Information overload and out-of-hours emails

7 July, 2021
information overload infobesity theme park illustration about building teamwork

We have talked before about the impact of information overload but it’s been in the news again recently, with unions calling for a ban on out of hours emails. Is this really the answer in a flexible, post-pandemic workplace? Or should we be finding more innovative and less draconian ways of paring down communications to make them more relevant, efficient and accessible? Tackling information overload is something we’ll be talking about in our upcoming webinar Helping employees understand your organisation’s ‘Big Picture’.

Information overload happens when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. It happens with computers and it happens with human beings. When our brains reach their processing capacity, much like a computer with too many apps open, everything slows down, decision-making ability is reduced and mistakes happen.

Information overload and the pandemic

During the recent pandemic, a sizeable proportion of the UK workforce has been working from home. Whilst they have been very willing to adopt new tools and practices, employer scepticism around productivity has led to an increased pressure to check emails, jump on to Zoom calls or Teams meetings, and to be available at all hours of the day. It has become harder to draw a line between work and home life. Rather than working from home, for many it has felt more like living at the office, making it almost impossible to switch off. It is a pace of work that is simply not sustainable. There is something very healthy about having a psychological separation between work and home life. However, with the return to work finally in sight, many employees worry that this expectation of 24-hour availability will continue and work life balance will become a distant memory.

The right to disconnect

The trade union Prospect, whose members work in such diverse areas as agriculture, broadcasting, IT, defence, environment, shipbuilding and the civil service, is calling for the government to give employees a legal and binding right to disconnect. This would ban managers from routinely emailing or calling outside of working hours. This right to disconnect has been law for four years in France, where companies set agreed and specific hours for teleworkers. Ireland has also brought in a code of practice, under which employers are asked to add footers or pop-up messages to their emails, reminding employees that there is no requirement to reply to emails out of hours. Prospect wants the UK government to set out similar protections in its new Employment Bill, expected to be published later this year.

Why is information overload a problem?

Let’s start with a few statistics. Worldwide there are:

  • more than 500 hours of new content uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • 3 million emails sent every second
  • 1.8 billion websites on the internet
  • hundreds of blog posts published every minute
  • around 59,000,000,000,000 gigabytes of new data created in 2020 alone

Employees around the world are dealing with company intranets, emails, project management tools, company newsletters, newsfeeds, private messaging apps, document sharing tools, video conferencing software, company blogs, etc, etc. The list just goes on. Keeping up with all these communications has become a full time job, leaving them with little time to do the work they were hired to do, and that their performance targets are based on. Instead of focusing on important work, they are spending too much of their time monitoring and adding to a never ending stream of often-irrelevant messages. This creates stress, dissatisfaction and a loss of focus.

And we all feed into it by checking our inboxes at all hours, answering every email, and not setting realistic or sustainable boundaries. The instant nature of an email means it’s easy to fire off a message as soon as you have a query, and copy in 10 other members of staff for good measure. Sending almost instant messages makes us think we’re important – and it shoves the problem into someone else’s inbox. There is a big difference, however, between being busy and being productive.

How does information overload impact your business?

Information overload (or the new buzzword, Infobesity) impacts not only your employees and their mental health but also your team’s performance and your organisation’s bottom line. When internal communications are poorly managed, it can have a massive, negative impact on:

  • employees’ mental health
  • productivity
  • employee satisfaction
  • innovation and collaboration
  • the perception of your brand both inside and outside the organisation
  • team performance
  • business performance

On average, people are distracted every 3 minutes by the buzz or ping of something landing on their phone or inbox. Once they have spent time finding the information needed to deal with it, it then takes another 15 – 25 minutes to re-focus on their original task. That is a lot of time lost. Of course, this slows down productivity, but it also affects a person’s ability to make decisions, which is where errors start to creep in. Alongside this, if information is duplicated or poorly-targeted, people switch off, delete things without reading them thoroughly, and miss out on the important messages. Team performance then suffers and the whole business is affected. Your employees become disgruntled and may spread the word outside the company – meaning you will find it harder to attract and retain the talent that you need. Once you lose momentum, it is very hard to get it back.

How much is too much?

There is a theory that we can only hold seven pieces of information in our short-term memory at any one time. With the overwhelming number of emails plus other data sources and apps our staff are expected to check every day, we are asking them to process a far more complex set of tasks than that. All this information needs to be understood, shared with the team, compared, analysed and acted upon. However, it is not just the number of channels we use. It is also about the quality of the information. Processing inaccurate, insufficient or conflicting information can reduce our cognitive abilities significantly faster than reliable information. Another consideration is the amount of information that is not relevant to the person receiving it. As internal communicators, we need to segment our communications and stop using a one-size-fits-all approach. So, information overload is a combination of many factors:

  • too much information shared
  • poorly-targeted information, which is irrelevant to many recipients
  • a one-size-fits-all approach to communications
  • no collaboration or alignment between all the different discussions
  • duplication of information
  • poor information
  • conflicting information
  • not enough time for employees to process the information
  • a lack of strategic vision

As internal communications professionals, we are in a very powerful position to influence the quantity, the quality and the relevance of information within our organisations. Look closely at the channels you use, the type of information that is shared across each one, and how you can streamline to avoid duplication. Letting employees know where they can access the important information they need can save hours of time searching.

Set the example on out-of-hours emails

If you want your staff to have the time to do your most important work, the organisation needs a culture with agreed boundaries and expectations. The best place for this to start is often at management level. If you check and respond to emails outside working hours, your team will too. It implies that there are no boundaries. A few minutes spent creating a clear communication protocol can transform the way your employees communicate. Try to limit your own communications to working hours or make it a team discussion and agree a timeline that sets out when it is acceptable and not acceptable to communicate.

The problem with banning all out of hours emails is that people need to be able to email at a time that works for them. Managers may leave work earlier but pick up again later in the evening. More people are requesting flexible working since the pandemic, or a hybrid home and office work pattern. An inclusive employer needs to ensure they do not disadvantage parents, carers or disabled workers. If you need to factor in shift working, flexible working hours or hybrid home and office work patterns, there will not be one timeline that suits everyone. In this case, it may be better to follow Ireland’s example and add prompts or pop-ups to communications, letting people know that they are only expected to deal with things during their own working hours. Let us know what you think. Would a ban on out of hours emails work in your organisation? Or do you already have a solution?

The “Helping employees understand your organisation’s ‘Big Picture’” webinar

In our Helping employees understand your organisation’s ‘Big Picture’ webinar, we will be exploring why traditional communication methods fail to engage employees. Six simple questions you need to answer for your employees to help them to feel more connected and engaged with your organisation. Plus we’ll look at how visualisation, two-way dialogue and interactivity can uplift your employees’ understanding and buy-in. Places are free but limited so secure your spot.



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