Applied Information Management

Enterprise-wide Techniques to Manage E-mail Overload

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.

Techniques to Improve Work Effectiveness

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.

Techniques to Lower Stress

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).

Techniques to Support Task-Oriented Workflow

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.

Selected References

  • Barley, S. R., Meyerson, D. E., & Grodal, S. (2011). E-Mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science, 22(4), 887–906. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0573
  • Dabbish, L. A., & Kraut, R. E. (2006). E-mail overload at work: An analysis of factors associated with e-mail strain. In Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 431–440). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1180875.1180941
  • Drury, D. H., & Farhoomand, A. F. (2002). Managerial information overload. Commun. ACM, 45(10), 127–131. doi:10.1145/570907.570909
  • Faulring, A., Myers, B., Mohnkern, K., Schmerl, B., Steinfeld, A., Zimmerman, J., … Siewiorek, D. (2010). Agent-assisted task management that reduces e-mail overload. In Proceedings of the 15th international conference on Intelligent User Interfaces (pp. 61–70). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1719970.1719980
  • Gupta, A., Sharda, R., & Greve, R. A. (2011). You’ve got e-mail! Does it really matter to process e-mails now or later? Information Systems Frontiers, 13(5), 637–653. doi:10.1007/s10796-010-9242-4
  • Karr-Wisniewski, P., & Lu, Y. (2010). When more is too much: Operationalizing technology overload and exploring its impact on knowledge worker productivity. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(5), 1061–1072. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.008
  • Mock, K. (2001). An experimental framework for e-mail categorization and management. In Proceedings of the 24th Annual International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval (pp. 392–393). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/383952.384033
  • Ramsay, J., & Renaud, K. (2012). Using insights from e-mail users to inform organisational e-mail management policy. Behaviour & Information Technology, 31(6), 587–603. doi:10.1080/0144929X.2010.517271
  • Russell, E., Purvis, L. M., & Banks, A. (2007). Describing the strategies used for dealing with e-mail interruptions according to different situational parameters. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(4), 1820–1837. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2005.11.002
  • Soucek, R., & Moser, K. (2010). Coping with information overload in e-mail communication: Evaluation of a training intervention. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1458–1466. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2010.04.024
  • Whittaker, S., Bellotti, V., & Gwizdka, J. (2006). E-mail in personal information management. Commun. ACM, 49(1), 68–73. doi:10.1145/1107458.1107494
AIM alumnus Jon Dolan

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.