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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Business Email: The Killer Impact

Has email redefined human communication and interaction? How have organizations and employees incorporated email into their processes? This article aims to answer these questions and start a discussion around issues of email in the workplace. We report the results of a quantitative survey on the role of email in organizations. This survey, which involved administering an email questionnaire to 600 employees of 50 U.K.-based organizations, found email to be extremely pervasive within organizations. It is considered a valuable medium of communication that sits comfortably amidst verbal and written media. The survey also demonstrated that attitudes toward and patterns of email usage are differentiated by gender, as well as by psychological issues such as confidence levels. Also, despite the increase in factors that might hamper the effectiveness and efficiency of email, such as spam and viruses, the survey findings suggest organizations have implemented an infrastructure to manage these issues so they have a limited impact on end users.

The survey, conducted in 2002/2004, highlighted several human factors that affect the use of email. These factors are experience, degree of confidence in computer usage, and gender. The statistical analysis showed a significant correlation (at the 0.01 level Pearson 2-tailed) between:

  • Frequency of email usage and confidence of computer usage. The more confident a user is, the more likely he or she is to use email.
  • Confidence of computer usage and reliance on email. A higher comfort level with computers leads to reliance on email for work tasks.
  • Gender and confidence. Men are more likely to feel confident in their ability to use computers than women.

Even when the level of computer experience was similar between men and women, men still had a propensity to report more confidence in their ability to use computers than women. The level of computer experience was determined by the frequency and venue of computer and email usage, and the type of training received by respondents. In fact, nearly twice as many male as female respondents considered themselves "very confident" computer users, with the majority of female respondents considering themselves "quite confident." Only 3% of respondents felt they were "not very confident"—three out of four of these respondents were women. However, if the variable of confidence in computer usage is removed, both men and women were equally reliant on email in the workplace.

These findings agree with a study by Hoxmeier et al. [5], which identified gender and experience as two factors affecting an individual's ubiquitous and pervasive use of email. The study found that experience of IT positively affects an individual's perceived confidence in the use of email, and that women lacking a strong IT background perceive themselves as less confident in use of email than men of similar backgrounds; however, computing skills and experience using IT and email neutralize this gender difference in confidence. These findings were also supported by research conducted in a student's sample that indicated greater confidence in technology use among males at a young age [8].

Table 1

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Email at Work

The volume of email in one's inbox can sometimes seem so overwhelming as to outweigh the productivity increases email is supposed to facilitate at work, but this assumption was not borne out by the findings of this study. Modern-day workers are creating new working practices with email as a central component—and nearly all respondents use email on a daily basis.

Email was found to be an integral part of how people conduct their business. Over one-third of survey respondents believed it is crucial to their job and nearly half believed it helps them do their job better. Only 2% perceived email as prohibitive to their job. Email is also contributing to a paperless business environment—nearly 60% of respondents never or rarely print email messages.

Business email is largely geared toward communication and information sharing. Several respondents commented that email had improved teamwork and information flow. For example, that the "cc" function allows information sharing with multiple co-workers simultaneously keeps everyone "in the loop," and also provides a means of summarizing action points, provided recipients accept a level of informality. Most respondents reported the net effect of email has improved organizational communication.

Three out of five respondents distributed confidential information by email. However, only one-third of these respondents used any measures of protection. Of those that did, passwords and encryption technology are the two main protection measures.

Some integration of email into core business processes exists, but there is much room for growth in this area. Social use of email mirrors business patterns, with online banking being the main activity of personal business.

Table 2

Three out of five respondents indicated they do not feel inundated by email, and slightly more believed that email does not add to their workload. Although managers and executives are the most likely to believe they receive too many email messages, the majority of managers, professionals, skilled clerical workers, and technical workers felt they neither receive too many email messages nor that it adds to their workload.

Common email management processes are only responding when necessary and deleting email without reading it. The overwhelming criterion by which users prioritize responses is by the name of the sender. Subject title, urgency symbols, and others (for instance recognizing junk mail), were of far less significance. The net flow is receiving rather than sending email, indicating that the nature of email working includes receiving email messages but not necessarily requiring a response or action. However, one respondent noted: "There is an infuriating trend for people to say, when asked a simple question, `I sent you an email' instead of `yes or no.' Related to this, people often preface a discussion with `Did you get the email I sent you?' and when the answer is negative, resent having to "repeat" themselves."

Spam appears not to be the problem at work as it is sometimes portrayed. One in five respondents said they did not receive any junk email. Of those that did, on average, around 20% of all email received was spam. None of the respondents felt they were inundated with junk email to such an extent that it added to their workload. Subsequent questioning of IT managers within organizations in which respondents worked indicated the majority had no restrictions in terms of limiting internal and external email, but had implemented a combination of hardware (firewalls) and software (anti-spam applications) which seem to be working effectively.

Email incorporates similar qualities of honesty, expressiveness, and impersonality as letters, and has a similar level of formality as face-to-face communication.

Despite the widely publicized proliferation of viruses, virus protection programs within organizations are working effectively, with only one-third of respondents suffering a virus attack in the past year, and the consequential disruption being minimal.

Evidence has shown that email is replacing the more traditional business communication media of telephone, fax, and mail. This survey examined how email is perceived as a communication medium by business. Fourteen characteristics of business communication were selected to compare email with face-to-face, telephone, and letter-writing. The accompanying figure illustrates how each of the three relates to email (which is the central axis) according to the 14 communication characteristics.

As a medium of communication, email was found to combine elements of telephone, face-to-face, and letter-writing. It has largely the same impact as the telephone in terms of conveying aggression, honesty, directness, offensiveness, formality, and as a medium that allows communication to be conclusive. Email incorporates similar qualities of honesty, expressiveness, and impersonality as letters, and has a similar level of formality as face-to-face communication.

However, email was also seen as more impersonal, brief, accessible, rapid, and productive than telephone communication. Interestingly, out of the four media, email was seen as the least stressful, but also the least expressive and least trustworthy mainly because of issues surrounding Internet security.

For some respondents, the characteristic of increased email accessibility means they can contact anybody at any level—something they cannot achieve with any other medium. In one instance, email has flattened the organization's hierarchy to an extent where a CEO regularly solicits communication with all levels of employees.

Other features respondents highlighted were email's provision of a record (time and date stamp) of communication unlike telephone or face-to-face contact. This feature can save administrative time, but also makes people more wary of the content they are sending. It also gives the user more time to formulate a response, which face-to-face and telephone communication do not allow.

Our survey examined the broad nature of communication taking place via email. Overall, the most preferred medium for communicating both good and bad news is face-to-face communication. However, the sequential order of preference for communicating by other media differed for good and bad news. Letters, email, and telephone were preferred in descending order for delivering bad news, while telephone, email, and letters were preferred in descending order for delivering good news.

Table 3

Men preferred face-to-face communication for both good and bad news, while women prefer the telephone. In addition, more women preferred email as a means of communicating both kinds of news, which overturns the perception of email as a male-dominated means of communication.

Our survey found a statistically significant (at the 0.05 level) difference between the preferred media for communication and gender. Men preferred face-to-face communication for both good and bad news, while women prefer the telephone. In addition, compared to men, more women (reputed to be natural communicators) preferred email as a means of communicating both kinds of news, which overturns the perception of email as a male-dominated means of communication.

The nature and responsibilities of business occupation were also found to influence the chosen medium of communication. Managers and directors preferred to break both good and bad news face-to-face, perhaps indicative of their role as people managers.

From these findings, we can see that email is developing into a medium that can convey a host of existing and new dimensions for people to communicate and build relationships. Other studies have confirmed this and in addition have shown that over time, computer mediated communication (CMC) develops similar dimensions as face-to-face communication [7]. This suggests that over time, the negative characteristics associated with email, such as its perception as an aggressive, untrustworthy, and impersonal and even "cold" way of communicating will dissipate. This is borne out by respondents who noted they were gradually able to develop relationships via email with individuals they had not met in person.

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Evolving from Email

In order for organizations to maintain and improve their level of efficiency in the information economy of the 21st century, business must operate "@ the speed of thought" [4] and communication infrastructures must support this instantaneous transmission of information. Email has now moved into the mainstream of business practice and the next potential means of achieving competitive advantage is through the use of instant messaging (IM) technologies.

Our survey found that for nearly two-thirds of respondents who mainly work in Europe, IM has not been considered in their organizations. There were numerous responses to IM, ranging from the derogatory to the ecstatic. The two main reasons IT managers gave for not implementing IM were its lack of security, and its lack of a documentary audit trail of communications. One IT manager considered IM as "only for students and not for professional businesses—why use instant messaging when we have pagers and mobile phones."

In the second half of 2004, IT managers for the organizations responsible for over 40% of survey respondents were planning to implement private corporate IM infrastructures within the next six months. These systems were intended mainly for internal intra-organizational communication. As one IT manager noted regarding IM:

"For groups of people who work together on common projects but are separated, ... in different offices and ... different time zones ... [IM is a] more-aneous form of communication with appropriate feedback mechanisms ... [eliminating] the stilted flow of communication. As people wait for returned emails or phone calls, the impetus of the moment is lost."

It should be noted that the organizations planning to implement IM in the near future were in the media/information sectors and were operating via a more unconventional dynamic, incorporating more contemporary working practices such as hot-desking and remote/home working.

IM currently tends not to be perceived as a serious and professional means of communication in Europe. A Surf Control Survey in 2004 [1] revealed that workers were using IM to circumvent company email policies and corporate systems, and that it was being used largely for non-work purposes (such as chatting to family and friends), which over half of respondents questioned felt would have a negative impact on productivity. Similar comments were made at the inception of email, which has now become a core part of the way in which organizations communicate.

IM in European organizations looks to be emerging from the gestation period over the next year. It is an enabling technology for flexible working practices providing alternative paradigms of communication. The next phase of this research will examine how organizations in Europe have implemented and are using IM and the impact it has on both organizations and their employees.

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So is email a killer app? In terms of scope, physical infrastructure, usage, and accessibility, email is of killer application proportions. It is almost ubiquitous in technologically developed regions of the world as a means of both business and social communication between people.

Although email relies on telecommunications networks and microprocessors, human factors such as gender, confidence, and experience have been found to affect the use of email. Men, who tend to have more confidence in their computer skills, are more likely to use email. But the lack of confidence associated with gender is neutralized by IT experience. Since IT is now available through almost all levels of the education infrastructure, this is not a long-term problem. There was no evidence to suggest a gender difference in abilities, only perceived self-confidence. The study found more women than men preferred to use email to deliver news.

This survey confirms that the nature of communication in the workplace is changing as widely adopted email management processes, such as deleting and not responding to messages, have become implicitly accepted as part of the communication process of the 21st century. This has been facilitated by email's mix of traditional communication channels, incorporating the formality of face-to-face communication with the impersonality of letters, for example. These dynamics create new dimensions of communication. In the short term, this could lead to possible tensions and misunderstandings in communication, but as people learn new rules for interpreting communication through email, these misunderstandings will diminish.

International governments have become aware of the need to control and manage email on a politico-legal level, and many anti-spam laws have been introduced in the U.S. and Europe. We also see that businesses have effectively implemented technological infrastructures and systems to manage email. For instance, virus and spam prevention measures seem to have been successfully integrated in organizations, but management of email information security is overlooked and still needs more rigorous and uniform attention.

In this article, we have seen that over time, employees have developed their own intuitive and informal practices for creating and managing their daily email communications. Studies have shown that email management training can be effective in reducing inefficiencies in the workplace [2] and a lack of training can lead to legal and regulatory risks regarding issues such as the retention and content of employee email and IM [6]. There is now a need for organizations to formalize the practice of email management for their employees to ensure they effectively manage their email on a daily basis and are aware of legal and professional requirements [2, 3].

The essence of killer applications is to maximize changes in technology. The nature of communication has changed over the past few years, and will continue to do so, but in an environment where technologically disruptive elements exist, organizations that act quickly and harness these changes might develop new and revolutionary ways of taking email usage to the next level for competitive advantage. It is still too early to assess the impact of other technologies, for instance IM, on the business community in Europe as it lags behind the U.S. in the adoption stage. However, it is an extremely flexible and enabling technology that is being implemented by organizations with an ethos of flexible and dynamic working practices. The next phase of this study involves investigating the phenomenon of IM messaging in organizations.

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1. BBC News. Messaging programs bring instant risk;

2. Burgess A., Jackson T., and Edwards, J. Email training significantly reduces email defects. International Journal of Information Management 25, 1 (Feb. 2005), 71.

3. Demirdjian Z.S. Toward taming the monster in electronic mail. Journal of American Academy of Business 7, 1 (Sept. 2005), 1–2.

4. Gates, B. Business @ the Speed of Thought. Penguin Business Books, 2000.

5. Hoxmeier J., Nie, W., and Purvis, G.T. The impact of gender and experience on user confidence in electronic mail. Journal of End User Computing 12, 4 (Oct.–Dec. 2000), 11–20.

6. Swartz N. Workplace Email, IM survey reveals risks. Information Management Journal 39, 3 (May/June 2005), 6.

7. Walther, J.B. Relational aspects of computer-mediated communication: Experimental observations over time. Organization Science: A Journal of the Institute of Management 6, 2 (Mar./Apr. 1995), 186.

8. Young, B. Gender differences in student attitudes toward computers. Journal of Research on Computing in Education 33, 2 (2000) 204–216.

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Rana Tassabehji ( is a lecturer in e-business and information systems at the School of Management, University of Bradford, U.K.

Maria Vakola ( is a lecturer in organizational behavior at the Athens University of Economics and Business, Greece.

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UF1Figure. Comparison of different communication media for business.

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T1Table 1. Profile of survey respondents.

T2Table 2. Business and social use of email.

T3Table 3. Email communication patterns of good and bad news.

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©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/1100  $5.00

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