December 8, 2002

Email at work

Part 2: The Leading Edge

The people, places, and technologies that signal the future of email

The responses to this survey of email in the workplace have given us a pretty good understanding of the role of email in mainstream work situations – that workers use email moderately and responsibly, that email works better for straightforward communications than delicate ones, that email adds a casual touch to the workplace environment. We have also learned some things from the most avid users of email in the workplace that may signal how all of us will use email in the future.

The people: Power emailers

We got a sense from our data and from our interviews that there is a small group of work emailers who are different from all the rest. This group matches the profile of the work emailer we read and hear most about in the press reports and in Internet lore – the worker who is inundated by email and who spends long hours dealing with it.

We identified a group we called “power emailers” – those who handle the highest volumes of email (typically more than 30 and often more than 50 messages a day), spend the most hours in the day doing their email (at least one and more likely well over 2 and often beyond 4), and who check their inboxes with greatest frequency (at least several times an hour and often with an “always-on” function). The power emailers represent about 20% of all work emailers.

The profile

Demographically, power emailers belong to the workforce elite. The majority (59%) are college educated or beyond. They are high earners; over half of them (52%) live in households that earn at least $75,000 per year, including a third (32%) of all power emailers who live in households earning at least $100,000 per year. Two-thirds (66%) of power emailers work as professionals, managers, or executives. Ten percent do clerical or office work. Sixty-one percent are between the ages of 30 and 50. Eighty percent are white. The largest number of power emailers (43%) work for large corporations. Half are men; half are women.

In past Pew Internet Project research, we have seen that veteran users – those who have been online for more than 3 years – generally do more of everything online, from shopping to getting news to listening to music. The profile of power emailers fits right in to this picture, with far more of them being online veterans than standard emailers are. Eighty-three percent of power emailers have been online at least 3 years, nearly half of those for more than 6 years. In comparison, 60% of standard emailers have been online so long.

It is noteworthy that power emailers are evenly split between men and women. Previously, Pew research has shown that men generally take the lead in Internet behaviors, doing more, earlier and faster than women. On the other hand, we have also seen that women love email; they value it more for personal relationships, and use it more for heartfelt communications.

Power and standard emailers

Correlating with poweremailers’ high numbers for volume and time online are consistently high measures of responsible email behavior and positive attitudes about their email. Power emailers value their email highly, both in its direct impact on their work and the effects on office life. They feel largely in control, and they even answer their email more promptly than standard emailers. Forty-eight percent of power emailers answer incoming emails immediately, versus 43% of standard emailers.

There are signs, however, that email can become too much of a good thing. For example, while power emailers are more likely than standard emailers to be a lot more available to work colleagues (58% vs. 33%), this spills over into being too accessible (30% vs. 16%). But email complaints, even from power emailers, remain small. Overall, about a third of power emailers say they couldn’t live without their email, twice the number of standard emailers who say that.

Power emailers’ behavior: doing more with email, and doing it smartly

Power emailers take better advantage of the potential versatility of email than do standard emailers. They do more of everything with their email; more work and more play.

Power emailers find email more effective than phone calls or face-to-face dealings for nearly all the tasks at hand, more than standard emailers do by large margins. More power emailers choose email for making appointments, dealing with documents, and asking questions about work.

Power emailers also have fun, cultivating the light side of email even more than standard emailers. Power emailers outnumber standard emailers in using email for gossip, discussing personal things in their lives, and sending on jokes and chain letters.

Power emailers observe best-practices for handling their email in far greater numbers than standard emailers; almost three quarters of power emailers say they take steps to manage their email. They filter, forward, and file automatically. Over 80% of power emailers organize their email into folders.

Power emailers may be using the anytime/anyplace capabilities of email as a further strategy for controlling their vast volumes of email. They check their email outside the office far more often than standard emailers, on weekends, after work, before work and on vacations.

For power emailers, email is all business

Email has quickly evolved from a novel way of communicating to a full-blown business tool. This happened fast, over fewer than a dozen years, and it happened in tandem with the discovery that emailers could also do a lot of fun things with their email, like send jokes, forward links or exchange photos. Issues of email etiquette and style in the workplace are growing, as email volume has grown and as individuals’ idiosyncratic behaviors started to encroach on others. One person’s humor offends another’s sensibilities; one person’s interesting tidbit is another’s outrage. Many businesses are playing quick catch up by articulating and instituting email policies. For example, they may define what is appropriate to put in office emails (no off color jokes; no raffle ticket solicitations for your child’s school). And they may outline manners and controls (who gets CCs, and assume email is as private as a public notice).

Power emailers are ahead of the curve here, in their professional email behavior and attitudes. In their work email, power emailers are extremely focused; 71% of them say that almost all the email they receive is work-related, and 79% say almost all they send is work-related.

Power emailers are prompt in answering their email. If anything, they are slightly more aggressive than standard emailers. Almost half immediately answer the mail they feel they should reply to, and 90% respond by the end of the day. This doesn’t mean power emailers are unfazed by the volume in their inboxes. Many were annoyed by the content, complaining that many CCs from undiscerning underlings were either “showing off” or covering their moves.

Our general sense from this study is that email can contribute to increased worker productivity. Among power emailers, who spend great portions of their day on email, this potential looks even greater. Power emailers say email is a big time saver: 81% of power emailers say email saves them time, compared to 69% of standard emailers.

One warning flag for the lifestyle of power emailers: All this email is more likely to get power emailers working more. A quarter of power emailers have increased the amount of time they spend working because of email, more than twice as many as standard emailers. But when email does increase the amount of time power emailers spend working, almost a third say they will spend more time working at home on email, twice as many as at the office, demonstrating how power emailers take more advantage of the anytime/anyplace phenomenon of email.

Power emailers feel good about email

In what looks like a report card from the leading edge, email gets higher marks from power emailers than from standard emailers in every measure. They value both its direct impact on the substance of work and its peripheral benefits in the workplace.

Sixty-nine percent of power emailers give their emails the highest marks for being important to their work compared to 48% of standard emailers. Nearly twice as many power emailers (28%) as standard emailers (15%) declare that they “couldn’t live without” their email.

Power emailers accentuate the positive effects of email in the work environment, and are, by every measure, enthusiasts compared to standard emailers. Email helps them communicate with more people, aids teamwork, keeps them current with events at work, makes them available to others, and provides moments of relief.

While positive effects of email far overshadow negative effects, those negative effects reverberate more strongly through the power email culture than standard email culture. More power emailers say their email makes it impossible to get away from the office, makes them too accessible to others both inside and outside the company. They find greater hazards of email causing misunderstandings, being distracting, and causing stress.

Three-quarters of power emailers say they approach their email as a necessary chore. In the extremes, many more power emailers look forward to their email (22%) as dread it (4%).

The high volume of email does present a challenge to power emailers. While a third of power emailers say their email load poses no problem to them whatsoever, more than twice as many standard emailers (72%) – who face a much lighter load – declare their email poses no problem at all. Over half of power emailers, say they manage to stay on top their email, while 11% admit to being overwhelmed by it.

The people: Young workers

The youngest workers, those under 30 years old, represent the first generation to have grown up with the Internet and email. Email is second nature to this group. They are comfortable sending email in all kinds of situations their parents might not even consider: invitations to events as formal as weddings; serious thank you notes; job inquiries and resumes. Even college admissions offices, the last bastions of formality and tradition, have begun to send out admissions decisions via email. When Harvard College, for the first time last year, offered applicants the option of receiving their news about admissions decisions by email, 96% took them up on it. With an unprecedented twist on old culture meeting new, Harvard fired off 18,000 emails to applicants to the class of 2006, with addresses like BlondieBaby22@hotmail.com or ChooseMe84@yahoo.com.

It’s not surprising, then, that younger workers use and regard their email in the workplace differently from older workers. One indicator is that the borders between their work and personal email lives are fuzzier.

Content by age

To an impressive degree, all workers are responsible about the content of their email at work. The bulk of email handled by work emailers of any age is work-related. However, young work emailers mix personal and work emails more freely; bigger numbers of the under-30 crowd are processing lots of personal mail and spam. For those under 30, 37% say almost all the email they receive, and 42% say almost all they send is work-related. About half again as many work emailers over 30 say almost all their incoming and outgoing email is work-related. Those under 30 admit to handling more personal email at work. Forty-one percent of those under 30 said none of the email they received was personal, compared to over 50% of workers over 30. Sixty-three percent said almost none of the email they sent is personal, while 80% of those over 30 say they get almost none of the email they send is personal.

Younger work emailers are more easy-going about email standards; they are more liberal in the messages they send around at the office. Nearly double the number of younger workers use their work email to send gossip (24% vs. 13%) or discuss personal issues (40% vs. 22%). More send jokes or chain letters (43% vs. 38%). Probably because of this, many more of them (53% v 42%) say email provides moments of relief during the working day.

That email has been a comfortable part of the younger generation’s lives for a long time may be part of the explanation why they are more casual and loose about their professional email habits. The context of their working lives is probably another reason. Younger workers aren’t likely to be as harried – including with their email — this early in their careers. Among our random population, younger workers’ jobs carry less responsibility. They are less likely to be professionals, managers, or executives, and more likely to be in sales or work as laborers. They are also more likely to work part-time.

What work emailers sometimes do with email

This picture of a less stressful work and email life probably also contributes to a different attitude toward work email. When we asked respondents to describe their email load at work, three-quarters of those under 30 say email is no problem whatsoever, compared to 62% of older work emailers.

As for the future, we imagine as these younger people age and assume more responsible jobs, their email volumes will grow. It will be interesting to watch the impending convergence of two conflicting email value systems: the younger generation’s history of casual, looser email standards and the evolving workplace culture of more regulated, formalized protocols.

The places: The email-intense workplace

When it comes to email, not all workplaces are created equal. We asked respondents in this study to describe their jobs and places of work. We categorized workplaces into large corporations, mid-size companies, small businesses, government offices, educational institutions and non-profits. We discovered that some types of workplaces probably embraced wildly different workstyles and environments that confounded clear interpretations of some of the results. For example, working in education could mean being a college professor or a nursery school teacher—each with very different needs for email. Or a “small business” might encompass a little Internet company or a home-based designer soap manufacturer. One largely homogeneous group nonetheless stood out: the large corporation. Large corporation employees displayed an unusual degree of cohesion and common behaviors that set them apart from the rest of the respondents.

Corporations: A power email environment

Large corporations are email intense environments. Their workers process the highest volumes of email. A higher proportion of corporation employees receive over 20 emails a day and send over 10 than in any other kind of workplace. Compared to other workplace groups, large corporations’ employees spend more time on email. More corporate work emailers spend over 2 hours a day on email. They also check their email most frequently.

Large corporations are more tightly regulated workplaces than all others, except for the government. Employees report that large corporations are more likely to set policies about email use (84%) than other workplaces are (59%), except the government, which is also policy-heavy (86%). Likewise, employees report that corporations are more likely to monitor employees’ email than employers in other workplaces (68% vs. 37%). Again, government work emailers are the exception, reporting even higher numbers of monitoring (75%) than large corporation work emailers.

Oversight of email correlates with high work-related content of email; emailers in large corporations are more likely to report that their email is work-related than other work emailers; 64% of corporate email users report that almost all of their email received work-related, compared to 50% of those in other industries. Eighty-two percent report that almost none of their incoming email is personal, somewhat higher than other work emailers, at 72%.

Making big companies smaller

The intense emailing scene inside big corporations serves to humanize or personalize the environment. In much higher numbers than in other kinds of workplaces, work emailers in large corporations report that email helps them stay connected to both the people and happenings of their companies. Sixty percent report email has greatly expanded the number of people they communicate with, compared to 47% in other professions. Nearly half (47%) say email has made them a lot more available to other workers, compared to 36% of other professions. And 63% say it greatly helps keep them in touch with events at work, compared to 49% elsewhere.

In past Pew Internet Project research, we have found some indications that email is a particularly useful communications tool among larger populations that need or want to communicate with each other. Just as email is used more powerfully (in greater volume, taking more time) in the largest work environments of big corporations, so is email used more resoundingly in larger political communities. Our past study of email among government officials found that almost 50% of officials in cities of over 150,000 used email daily to communicate with citizens, while only 9% of them in communities of 20,000 did.29

New technologies: Taking work out of the workplace

Email offers many work emailers new flexibility to do some of their work from anywhere at anytime. With the prevalence of home email access, portable and wireless connections, workers are beginning to carry some of their email out of the office.

The out-of-office work emailers are mostly logging on over the weekend (about a third) or after work (about a quarter). The scenarios are familiar: a worker uses the weekend to work through a backlog of emails that piled up during the work week; another worker is awaiting a reply from a colleague and logs on in the evening to see if a message has arrived. The morning rush less often includes email; only about 15% of work emailers check their email before work. And vacations, as well, remain largely sacrosanct; again, about 15 % of work emailers log on during holidays.

Transportability of email is a blessing for some and a curse for others. Twenty-four percent say email helps them get away from the workplace, and 15% say it makes it impossible to get away from work. The harried travelers who line up in the high-priced airport lounges to download email before hopping on a long flight could fall into either group.

Seventy-eight percent of work emailers say email hasn’t affected the number of hours they spend working. But when email does affect work hours, it is most likely to show up as increased at-home work time, according to 18% of work emailers. Nature of the job matters; for managers, those who deal heavily with others in an office environment, email has increased their working time in the office. For those with often less physically confining jobs (professionals, small business owners, sales people), email has probably let them move around, but the price is increased work time out of the office.

With this work email data, Pew adds to its growing profile of the effects of the Internet on work and work habits. In sum, our growing data demonstrate that workers are beginning to use their computers at home for work purposes. We find almost half of work emailers have checked their work email from home, albeit infrequently; about two-thirds have used the Internet at home for job related research. About three-quarters of work emailers say the amount of time they spend working at home is unchanged by email activities, but 18% say they spend more time working at home because of email.

New technologies: Lightening the email load

Email was invented from a charmingly simple idea just three decades ago. Ray Tomlinson, an engineer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, figured out he could combine a program that let him leave messages on his shared computer with another program that let him transfer files between computers. With that fusion, plus the now famous @ sign, Tomlinson could direct a message to someone who was checking a computer somewhere else. Since then, emailers have creatively adapted email well beyond transmitting simple messages.

Workers have seen in email a wonderful tool and have stretched its uses well beyond its humble beginnings, although with sometimes clumsy results. The software industry, taking cues from users, has adapted the email software to meet user needs in a more elegant manner. The inevitable impact of this evolution will be to lighten email load, moving some correspondence out of inboxes, either onto the Web or into associated applications.

For example, in arranging appointments – a particularly popular activity on email – usually workers engage in a clumsy ping-pong of messages:“Who can come to a staff meeting at 2?” “Not me; how about 3?” “Too late for me; say 1:30?” “I’m at a late lunch,” etc. etc. Now, adapted email software enables a meeting organizer to view the calendars of every participant, find a common free time, and put a meeting on the calendar for all to see. Done in one stroke.

A second popular use of email we found among our respondents is to exchange and edit documents. In many businesses, the growing load of attachments has begun to tax servers, and to push employees to keep very organized track of the different versions of documents they are jointly working on. The software industry has answered the problems with Web-based document-sharing software that eliminates the gummy and confusing trading of updated attachments. Workers can chronologically store edited versions of shared documents in secure Web environments, outside their email systems.

At least three more advances will affect email at work: Instant messaging, organizational intranets, and email management techniques.

Instant messaging will move more correspondence out of inboxes and into real time. In this study, only 16% of respondents reported they used instant messaging at work. Almost half of those spent no more than half an hour a day IM-ing. Ten percent spent over four hours a day on IM. While IM-ing has been around for a while and is a familiar and available technology, it remains sparsely used in the working world compared to the public world, where about half of all emailers have done IM-ing at some point. The difference stems in large part from IM security worries by big institutions.30 But big providers are directly answering these concerns – and aiming for revenue-enhancing market share – by developing enterprise instant messaging software.

Intranets will probably expand greatly in popularity as well, especially among mid- and large-size employers. Intranets, with their ability to house lots of organizational information, will be a great reference resource and likely eliminate many mass emailings about current news, company announcements and reminders, etc.

Finally, as email software incorporate better email management systems, and as users take more advantage of them, email volumes will lighten, and dealing with email will certainly become more efficient. But the currently large numbers of work emailers who don’t manage their email, or who manage it poorly, suggest that user trust and fluency in technology have a ways to go.

Under half of work emailers (46%) take steps to organize their incoming mail. Of those who take at least some steps to manage their electronic inboxes, two-thirds organize their mail into folders; half use filters to keep out unwanted mail; half say that at times they print out email as a way of organizing it. One emailer, caught in a grey zone between the virtual and paper worlds, described how she prints out every incoming message, piles them in organized stacks, and watches them grow until they eventually spill over onto each other in a giant heap. We suspect she is not alone.

  1. “Digital Town Hall”. The Pew Internet & American Life Project.
  2. Angwin, Julia. “America Online Invites Businesses Onto its ‘Buddy List’.” Wall Street Journal, p. B1. Nov. 4, 2002.