Does E-Mail Curb Productivity?

Should employers re-examine the role of e-mail? One trend of thought is that overflowing e-mail can actually decrease workplace productivity. New York Times editor David Shipley, co-author of a book on e-mail, offers his insights.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The co-author of a guide to e-mail says his workplace has not adopted e-mail-free Fridays and that seems fine with him. David Shipley is op-ed editor for the New York Times; his book is called "Send."

Mr. DAVID SHIPLEY (New York Times; Co-author of "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home"): E-mail-free Fridays are positive in that they are sort of the first cry for help from citizenry drowning by e-mail. They aren't such a good thing in that it's basically an avoidance strategy. Why don't we have Fridays where we learn to e-mail a little bit better or we are going to spend Fridays e-mailing only between the hours of nine and five?

And you know, e-mails are an absolutely fantastic communication tool, and it's incumbent on us to do it better, not just avoid it and give up.

INSKEEP: Okay. So you said don't answer e-mails except between nine and five. That would be one way to do it, I suppose.

Mr. SHIPLEY: Well, a huge strategy is don't send them between nine and five. And I was, you know, we were talking earlier about my walk over from the New York Times building to the NPR studios. And on the way I was just sort of conducting an informal survey, and I saw eight, maybe nine people just Blackberrying away.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention, you're walking through midtown Manhattan near Times Square, one of the most spectacular and interesting places to look around and you're looking at people who aren't looking around.

Mr. SHIPLEY: Exactly. And how many of us have actually pulled out our Blackberrys and just sent off a bunch of e-mails to fill those interstitial spaces. Now, you know, it's a fine way to occupy your time, but you have to ask, well, what's going to happen to the person who's received all those e-mails?

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask if it might be advisable for many people to question whether they should have a Blackberry or the equivalent device?

Mr. SHIPLEY: Do you have a Blackberry, Steve?

INSKEEP: I'm afraid I do.

Mr. SHIPLEY: And so what are your general habits?

INSKEEP: Well, just lately I've tried to avoid using it at all outside of work. I've realized that my day seems to get a lot longer and more relaxed and slower paced if I don't use it once I leave work.

Mr. SHIPLEY: I mean, one really helpful way to think about Blackberrys is the crossword puzzle rule. If you were in a certain social setting, would you do a crossword puzzle? If we're in a meeting, would you pull out a crossword and start filling away?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHIPLEY: And I think if you replace crossword with Blackberry, you'll find you're using it in places where you really shouldn't be using it. Now, there are things that the world can do to help. I mean, Google, as you probably know, introduced this funny feature recently. It's called the e-mail addict. When you click the icon on Google, it says take a walk, get some real work done, or have a snack, we'll be back in 15 minutes or 14 minutes or whatever it says. Then your screen goes gray. And of course you can open it up again, but it, in a way...

INSKEEP: But it makes you think.

Mr. SHIPLEY: It makes you think. It cultivates a certain mindfulness that says, okay, should I be sending these e-mails right now? Maybe I should pick up the phone or maybe I should talk to a family member. There's a wonderful quote from Bob Geldof, who should be known for humanitarian things and great music. E-mail gives the illusion of progress even when nothing is happening.

And I think we're finding that more and more in our lives, that we spend our entire days e-mailing and we leave the office with sort of this e-mail haze at the end of the day. And we think, you know, I was incredibly busy today, I fired off all these e-mails, but what actually happened? You know, we're e-mailing more and we're communicating less.

INSKEEP: David Shipley is co-author of "Send: The Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home." Thanks very much.

Mr. SHIPLEY: Thank you so much for speaking with me.

INSKEEP: And our series continues tomorrow morning on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY. NPR's Laura Sydell is going to ask if we have too many ways to connect. If you have an opinion about that, of course, you can grab a Blackberry, send somebody a text message, post your view on Facebook or Twitter.

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