Electronic mail is a blessing and a curse in the workplace.
E-mail is rightly praised for its ability to facilitate faster, more efficient business communication among co-workers. But it can be a time-consuming and productivity-busting forum for circulating jokes, gossip and other irrelevant messages.
"I'm finding my work life is overwhelmed by e-mail," said Susan Mulcahy, publisher and editor in chief of Mr. Showbiz, an entertainment-oriented magazine on the World Wide Web. "There's a certain kind of business communication that is greatly enhanced by e-mail. But people send so much e-mail because it's fast and easy."
Indeed, with a simple click of a mouse, a memo can be e-mailed to a single person, a whole department or even an entire company. It's not unusual for workers to find 50 or more new messages in their electronic in-boxes each day, although only a handful may be important.
That kind of information overload is prompting companies to create policies that regulate the use of electronic mail. A common step is to make it impossible to send a message to a group of people with a single command. When each recipient's address must be typed in separately, the temptation to send a message to anyone who doesn't absolutely need it is greatly diminished.
Computer Associates, a large software company based in Islandia, N.Y., took more drastic action: Chairman and CEO Charles Wang ordered the e-mail system shut down for four hours each day to encourage workers to interact face-to-face. Wang himself gave up his personal e-mail account.
"It was really a decision to have people think more about how they communicate with others," said Marc Sokol, the company's vice president of advanced technology. "E-mail is really good for certain things, but it's a really bad substitute for voice communication. On e-mail, you can't tell if I'm joking or sarcastic or angry."
Of course, you need not rely on a company policy to get your e-mail under control. A variety of software products will help you sort and screen your messages.
For example, Eudora Pro ($89) lets you filter out e-mail from specific senders or messages that are longer than a specified length. Z-Mail for Windows ($95) can be set up to display e-mail from important people in red type. You can also use it to do keyword searches to find a specific message in a morass of saved e-mail.
If you've got several e-mail accounts, you can save time by merging them with a program such as E-Mail Connection for Windows ($49.95) or Claris E-Mailer ($49).
Electronic mail tends to build up when you've spent several days away from the office. While you're gone, experts suggest, forward your messages to others who can respond to them in a timely fashion.
After all, that's the whole point of using e-mail.
Karen Kaplan covers technology and careers. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org