Software

When e-mail serves to lower productivity

E-mail's "Reply All" function seems to lend itself to misuse. Here are some reasons not to use it.

Many moons ago, I wrote a blog about people who are e-mail impaired. Among the many infractions I listed, one was a personal pet peeve: The apparently uncontrollable urge by some people to "Reply All."

If you're in a group of people who are all on one thread because you're seeking a common piece of information, then by all means, Reply All to your heart's content. That's what it's for.

But if your reply to some group copied e-mail is something like "OK" or some attempt to suck up like, "Wow, Jim, I have to say your e-mail messages never cease to enrich my existence," you should resist the lure of the Reply All siren. Because if you don't, the group then has to read 29 other responses like "Sure does!" and "Thanks for sharing!"

I will acknowledge that I can be a curmudgeon, but I'm fighting the battle of information overload just like nearly every other human on the face of the earth.

Jonathan Spira, a chief analyst for Basex, Inc., forecasts information overload will be the problem of the year for 2008. In a piece for msnbc.com, Spira said that Reply All can actually lower workers' productivity:

Workers get disoriented every time they stop what they are doing to reply to an e-mail. Workers can spend 10 to 20 times the length of the original interruption trying to get back on track. It's too much information. It's too many interruptions. It's too much lost time.

His advice? Make sure the subject line of your e-mail clearly reflects the topic and urgency of the e-mail. And use Reply All sparingly.

Okay, so let me have it. Are there any Reply All devotees out there who want to come to its rescue?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

50 comments
kgartner
kgartner

Reply-to-All is a real productivity drain in large organizations. The huge number of mailing lists -- whose exact size or membership the sender might not even know -- make it too easy to create corporate 'spam'. Vendors of email client software would be well-served to make it harder for naive/lazy repliers to not generate excessive email traffic, especially sending back the original attachments. IBM's Lotus/Domino product no longer allows reply-to-all-with-attachment as a default, finally after many years of the reverse. This is one of the easiest problems to address -- let the senders become aware of the associated costs of such emails and most reasonable people will think twice. I recently contributed to an email best practices paper geared toward large corporate environments -- number one on the list is the Reply-to-all phenomenon. http://www.permessa.com/whitepapers/Email_Best_Practices Regards, Ken Gartner http://www.permessa.com

henry
henry

Speaking about a very plain approach to coping with information overload, I'm using my own application - Context Organizer - to summarize my reading material. When at a click of a button I see the keywords and the most important sentences - that helps me to quickly decide how useful the information is. In my experience summarization helps with finding specific information in a sea of disparate content and is critical in quickly focusing on the most relevant information.

Stelian
Stelian

A lot of people use Reply All to show how smart they are. The number of needless replies then grows exponentially with the number of "smart" people.

GlennHughes
GlennHughes

They did this at the company I just joined and it works a treat. No hitting reply to all by mistake. You have to copy and paste the names into the cc field from the original email (an easy and painless task) but it makes you sanity check whether you need to send to all or not. Easy really!

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Not only did this lower my productivity it ruined my day and alienated me from my loved ones!

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

you have certainly introduced imaginings that are capable of alienating one part of my mind from another. At least for today. Good Lord man, but you do have a way about you! :D etu

davist@childrensfactory.
davist@childrensfactory.

Were I work if I waited and only checked my email and in my case ticket system 4 times a day or waited for 4 emails before I did something about the issue, that fourth email would be the one telling me to clear out my desk. I am a lone Admin/support desk/public relations/trainer/R&D guy supporting 150 users in two locations (not huge but it fills my time) and my primary form of communication is email. I guess I am just a bit on the ADD side that I can code in php, cobol, .net and check email and configure software, and update servers and hold a conversation with the guys in the office. Think about what you are saying, is email that different from snail mail, in both its function and purpose (I realize that one is much slower). If I waited for someone to send me 4 letters in the mail, they probably won't even read my response when they finally get it. Or in the case of something critical say a bill I will have the property repossessed before I get around to responding. Think about what some of you are saying, it sounds more like you are jaded in your views due to lack of proper training on the effective use of email in an organization.

Lovs2look
Lovs2look

Ok so you check your email more than 4 times a day...hooray for you! The users send you emails to fire you? WOW! you should get out of that job. Perhaps YOU should think about what YOU are saying before posting unrelated material to a discussion.

davist@childrensfactory.
davist@childrensfactory.

Are you serious, did you read the post? The point was that a vast majority of these comments were bashing the users on their use of email, and the "4 times a day/ waiting for 4 similar emails" was in response to several posts that stated that they didn't check their email but a few times a day and they didn't respond to situation until they had received 4 emails about it. And yes I could be fired by email, whey your CIO is in another location and your primary method of communication is email how do you think I am going to hear about my pending termination, singing telagram?

MartyParker
MartyParker

Totally agree with "Reply All" problem. One way to help is to get more visibility to e-mail usage. Not many tools out there, but I do use ClearContext which helps keep my messages organized into threads and keeps me more aware of the recipient's time, as well as my own.

csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

We use Reply All for our work order system on our IT mailbox. But I can see where reply all could easily cause issues when users use this religiously. But I would have to say, people sending email in all caps is a much bigger pet peeve of mine. I've had to chastise quite a few of my users for that transgression.

palee
palee

Yes, indeed... ALL CAPS, all lowercase, meaningless or misleading subject lines, rambling thoughts, messages rife with grammatical and spelling errors or cryptic shorthand -- all of these are bigger problems than "Reply All" inherently is.

dsgee999
dsgee999

Misspellings and ALL CAPS in e-mails don't waste my time. On the other hand, excessive e-mails drains me.

Ken Ga
Ken Ga

I totally agree. . . Several months ago, I replied to another blog on TechRepublic and somebody hostily replied back to me with very poor grammar(lower case, spelling, missing words, etc.). Not a word of what he said meant anything to me or others. I replied back stating "Your ingnorance is not a sign of intelligence. I can clearly see that your technical expertise is as savvy as your writing ability". Some people you feel like b!+ch slapping for their ignorance, grammar, and/or writing abilities.

Lovs2look
Lovs2look

But you did, didn't you? Mis spelling, poor grammar, poor punctuation and poorly thought out messages annoy me. This just tells me the kind of person that they are...too lazy to care. So I might be too lazy to reply...

Slvrknght
Slvrknght

Good Lord this was a problem at my first IT. Only there, it was worse. People who needed to use Reply All wouldn't and those who should never approach the Reply All button used it with unhesitating consistency. *facepalm* and *curse words*

john.carleo
john.carleo

Outlook provides the ability to create a form. Tools/Forms and then either Choose a Form or Design a Form. Once in the form design mode you can turn off Reply All on the Actions tab. You then move to the Properties tab and select "Send form definition with item", save the form as "No Reply All" and you can then use it in the future when sending emails to large distributions.

MavMin2
MavMin2

It may come from a deep need to be noticed, especially on a message with hundreds of people. Everyone now knows your name albeit they may be cussing your name. Yet, we know some kids act out just to get any kind of attention be it negative or positive and these folks may be attention deprived. Now, if they have something awesome to say then reply all is not only good for their standing in the crowd but it is actually productive. Sadly, the awesome sayings are rare. ;-(

gaitrosd
gaitrosd

I have been around long enough to remember the IT business before email. While email allows us to communicate with each other more efficiently it has also placed a burden on our workplace. We often find ourselves receiving unofficial tasks which in turn increases our workload from sources outside of our normal chain of supervision and customer base. It is hard to say no but I find myself doing this more often these days. Email can make people lazy. I find many individuals will fire off an email to ask a question that they could easily look up the answer too on the Internet or (forbid me from saying this) a technical manual. Emails are often too informal and can be misinterpreted. We use to draft letters and review them for content carefully before we sent them out. In doing so we would make sure the tone and content of the message was appropriate. I will often get messages that were obviously thrown together in a heated moment only later to get a follow up message correcting the first. Have you ever been sitting in a meeting with people who have mobiles devices and watch them read and replay to emails and text messages while the meeting is in progress? This is rude behavior if I ever saw it. That's worse than sitting there reading a newspaper. There is such a thing as being too connected. I could write an article on the subject. I should.

stevethehawk
stevethehawk

If a reply is intended for a specific person other than me, then I don't want to see it or deal with it. It's about as annoying as having my phone ring because someone called the wrong number. My other big pet peeve is the people that feel the need to forward the forward of the forward so that you end up with an email that has the relevant content buried 6 or 8 forwards deep. Why can't they just forward the actual content, not the entire collection of forwards? I don't want to click 8 times to get to the point.

lucideer
lucideer

The email clients that is. While there are some cases when Reply-All can actually be hazardous (the accidental hit when your email might contain some private/personal/informal info not intended for the masses), if the argument is in regards to productivity and information overloads, I think is a perfectly good solution in the concept behind GMails 'conversations'. Webclients in general have their fair share of disadvantages, but this is one feature they have nailed and I'm shocked no installed clients have adopted it yet. I'm sure it would be an invaluable feature for many. Those nasty 'Reply-Alls' are neatly and unobstrusively tucked away into a 'conversation', grouping all connected replies and leaving you to focus on what's new and important in your inbox. How simple is that.

srawcliffe
srawcliffe

Can be irritating, but ... Within our department, it often plays the social function of making everyone feel involved. But maybe we just don't have as many unnecessary reply-to-alls as some. And then ... What Jonathan Spira says hits the core of the problem: "Workers can spend 10 to 20 times the length of the original interruption trying to get back on track." Part of the solution to that is to set the mail client not to check for mail quite so often. There's a temptation to set it to the minimum (once a minute, in Notes). And it's hard to resist the temptation to switch away from what you're doing and "just see if it's something urgent". 99% of the time it isn't, but ... too late. The interruption's happened, and the next 30 seconds to a minute are spent "getting back on track". Steve

lonnyparsons
lonnyparsons

I actually had a situation a few years back...partially my fault...where I cc'd a bunch of people who didn't know each other (but needed the same bit of info). One of them replied with a rather off-color that he had meant to only address to me -- but he accidentally hit "reply-all". Oops. Thank god they weren't clients. Since then I have been the king of bcc. And reply all? I only use it when I have to. Check those email fields before sending, guys!!

Jaqui
Jaqui

is to use email lists. if it's important that everyone gets an email, send it to the list. even reply all will only send two emails, one to the original sender, and one to the list. if it isn't important enough to go to everyone, then it should only go to the ONE or TWO people who need it.

dlandrum
dlandrum

Take the button off of end user Tool Bars. Then if they want to reply all - they HAVE to look for it!

Ken Ga
Ken Ga

Yeah and when they do figure out how to reply to all, a pop-up would appear and ask the user if they are really sure they want to reply to all or are they one of those dumb@$$ losers who just don't care about sending out garbage.

SmilingSheep
SmilingSheep

Yes, but I've seen e-mail conversations that should have been private that were not 'taken off list'. 1st msg (M to list), "Hey there's a meeting at 10am tomorrow" 2nd msg (S to M), "Don't forget we need the projector" 3rd msg (M to S), "Can you grab it on the way. Its closer to your office" 4th msg, "Yes, I can pick it up" 5th msg, "OK, thanks" Argh! I (and the rest of the list) didn't need to get all of that in our inboxes.

psinger1
psinger1

My experience with "Reply All" on Listservs os more like this: 1st) Please take me off this mailing (sic) list 2nd) Me too 3rd) I have no Idea why I keep getting this junk. 4th) Will you guys please stop hitting "Reply All"? 5th) I am so confused 6th) Why are all of you sending me this mail? 7th) Please take me off your list 8th) Me too 9th) Are you a bunch of morons? . . . 1923rd) Please take me off your list 1924th) If you don't stop sending me this mail I will scream [O.K., so I am on a few _large_ lists. And I agree, that knowing when to "reply all" should be on the list of requirements before being allowed to drive or vote. But, in this case, removing the "Reply All" button will not help. Because these (ab)users have gone out of their way to reply to a mailing list address rather than the proper address. Sort of like spending extra time to compose a note to "donotreply.com" ]

Ken Ga
Ken Ga

This is pretty funny yet true. I could see this sort of thing making it into a Dilbert strip.

toni.bowers_b
toni.bowers_b

People who automatically click Reply All to e-mail are my personal pet peeve. What's your opinion?

palee
palee

I wish I could get some of my colleagues to use "Reply All" more often, in situations where it's helpful or even crucial. I frequently deal with teams of people numbering from several to several dozen, at different locations and in different organizations. "Reply All", along with mailing lists, allows me to query or inform the entire team on matters of concern to most or all team members. All too often, a team member will respond only to the sender with information that needs to be shared with several team members or the entire team. In many (most?) email programs, you can start out with "Reply All", and then prune the list of addressees to only those who will find the information useful. Rather than eschewing "Reply All", use good judgment when choosing the recipients of your message. Use good judgment when deciding whether to send any message at all. Send only to those who may have need of the information. And save the "I agree", "good call", and "hear, hear" replies for a paragraph in a future message that carries other information. Where there is useful information to be shared, I tell colleagues, "Go ahead and send it to me. It's easier to ignore what I do receive than to go hunting for what I don't."

ginmemphis
ginmemphis

Many people do not get the fact that CC really just means FYI. (Those of us who actually remember Carbon Copies should know that.) Thanks for the reminder to use BCC.

shermp
shermp

BCC is a better idea for any large list. Not only does it guard against the dreaded "reply to all" but it also prevents recipients from seeing the email addresses of everyone else who has ever recieved the email.

debuggist
debuggist

I remember many years ago an email thread within IT that diverged from the original topic. People kept using reply-all. Even the CIO joined in. Eventually, several of us became annoyed but didn't know what to do. One sysadmin, who was planning to leave the company soon and change careers, stopped it dead in its tracks with a single word. unsubscribe We never saw an out-of-control email thread like that again in IT.

kenefick.m
kenefick.m

If the recipients can not figure out the difference between reply and reply all, then maybe the sender should be using the BCC option.

Neil Leacy
Neil Leacy

The number of times I've had to explain what BCC: is to people! Especially as it is not readily noticeable in MS Outlook. Mind you when I have explained the benefits mmost people look upon it as a means of covering their backs and their managers end up with even more mail they don't necessarily need. You just can't win sometimes. ;-)

carter_k
carter_k

A pet peeve of mine is people who don't proofread their message, send it to a HUGE list of recipients, then realize they have an error, and have to RE-SEND it along with an apology. PLEASE: Check, double-check, and triple-check a message for accuracy, spelling, grammer, everything before sending to a huge list of people. What's worse is when several people who catch the error then do REPLY-ALL to ask if there isn't an error. This sometimes sets off a flood of messages that are nothing but a complete waste of everyone's time. Everyone thinks everyone else needs to join in the discussion about the error.

smallcatt
smallcatt

I'm sorry, but I just don?t understand how/why people can hit the wrong button and send a Reply All. All I can figure out is that if you want to reply to something and you hit Reply All there has to be some sort of need in people to voice their opinion to everyone. Chances are that none of the other people on the list give a damn what they have to say and the buttons, while close together, don?t even look the same. So why/how could anyone hit the wrong one by accident? It must be on purpose, and if it is they really just need to be slapped.

bfpower
bfpower

The quote from Jonathan Spira has a key flaw. He states that "workers get disoriented every time they stop what they are doing to reply to an e-mail." The problem is that they are stopping what they are doing to reply to the emails. Geez - just minimize it, read the popup window telling you who sent it, and if it's important enough to cause an interruption, it must be pretty darn important. Maybe our problem is that we bother stopping what we're doing - that's a productivity buster.

Neil Leacy
Neil Leacy

People are inquisitive and when there attention is distracted they want to look-see what the distraction is about. One simple solution to constant email interruptions is to set the send/receive timer to at least 60 minutes rather than the ubiquitous default of every five minutes. Ever since I started doing this I've found myself getting on with more and find dealing with the arrival of a regular batch of messages easier than individual interruptions. by the way - one important thing that I've never understood about email. If a message is really THAT important then ring the recipient and talk to them, even if it is just to confimr that they're able to receive your message. Email is important but it is still a mailing service. One that is still too hit and miss to be relied upon as much as it is.

JSmotherman
JSmotherman

I agree with MOST of what you said, except that it IS possible to click Reply All by mistake. I've done it. Yes the buttons look different, but it only takes a little distraction and there you are, replying to everyone. In my case, it came with its own punishment - I ended up on the mailing list of someone who does nothing but forward every email he ever gets to EVERYONE in his addressbook...sigh.

metalmonkey
metalmonkey

A while ago, I was working in a huge call center (+/-2000 employees)and somebody from custommer service had the good idea to send an email to "everyone" to see if she could get someone to replace her for the day after. Altought it was quite a bad idea to send this to everyone in the first place, the real problem came when people started to "reply all" at first just to say they couldn't and then to say stuff like: -please don't send to everyone next time -yeah and don't reply all -well, you reply all too so you're no better -you're all stupid, we're trying to work here and so on and so forth. The company IT dept eventually had to close all connections to the server because the system was being overloaded.

Ken Ga
Ken Ga

Reply to all for the most part urkes me too. Reply to all works only on "to" and "cc" and does not work on "bcc". Bcc'ing people in this case would have prevented everyone else from getting stupid replies.

jmhmaine
jmhmaine

I agree, most of the time Reply to All is misused. What I found funny was a few weeks ago I asked someone why they didn't Reply to All. I had sent out an email to three people and had a question about scheduling a meeting. It was one of the rare times when Reply To All would have been more useful then just replying to me. What ended up happening was that I had to resend messages to the third person because the other respondent neglected to Reply to All.

Ken Ga
Ken Ga

PROS: MS Outlook allows you to see others schedules to allow you to better choose the meeting time that appears to be OK with everyone, prior to sending out a request. It also stops a lot of the reply to all responses from all others, then leaving you to sort through a mess of shedule conflicts. If your original meeting is not good for everyone, then you can select a new date/time. CONS: Not everyone uses the calendar in MS Outlook which can give you bad information when trying to look and comparing everyones calendar. Even for the people who use who use MS Outlook, not everyone enters in their out of times(including vacation).

dsgee999
dsgee999

....resist the urge to send 'question' e-mails to multiple recipients. I have found that when I reply to such e-mails, the others recipients have too. Thus, a totally unnecessary duplication of effort. Other times, different answers result to follow up e-mails for clarification and reconciliation. That too is often a waste of time. So now, when I receive an e-mail that asks the question that's addressed to other people as well, I often simply ignore it. My time is too precious.