Nothing in today’s workplace has the ability to simultaneously revolutionize and paralyze as electronic mail. Many of us are powerless to resist the urge to check our inboxes the nanosecond after hearing the beep that informs us a new message has arrived. After all, this one could be the most important e-mail we’ll ever receive.

Arguably the big problem with this addictive form of communication is that it interrupts and distracts you from your priority at the time, says Trevor Hubert, manager of organizational effectiveness at Winnipeg, Canada-based Investors Group, Canada’s largest mutual fund company. Even though you might check your inbox really quickly, delete what came in, or fire off a one-sentence reply and resume what you were doing, you’ve lost your train of thought and diffused your concentration. It can often take several minutes to get back into the groove. Moreover, when you consider that people receive several dozen e-mails a day, it’s pretty easy to see how your work performance can be less than optimal.

That’s why Canada’s largest mutual fund company launched a pilot project on e-mail usage late last year. It wanted to find out how people handled it and what could be done to make its use more efficient. The project consisted of a two-hour classroom session that looked at time management and how to help people be better senders, receivers, and processors of e-mail.

“It’s not just about how to work through your in-box,” says Hubert. “How do you make sure you’re not contributing to ineffective communications out there?”

Some of the best practices imparted to Investors Group employees included making sure when they first launch Microsoft Outlook each morning that their calendar is the first thing to pop into view, not their inbox.

“You should focus on your day first and plan it out, rather than launching into e-mail. The inbox is a distraction,” he says, noting the average person receives a new message every 11 minutes–that’s 41 a day or more than 200 per work week.

Perhaps the strongest best practice recommendation is to turn off your e-mail application while working and check it two to three times per day, say first thing in the morning, at noon, and before you go home at night. That way you’re not continuously seduced by the beep, flash, or computer whispering, “You’ve got mail.”

When e-mail is on, Hubert recommends removing all the bells and whistles that go off when a new message arrives. “Those are distractions and you’ve got enough distractions in your day already,” he says. The Investors Group pilot, which recently garnered an award of excellence from the Human Resources Association of Manitoba, tracked the amount of time saved using this novel approach. On average, each employee saved 10 minutes a day, which over the course of a year, amounts to 42 hours, or about 5.5 work days.

“That saving means you’re more effective on working on top-priority items and fewer distractions are pulling you away so you can finish them in less time. You can go home 10 minutes earlier. That’s significant for people,” he says.

The Percy Bolton Approach

Percy Bolton, CEO of Percy E. Bolton Associates, Inc., a Pasadena, California-based investment management and consulting firm, takes things a step further. For a couple of hours each day, his firm shuts down its wireless system entirely so even if an associate wants to send an e-mail or surf the Web, they can’t get access.

“We want them to spend more time with their clients and each other. We’re in the people business, not the computer business,” says Bolton, who’s also a member of the Investment Advisor Leaders’ Council.

The firm has eliminated all e-mail alerts on its computers as well as instant messaging, but that doesn’t mean Bolton isn’t embracing technology. In fact, he estimates that about 20% of the firm’s annual budget is spent on technology.

Bolton argues that advisors who aren’t leveraging technology in an efficient way are missing out in more ways than one. He says virtually every time he has adopted a new technology, it has revolutionized the firm’s processes.

“Technology allows you to increase your capacity, reduce your overhead, and increase the ability of your staff to get the job done faster and in a more enjoyable way. They’re not stuck with mundane tasks. Plus, it allows you to go home early. You’ll have happier people working for you and you’ll have a happier family.”

The smart use of the latest technology not only makes advisors more efficient in their day-to-day activities, he says, but some decisions can save them time–and money–in the future, as well.

For example, Bolton’s firm’s data is stored on secure sites on the Internet, not on individual hard drives. “If you lose your laptop, you’ve got security issues. We don’t want any security issues. We do security due diligence on the sites themselves and the companies that provide it, not the firewalls we put in,” he says.

Technology can even save you time with one of the oldest communications tools at your disposal: your telephone. Bolton says his firm is able to minimize the time his people spend returning calls by ensuring clients have a better chance of having somebody pick up the phone in the first place. For example, when a client dials his business number, Bolton’s telephone system simultaneously routes it to every phone owned by the advisor–mobile, office, and home.

If the advisor’s unable to talk at that time, the client can leave a voice mail. Here, too, Bolton’s employees can save precious time. Every voice mail is then relayed to their e-mail server as a voice file, so all their e-mails and voice files can be accessed at the same place and at the same time.

“Your computer will tell you there are telephone calls waiting for you in your e-mail,” he says with a laugh, and notes that the combined efficiencies have added up to the point where everybody takes Fridays off.

“Our clients seem to be more satisfied (since the implementation of the phone system) because they can reach us,” he says.

He notes that most times, advisors can program Friday’s trades before they leave work on Thursday. Or, if need be, they can point and click the trades Friday morning from the comfort of their own homes.

Prioritize Your Incoming Mail

Of course, if you have to use e-mail frequently, then turning it off for extended periods of time might not work for you. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with the aforementioned inefficiencies. David Edstrom, chief marketing officer for BridgePortfolio.com Inc., a Chicago-based virtual back office outsourcing firm, says you can set up sorting commands to put e-mails from particular people in certain folders. They can even be color coded.

“The e-mails of one of my partners are always red. And that’s just one way to organize e-mail,” he says.

One of Edstrom’s favorite ways to pick up valuable time is to use Internet-based search tools rather than relying on desktop software.

For example, everybody’s favorite search engine, Google, also has a version for PCs that enables you to search your own computer by key words. He says it’s superior to the built-in search software that comes with most computers.

“Google, for some reason, has found a way to do it much faster,” he says. He also recommends using Web-based offerings for most technology applications. Because those applications are thus run by the firm you hired, the outsource maintains the applications and automatically performs upgrades for you.

E-Mail Etiquette

Other best practices resulting from the Investors Group pilot project had to do with sending e-mail. First, use a font size of 11 or 12 points, not the typical default of 10, and use a serif font–the ones with the small, decorative lines added as embellishment to the basic form of a character. (A typical serif font is Times New York while a popular non-serif font is Helvetica.)

Clarity is another key, so watch your use of jargon and acronyms, Hubert recommends. “Define the acronym the first time you use it. ISD might mean “Information Systems Design” to techies but it could also be “Instructional Systems Design.” Never assume if you’re going beyond your group that they know what your language is,” he cautions.

Karen Mallett, a partner in The Civility Group Inc., a Winnipeg-based company specializing in etiquette, says people should treat e-mail in much the same way they do phone calls.

She recommends setting up a policy to respond to e-mails within a certain time frame and sticking to it come hell or high water. It’s all part of building up trust with new clients and maintaining it with existing ones.

She recommends e-mails be short and polite with a maximum of three paragraphs of three to six sentences each.

“People don’t want you to go on and on. If you have more, it should be in an attachment. Otherwise, it’s too much information,” she cautions. Moreover, she says, recall that “Technology is not an etiquette-free zone. Don’t ramble, watch your grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and flaming (typing in capital letters). And no LOL (laugh out loud) and other techno-speak if you’re older than 12,” she says.

To sum up, Hubert says that if you’re using your inbox effectively, you should have zero e-mails in there at the end of the day.

“Some people will gasp when they hear that, but it’s very doable,” he says, noting Investors Group tracked employees’ inboxes after the training and six weeks later they showed an 80% improvement.

Geoff Kirbyson is a business reporter and personal finance columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, an IA contributing editor, and a freelance business writer. He can be reached at gmkirbyson@shaw.ca.