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Wicked problems: the email tidal wave

For Paul Greatrix, one of the sectors' biggest problems is the email inbox
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Higher education has a distinctive problem with email.

We need to do something to enable staff to do their jobs better and not feel overwhelmed by the contents of their inboxes.

One source suggests that each day each office worker receives an average of 121 emails. With 430,000 staff in the sector this means 52m emails are received every day in the sector and the vast majority do not help productivity. This is a problem shared with all workplaces but there are additional challenges in HE because a large part of our community – students – prefer other means of communication.

Email is the primary communication tool for staff the sector but is not good for collaboration, for mobile devices or for real-time conversations. It also poorly used by many – I’m sure we can all cite examples of bad practice from frequent reply-all errors, to excessively long or unhelpfully short messages and to those who somehow manage just to ignore most emails you send them.


What is the impact of this then? Let’s assume a conservative two hours every working day per staff member on emails – if even half that time is dealing with unwanted emails or poor email use by others that makes 220 hours a year of unproductive activity or nearly six weeks of wasted time. This is the equivalent of around 11,500 FTE staff or about three medium-sized universities totally dedicated to diversionary email activity.

Some estimates would put this figure much higher, even 10 times greater. Either way, there is a huge cost to pointless email work. This represents a massive loss to the system, to teaching and research and student support, plus the significant impact on stress levels and wellbeing caused by trying to cope with what can often feel like a tidal wave.


What is to be done? Many alternatives have been tried including other communications tools, although the latest suggestion of short video messages is unlikely to take off, so there is always the option of returning to printed memos (I can dream). In the absence of anything else though email is likely to remain ubiquitous and everyone has to manage it better in order to help productivity, reduce wasted time and effort in the system but also to enable everyone to get more control back over their daily existence.

It is assumed that everyone knows what to do, how to send and manage email yet no-one is actually trained or advised on the best techniques. This is as dangerous as just assuming everyone knows how to drive without lessons or a test. So we need a required course for everyone working in HE which go beyond those MOOCs on writing good business English and how to send a snappy marketing email to cover everything about email etiquette, discipline, organisation and management. This will deliver huge productivity benefits and improve the quality of everyone’s working lives.

Then we can move on to working out how to engage better with our students.

(Particular thanks to my daughter, Flo Greatrix, for suggesting this topic to me. Apologies to her too, for forgetting to credit her in the first draft of this piece.)

5 responses to “Wicked problems: the email tidal wave

  1. Two things – (a) email should not be limited by storage space but by how many you can send in a 24 hour period and (b) ban auto-replies when absent and just switch off internal email inbox so they cannot be received and bounce back to the sender saying either send again after x date or contact y. Simples.

  2. Whatever happened to just picking up the phone and having a conversation with each other? or just going over to someones desk and asking a question and getting a speedy resolution, assuming they are not too far away that is.

    Its much more immediate, build relationships and is quicker than email (usually). Email and things like Teams, or Slack have their place but lets just use them when appropriate.

  3. Email is an ‘in/out tray’ NOT a storage repository, without proper email management the risk of retaining personal data too long in email is massive.

    Email is also the place where the most information beaches will happen, it’s too easy to be trigger happy and forward the wrong thing or attach the wrong thing, send to the wrong recipient or not realise there’s something confidential in the chain! Teams should consider moving away from email for enquiries and work requests, and utilising e-forms instead.

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