Addicted to Email?

When you look at the way most offices function these days, the opportunities for on the job socialising and mingling are dwindling.
Fewer people smoke so gatherings in draughty, windswept locations happen less and less. Changing work patterns have savaged traditional morning and afternoon tea breaks.
There is now the water cooler and the coffee dispenser, but they pale into insignificance when compared to the opportunities for gossip and communication provided by technology – especially email. Add to the mix the possibility of including people in other offices, cities, countries and time zones and the potential scope of the audience is enormous. The scope for disruption, distraction and detraction from performance is equally large.
Say what you like about the old ‘smoko’, at least it was scheduled and abuse was relatively easy to spot.
Employees making endless phone calls to partners organising social events are generally easy to spot. Not so in the case of email however. The employee looks busy but who knows whether the scowl of concentration reflects complex work assignment or tricky crossword? The essential question remains, what is reasonable?
We are not talking about pornography – the law in this regard is pretty clear, just as it is about using email as tool for targeted harassment. Zero tolerance prevails and using email in this way is dismissible offence.
Things become less clear, however, in the area of personal use (what is reasonable personal access) and on subjective matters of taste. When, for instance, does coarse joke become offensive or picture cross the line from art to obscene?
There is no formula but, there are general factors statutory employment bodies have taken into account when determining the circumstances of individual cases.
Top of the list are policies or procedures regarding email use and any warnings or communications to employees about these. Also considered is the treatment of others accused, or found guilty of misuse. The nature of the email or material distributed is another factor as is the volume – was it one-off or repeated action? Equally important is the status of the employment contract or agreement.
One management tool is byproduct of an increasingly common system security feature. Email content filters or “nannies” are designed predominantly for virus protection or screening porn, but they can also report on individual levels of usage.
There are potential privacy issues with interceptions. Proposed law changes could see emails, facsimiles and pager messages classified as “private communications”.
In most cases personal approach from manager outlining expectations and systems effectively gets the message across that email is for work and not for unrestricted personal use without content control. In other cases responsibility for managing and policing can be devolved to work teams or areas. Whatever your organisation’s approach, it must be reflected in employment agreements, policy manuals and procedures.
Basically there are three broad options.
The least popular in country with workplace demographic such as ours is the standard of many multinationals, which decrees no personal email. They often encourage staff to use web-based personal email addresses such as Hotmail or Yahoo accessible during lunch breaks or from home.
Then there is the free for all. Some see email as fast and effective where it can take an employee few seconds to arrange dinner or golf rather than several minutes for phone call. All too often free for all is the ‘default’ option for organisations that have never thought about the matter or been faced with an email problem.
The third policy option attempts to strike balance by making it clear email is provided for work purposes but that reasonable personal use is permitted if it does not disrupt work.
It should also be explained that all emails remain the property of the organisation, which reserves the right to review content and frequency of use. The law is little grey on your ability to review employees’ personal email if you do not explain ownership and ‘reserve’ the right in clearly written policy or procedure.
It is also necessary to outline the consequence of breaking the rules and the appropriate disciplinary procedures.
Perhaps the most important consideration when attempting to regulate or monitor email use is that it reflect your organisation’s culture, philosophy and desired employment relationship. I’m not old enough to remember if employers faced the same sorts of issues when the telephone was introduced!

Bevan Gibbs is consultant with the organisational performance consultancy, The Empower Group.

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