World Without Email

Electronic missives are a constant feature of the modern office. But how much does receiving and responding to email throughout the day steal our focus and stress us out?

Researchers from the University of California Irvine and the U.S. Army conducted a study in which they examined office workers’ productivity and biometric measures of stress over five days when email was shut down. They presented the quantified the effects of an email-free office this week at the Computer Human Interaction Conference in Austin, TX.

While other studies have examined multitasking within the context of normal email use and self-reports of email stress, this study is the first to compare a complete cessation of email to a baseline of normal email, record biometric stress levels, and see how removing people from the email network affected other workers.

In the experiment, the researchers watched the habits of 13 workers for at least three days to get a sense of baseline activity. Then, they programmed Microsoft Outlook to automatically file new emails so none appeared in the inbox. The workers still had access to old emails, calendar events, and contacts, but they weren’t notified when a new email arrived. If someone from the organization sent an email to one of the email-free workers, they would get an automated reply explaining the situation and suggesting other modes of communication such as a face-to-face conversation or phone call.

The researchers found that when workers did not have access to new emails they multitasked less and focused longer on tasks than they did during the baseline study. In surveys, participants noted that they felt less stress. Heart rate variability was up slightly, a biometric indicator a calmer state of mind. And surprisingly, the email-free condition didn’t seem to hinder communication. Important information was still shared between the email-using and email-free workers.

The findings led the researchers to suggest that people should take email vacations from time to time. Or possibly even batch their emails so they are only compelled to check their inbox a few times a day.

The paper describing the study is here:

” Pace Not Dictated by Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email

The conference at which it was presented is here:

CHI 2012

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