails a day (that’s not many, I hear you say) yet even that relatively small number is leaving some overwhelmed. This same average employee spends 21 minutes a day looking for a message or something they have lost.

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Thestudy, commissioned by Mindjet and conducted by One Poll, revealed that almost two-thirds of office workers surveyed also said the amount of data they receive in the course of a day is negatively affecting their job.

Mo Costandi, a developmental neurobiologist and consultant, said that while the human brain was well adapted to processing information, it was the number of sources that people struggled with. He said: “Recently published research shows that multi-tasking places excessive demands on regions of the brain, so trying to process information from email, the internet, social networks and documents can be difficult to assimilate.”

Scientists tell us we need to hear a message three times before we can remember it. That’s three times, not 33 or 300 times. We are bombarded daily, hourly even, with sales messages, calls to action, telephone calls, emails, social media mentions, adverts, billboards, the list goes on.

Much of it is unnecessary for work and all of it is distracting, especially when it can take upwards of 25 minutes before an employee returns to their assigned tasks after viewing an email. It’s no wonder then that, according to the One Poll report, a third of all emails go unread.

It’s hard to imagine the cost of mismanaged information like that to your business. The One Poll guesstimates the figure at £1,240 a year. It might seem a small amount, but it’s only based on the average wage (if you have a lot of highly paid people that amount will soar) and it doesn’t take into account the effect on morale and productivity as people struggle to cope with information overload.

The company has now created a process – catchily christened the Data Mass Index Calculator – to help people assess how well they cope with the flood of information.

It takes the employee through a questionnaire, asks questions such as how many emails do you get a day and what percentage of those emails do you read? Then it decides how you are coping, offering advice relevant to where you are on the scale.

Chris Harman of Mindjet says the research has shown it doesn’t take much to feel like we’re drowning in data at work, and he warns: “The way we have to work today involves assimilating information from many sources and the fact we’re struggling is a very real business issue – one that will only increase as we enter the big data era.”

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With so much information around us, how do we know the best means of communication for our audience?

Donald McLaughlin, director of Cisco Scotland & Ireland, says employers need to understand both the problem and also how best to engage with their employees.

“As well as managing the volume of messages, it’s important for employers to understand how their staff want to receive communication and converse with the organisation,” says McLaughlin. “Those under 30 are very comfortable with social media, and this represents a great opportunity to stimulate genuine two-way communication with this audience.”

It’s a constant challenge and one that’s not going to vanish any time soon. Instead, as more communication channels open up it’s going to become a daily, possibly hourly, challenge.