Here’s What Happened When a Company Got Rid of Email

An inspiring excerpt from a groundbreaking new book

In his latest book, Under New Management, bestselling author, podcaster, and management professor David Burkus points out that despite a reliance on business as usual, workplaces need to evolve if they want to be successful: “Business,” he says, “isn’t usual anymore.”

David Burkus

His guide to the new best practices at work includes chapters with surprising titles like “Put Customers Second” and “Pay People to Quit.” Here, we’re pleased to share an excerpt from a chapter that’s especially near and dear to our hearts: “Outlaw Email.”

We send over 100 billion emails every day. And most of them are for business purposes.

You might call that daily deluge of electronic information a symbol of technological progress, but Thierry Breton, the CEO of the France-based technology company Atos SE, sees it differently. He likens that volume of emails to pollution—email pollution.

When Breton realized that the constant stream of emails was distracting to both him and the people in his company, he took steps to eliminate what he believed were negative effects on company productivity.

In February 2011, Breton announced that he was banning email. In three years’ time, he wanted Atos to be an “email-zero” company.

“We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives,” Breton said in a public statement released through Atos’s website. “We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organizations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.”

That statement is surprising for a variety of reasons. For one, Atos isn’t exactly anti-technology: the company is a leading information technology services firm. Atos isn’t a small start-up either: at the time of the announcement, the company employed over 70,000 people in more than forty offices around the world. But Atos’s massive size was actually what Breton saw as the reason for the communication clog.

“The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business,” he said. “Managers spend between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails.” Breton, likewise, isn’t exactly the model of a rogue start-up founder testing out wild new ways to work. Instead, he’s a middle-aged former minister of finance for France and a former professor at Harvard Business School. Needless to say, he’d put a lot of thought behind his assertion that “email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business.”

Breton actually adopted the zero-email philosophy for himself long before he announced it to the company. He’d stopped using internal email nearly five years earlier, when he was working for the French government, because he found it wasn’t helping him get his work done well. Breton found something similar with the staff of Atos, even if they couldn’t see the solution right away.

Atos polled a sample of 300 employees and monitored the volume of their email. In just one week, the 300 employees sent or received over 85,000 messages.

When the company surveyed employees, it found that the majority of them felt that they couldn’t keep up with their emails, that the time spent trying was time wasted, and that the effort to stay current with email kept them from dealing with more important tasks. Breton found that his employees were realizing the same thing he’d discovered years before. So he simply banned email.

Of course, Atos didn’t ban communication, and it didn’t even ban electronic communication. Instead, Atos tried to find a better tool for managing internal communication. The company bought another software firm called BlueKiwi and used its technology to build its own social network for the entire enterprise.

The network was organized around 7,500 open communities that employees can join. These communities represent products, internal programs, and myriad other projects needing collaboration. Unlike email, these communities are totally transparent, so newcomers can see all of the communication about particular issues.

Like email, conversations are threaded so that newcomers to the community can see the past history of the discussion. Unlike email, however, conversations are not digitally pushed to employees’ inboxes, interrupting their focused work time. Instead, employees can choose to enter the discussion on their terms. The social network also makes it easier for employees to find needed experts, share knowledge companywide, and, most importantly, collaborate better. And the new system has dramatically cut down on internal email.

To help its managers adjust, Atos even created training programs for more than 5,000 managers to teach them how to lead their departments and projects in a zero-email environment. The company also trained 3,500 “ambassadors” to provide training and support among their peers as they adjusted to the new system. Now fully converted to the new system, the company certifies projects and communication processes as “zero-email.”

The initiative appears to be working. Although Atos didn’t hit its target, a study conducted in 2014 by an independent firm showed that Atos’s email reduction efforts were progressing very nicely. By the end of 2013, Atos had certified 220 programs as “zero-email” and reduced overall email 60 percent, going from an average of 100 email messages per week per employee to less than 40.

More importantly, employees now report feeling far more productive and collaborative. Collaboration has been enhanced by the internal social network, which doesn’t distract employees by pinging messages to their inbox and actually provides a better-designed platform for group communication. Atos employees post in the company’s internal communities almost 300,000 times a month, and those messages are viewed nearly 2 million times per month.

Most importantly, all of those views are by choice.

These email reduction efforts have been good for the company as well: Atos’s operating margin increased from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent in 2013, earnings per share rose by more than 50 percent, and administrative costs declined from 13 percent to 10 percent.

Obviously, not all of these improvements were the result of banning email, but the correlation is certainly strong. So is the empirical evidence.
Under New Management (excerpt)

Excerpted from UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual by David Burkus. Copyright © 2016 by David Burkus. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Want to reduce email for your team? You can purchase an entire software firm too — or you can just sign on to a ready-made internal collaboration platform. Find out how Redbooth reduced email for its VP of Marketing (and helped him enjoy breakfast again, too).