It's no understatement to say that e-mail has had a profound effect on our professional and personal lives. People thousands of miles away from each other can send and receive detailed documents within mere seconds. This allows us to take on projects that wouldn't have been practical or possible only a few years ago. It has become routine for us to correspond and exchange files with people overseas. The only obstacle is the difference in time zones.
But on the other hand, e-mail can eat up a substantial portion of our workday. Most of the time and effort involved is going through unsolicited messages and separating the good from the bad. But not all unsolicited messages are spam. (However, the huge amount of these unwanted messages became such a problem that I had our IT department install a spam filter into my e-mail software.)
Many of the unsolicited messages I receive are valuable, so it would be reckless for me to delete them without further investigation. After all, many of the messages we receive come from co-workers, and ignoring these messages could get you fired — especially if they're from your boss.
But the problem seems to be that many people aren't very considerate. For example, when a co-worker became a father recently, he e-mailed pictures of his newborn son to his friends at work. No problem there, but one of the recipients sent a reply to everyone on the list. All he said was, "Cute kid." I guess he thought it was important for me and 15 other people to read his profound statement. Either that, or he was unaware he could simply reply to the sender instead of to everyone.
This addresses the root of the problem: Most people were not taught e-mail etiquette. E-mail just sort of happened, and users often don't put much thought into how they use it. When I went to our IT department for training on some new e-mail features, I discovered an area of e-mail etiquette I was guilty of violating. (When replying to messages with attachments, my reply still had the files attached.) I suggested to the instructor that she hold a class on e-mail etiquette. She said she tried to, but met with a lot of resistance. It seems that most people feel they practice good etiquette, and they know how to use e-mail, so they equate this with knowing e-mail etiquette.
When comparing the time e-mail saves to the time it consumes, I sometimes wonder if we'd be better off without it. But how about you? Does e-mail take up a substantial part of your work day? And do you feel that most of the communication directed to you is unnecessary?