Supervisors: Don’t Turn Your Employees Into E-mail Zombies

Jan 21, 2012

Supervisors, don’t turn your employees into e-mail zombies. What do I mean by that?

Here’s a common scenario: a supervisor sends an e-mail to his or her employee and in the email tells the recipient that the action is due within an hour. When that hour is up and the e-mail has not been responded to, the supervisor calls or walks by the desk and says hey I sent you an e-mail why haven’t you done this? Within the next days, weeks, or months, the supervisor does this consistently.

The result? The staff are now all e-mail zombies. What do I mean by that? The staff are now constantly watching their e-mail for requests from their boss. They are fearful that if they don’t catch the e-mails immediately they may get in trouble for not responding quickly.

But here’s the problem. Because they are constantly watching e-mail, they are now attending to small low priority e-mails too, since they are right in front of them, and so are distracted quite often from their core work. They are now keeping their inbox open all times. Every e-mail that comes in they glance at to be sure it’s not from the boss. They keep blue-box e-mail notification on and constantly watch that box every time it pops up to see if it’s something from the boss, but of course they now read every one, and their main work is getting interrupted every few minutes.

They are now e-mail zombies. Research shows that it can take several minutes to get back into a task someone has been interrupted from, so productivity has decreased greatly in your team as they now all live in their e-mail.

So don’t do this! Don’t kill the productivity of your staff!

My rule of thumb: allow and expect that replies to e-mail may take up to 24 hours. That way your staff don’t feel like they need to live in e-mail. And encourage staff to check their in-box only every 2 or 3 hours, after they have finished bigger blocks of work.

And for urgent notification, instead of e-mail use the phone (yes the phone!). Or make it policy that you will all use text messages or Instant Messaging (IM) for (and only for) things that are urgent. You can always follow with details in an e-mail and alert them to that in the IM.

Then try to promulgate this policy throughout your company. You’ll be glad you did.


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6 Responses to Supervisors: Don’t Turn Your Employees Into E-mail Zombies

  1. J. P. Soso says:

    I am a mainframe Change Control Facilitator who uses a product that sends us emails when change requests are awaiting approval and ready to be moved. I don’t see myself as an email zombie. I created folders so I can differentiate because work requests and manager/supervisor requests. Monitoring my emails is just the nature of IT business.

  2. Óliver Fernández Avellaneda says:

    That’s a great advice, as all the advices that you give us Mr.Linenberger. But what to do when your supervisor turns you (and your team by extension) in email zombies? :-S

  3. Dirk Schulze-Bahr says:

    I agree to totally switch off the email notification. If there is a need to work real-time on email …. I would define rules, e.g. mail from manager notify me.

  4. Michael Linenberger says:

    Yes, there is a percent of workers out there who have customer service or help desk roles and their job IS to monitor email all the time, and this article really does not apply to them. (and perhaps some sales roles too need to monitor e-mail constantly). No, you are not a zombie in that case! The article is for everyone else. 🙂

  5. Michael Linenberger says:

    Well, bring it up in a team meeting and try to get some team pressure applied to the supervisor. Show him the article. He can call me if he wants! 😉

  6. Michael Linenberger says:

    Yes, perfect. I discuss that in another blog entry, to turn off email notification and turn it on using rules just for say your boss. For others that are not sure what Dirk is talking about, see this url:


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