Dabbish and Kraut (2006) define e-mail overload as e-mail users perceptions that their own use of e-mail has gotten out of control because they receive and send more e-mail than they can handle, find, or process effectively (p. 431), and they link this phenomenon to work-related stress.
E-mail overload is a particular problem for managers.
As noted by Drury and Farhoomand (2002), knowledge workers who are expected to use e-mail to improve their productivity and decision-making ability, such as managers, need to identify techniques to manage e-mail effectively to avoid stress and find critical information. Common suggested techniques include: (a) setting aside specific times for reading e-mail during the day (Gupta, Sharda, & Greve, 2011), (b) higher proficiency with e-mail client organizational features (Soucek & Moser, 2010), and (c) individually tailored strategies for dealing with the stress of overload (Russell, Purvis, & Banks, 2007). However, these e-mail management techniques alone may not address the entire issue.
The purpose of this annotated bibliography is to examine selected literature to provide a set of proven e-mail management techniques for application throughout the enterprise that remediate and/or avoid e-mail overload, with the goal to improve work effectiveness. References included in the full study are categorized into four areas: (a) defining e-mail overload and why it occurs, (b) enterprise-wide e-mail management techniques that show the most potential to increase work effectiveness, (c) enterprise-wide e-mail management techniques that show the most potential to decrease work-related stress, and (d) the role of e-mail as an enterprise-wide general project management and informal workflow tool.
Several techniques are suggested to limit the volume of unnecessary information: (a) using e-mail as a lightweight information sharing tool, such as training on e-mail client features to filter and sort e-mail more effectively (Karr-Wisniewski & Lu, 2010), (b) implementing automated attendants to sort and filter (Faulring et al., 2010; Mock, 2001), and (c) using human assistants to sort and filter e-mail messages for users. Only the use of assistants (both digital and human) is found to have a clear and demonstrable improvement in work effectiveness.
Proactive training on e-mail features has been shown to lower stress in some cases (Soucek & Moser, 2010), but in general the advice is to address the source of stress, namely the implied organizational expectation of immediate response to e-mail and task completion (Barley et al., 2011; Ramsay & Renaud, 2012). Suggested techniques include: (a) training on e-mail composition to clearly articulate deadlines, (b) setting corporate polices with clear expectations about reading and responding to e-mail outside of work hours, (c) frequent checking of e-mail but in a non-task interrupting way, and (d) sharing of best practices for e-mail management (Russell et al., 2007; Soucek & Moser, 2010).
A clear picture emerges of e-mail as a fundamental means of sharing information and conducting work, but as Whittaker et al. (2006) note, in its current form e-mail does not necessarily handle task management functions well. E-mail users need to be able to easily and flexibly present various views of their inbox based on key words and metadata. The limitations of e-mail as a task management tool can be addressed by techniques that present contextual views of information, including e-mail threads associated with a given task or body of work.
Research Paper Author: Jon Dolan, director, Network Services, Oregon State University—2013 University of Oregon, AIM Program Graduate.
Abstract: Modern knowledge workers (especially managers) are faced with an ever-increasing volume of information in the form of e-mail, yet e-mail management advice often fails to reduce the feeling of overload. This annotated bibliography presents selected literature published from 1988 to 2013 on e-mail overload to identify techniques for combating the problem. Enterprise-wide techniques identified include training on e-mail client features to filter and sort, use of assistants, and setting organizational policies about reading and responding.