Productivity

5 Reasons Email Is a Productivity Killer at School

Short working days, long holidays and a genuine impact on society. What’s not to love about a career in education? Well, plenty, it would seem. There’s currently a widespread shortage of qualified teachers that spreads across the US, over the Atlantic into the UK, and even into mainland Europe.

Where shortages aren’t currently being experienced, in administrative or head positions, the incumbents are aging. The sector is failing to attract young talent in the numbers required to replace them.  

One of the main reasons for this is that teaching today is perceived as being a highly stressful occupation with good reason. Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research revealed that teachers suffer more work-related stress than any other profession, with high burnout levels causing worrying numbers of teachers to leave the job. These figures are less prominent in administrative and support positions but still higher than in equivalent office work in other sectors.

Most teachers cite three main reasons for the head-popping levels of stress they feel daily: student behavior, continuously being a slave to assessments, and a lack of time.

Technology is supposed to be one of the main ways we address time management, using tools to increase our productivity and efficiency and do away with poor repetitive behaviors that can be automated. But, in reality, that’s not the case for many professions, including the education sector, where digital creep has seen technology become the master rather than the servant of teachers and administrators. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in the relationship with email.

Reason 1: The email monster is growing

One of the major issues that teachers face is a simple lack of time. After being on their feet and essentially performing for around six hours per day, they then have a long list of administrative tasks to deal with, from planning to marking and, of course, catching up on email. 

Although email has been around for more than 40 years and used widely for 20, its popularity shows no signs of slowing down. The number of email users, email accounts and emails being sent is still increasing each year. Just over 200 billion emails were sent in 2015 and that figure had risen to almost 350 billion by 2019. According to Statista, this figure is expected to increase. to over 347 billion daily emails in 2022.

The average employee spends 13 hours a week reading and responding to email. For teachers, that’s an extra 650 hours a year spent on low-value work that isn’t lesson planning, grading papers or actually teaching. Those numbers are problematic for all industries and sectors. For an education sector that is facing marked shortages due mainly to stress and time management issues, the time spent on email could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Reason 2: The problem with spam

Let’s start with the good news first. It’s not 2009. If it were 2009, you could expect a colossal 94 percent of your received emails to consist of spam. Thanks to better security and blockers, that number is down to 67 percent, which is still pretty high. And that’s the bad news. 

Only a third of emails pinging into the average inbox are relevant and important. That means that a lot of time is wasted by educators sorting out the important from the senseless. It’s arguably worse when you flip that equation around. Email open rates typically hover at approximately 30-35 percent; when schools send important messages to students and parents by email, two-thirds of them don’t even open those emails, much less read them thoroughly. All those “I didn’t know the excursion was today” excuses suddenly make sense.

This is also why email is a flawed method for sharing documents or learning materials with students during a class. By the time all the “Is it in your spam folder?”, “It bounced – can you spell your name again?” and “No, please don’t reply all” are over, the class too will be over.

Reason 3: You can’t turn off if you can’t turn it off

It used to be that if the post had been delivered and you’d left your classroom or office, you couldn’t be reached again til the next day. Simpler times when, surely no coincidence here, there were far fewer shortages of qualified teachers.

The mobile device has changed that and, while there are numerous benefits from carrying around all that computing power in our pockets, it’s meant that the line between work and home has blurred for all employees, but especially for educators. When the teaching day is over, all the questions from students or parents of students begin. 

More than 80 percent of employees check email outside of regular working hours, with that data representative of employees in the education sector. More than half of teachers admit to checking and responding to emails during their Christmas vacation, creating a stressful and unsustainable culture. The result is an education sector that is always reachable but never able to be fully present and a culture in which the loudest scream is dealt with first.

Reason 4: A sector under pressure

You spend five to six hours giving classes – all of which require preparation – and then face a ream of assignments that require reviewing and grading. All the while, your inbox is overflowing with the mini-dramas, excuses, questions, requirements, hopes and dreams of your students or their parents, all of which are the most crucial things in their world at that moment. And then, when you reach the holidays, you can’t turn it off. Is it any wonder that educators are stressed?

If you’re already at breaking point, email is not your friend. Researchers at UC Irvine and the U.S. Army discovered that the mere act of receiving email has a measurable impact on stress levels and the ability to focus. It also negatively affects efficiency and productivity as people receiving email tend to switch windows more than twice as much as those without their email tab or client open. That’s compounded by the fact that it takes more than a minute for the average person to return to their previous productivity levels after finishing reading, deleting or responding to an email – no matter how vital that email was.

Overstretched teachers and lecturers simply can’t afford the time or productivity loss caused by email.

Reason 5: There are no rules for email

Given just how pervasive email is, it’s somewhat strange that organizations and institutions rarely put thought into the rules and guidelines for using email – whether for emails between staff or for correspondence between faculty and students.

If there were more stringent guidelines in place, rule number one would of course be: STOP CC’ING EVERYONE. 

Suppose schools recognize and acknowledge that teachers and employees are overworked and overstressed and that, while email may be a necessary evil, it compounds the problem. In that case, they can start to find solutions. Even small changes like asking all employees to limit cc’ing, not sending unnecessary emails like “Thanks”, or only including the most necessary recipients can help reduce the email stress.

As email is delayed and non-confrontational, it’s often used as a shield to hide behind when people want to make challenging points or complaints. However, such conversations are rarely properly understood or resolved via email and lead to a never ending game of “what did he mean when he said…” as recipients try to infer tone and meaning from every line, whether it’s there or not.

That same invisible barrier that email provides can lead to miscommunications and impact the nature of relationships. Students who are respectful when face to face can adopt a more relaxed or intimate tone when communicating by email, with teachers sometimes falling into the same trap. Parents of younger students can also feel like they have more access to teachers, sending emails in situations when they would not pick up the phone and call or schedule a face to face meeting.

Tips for reclaiming productivity

It turns out that merely limiting email doesn’t solve this problem. Everyone wants to use email when it’s useful, without becoming a slave to an ever-increasing inbox of doom. So how can schools reduce the time, stress and productivity burden of email? 

  • Always choose the medium that matches the message. Some communications require conciseness and a digital trail – email is ideal for these. However, upcoming events might be better communicated via the school’s website or social media channels. Urgent notifications could be better sent by text or a mobile app.
  • Create guidelines around the use of email – for employees and those connected with the school, such as students and parents.
  • It can take dozens of emails to book one 15-30 minute meeting. Make it easy for parents to schedule a meeting with their children’s teachers once each semester. One way to do this is to use Doodle’s Bookable Calendar feature. You’ll see that the process is quick and easy for both the teachers and parents. It also makes parents feel heard and reassures them that their child is seen and understood in the classroom. Oh, and the number of emails in your inbox will plummet.
  • Equally, allow older students to quickly schedule time with you each week or month to discuss their progress and problems. All of this can be done online, saving you time and allowing your students to schedule one-to-ones at convenient points in their day.
  • Create no-contact rules around weekends and holidays. Allow flexibility for the first and final few days of holidays, in case students have questions around assignments, but clearly state when teachers will not be reachable and make sure all teachers turn off their notifications at this time. It only takes one teacher to respond to ruin it for the whole school.

Check out our case study on UC Davis to see how Doodle is helping its laboratory researchers automate administrative tasks so they can focus on their scientific research.

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