December 8, 2002

Email at work

Most American workers say email helps them do their jobs and few feel overwhelmed by the volume of email they handle

WASHINGTON — Contrary to the popular perception that American workers are buried in email, a new survey finds that the vast majority of jobholders say their experience with email is very manageable, and they’re happy with the way email helps them do their jobs.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project’s research shows that email has become an integral part of 57 million Americans’ work lives – that is more than 60% of those employed in the United States and is almost double the number of U.S. workers who used the Internet just two years ago.

In a survey of 2,447 Americans, 1,003 of whom use email on their jobs, the Project found that the average American work emailer on a typical day spends about a half hour handling email. The majority of work emailers receive 10 or fewer emails and send five or fewer.

“We began this survey expecting to find the beginning of a backlash against email – not just against spam, but also against the rising volume of all kinds of email,” said Deborah Fallows, the Project’s Senior Research Fellow and author of a report on the survey. “Instead, we found that most American workers are pleased with the role email plays in their job, and we found almost zero evidence of disillusionment with email. ”

She noted, though, that this positive assessment applies to work-related email. Most work emailers say they get little or no spam in their work-related email accounts. Other Pew Internet Project research has shown a growing concern about spam in Americans’ personal email accounts.

Asked to rate email’s place in their work on a scale of 1-10, 52% ranked it as essential and another 34% viewed it as valuable. Relatively few rated it a waste of time. Respondents also offered this assessment of the role of email at work:

  • 72% of work emailers say email helps them communicate with more people.
  • 71% of work emailers say email saves them time.
  • 62% say email makes them more available to co-workers; however, about a third of all work emailers say email has made them too accessible to others.
  • 59% say email improves workplace teamwork.
  • 43% say email has offered them some relief at times during their workdays.

    There is a darker side to email’s role in the workplace, but it is much less pronounced. About a quarter of work emailers find email distracting, a fifth of work emailers say email has caused misunderstandings on the job and a similar number say email has added a new source of stress at work.

    “Employers who worry that employees are spending too much time on personal email should be relieved to learn work emailers are dead serious about the content of their email,” said Fallows. A majority of respondents reported that almost all their incoming email is work-related and an even higher percentage of their outgoing email is job-connected.

    Fallows identified a group of respondents as “power emailers.” They make up about a fifth of all work emailers and are distinctly different from the norm because they handle large numbers of email on a typical day. Many receive over 50 messages, send more than 20, and spend two or more hours a day on email. They check their inboxes with greatest frequency (at least several times an hour and often with an “always-on” function) and they are the most likely to check email before going to work, before going to bed, and while on vacation.

    Among this group, the Project expected to find truly overwhelmed work emailers. In fact, 11% of power emailers say they are overwhelmed by their email workload, compared to 2% of non-power emailers. But overall, power emailers are doing very well with their tremendous load of email and are more likely than other emailers to extol the virtues of email.

    “They do a lot more with email, but they do it smartly and efficiently,” said Fallows. “In the end, email has a high payoff for them.”

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a nonpartisan, independent research organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to study the impact of the Internet on families, communities, health care, education, civic and political life, and the work place.