When Thierry Breton, chief executive officer of Atos SA, launched his zero e-mail initiative in 2011, critics scoffed. Others, including many of the French IT services company's staff, questioned whether it was realistic or desirable to eliminate internal e-mail use across the organization.
But Mr. Breton stood firm behind the initiative, which discouraged Atos employees from sending or receiving internal messages, and set the eventual goal of eradicating e-mail altogether.
He estimated that barely 10 per cent of the 200 messages his employees received on an average day were useful, and that 18 per cent were spam. Managers spent between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing e-mails, he said.
"We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives," Mr. Breton said at the time. "At Atos, we are taking action now to reverse this trend."
Almost two years on, zero e-mail has not only begun to take hold within the Atos, but the initiative has attracted interest from a growing number of business leaders.
While not as drastic as the Atos approach, some companies, including Volkswagen AG, the German car maker, have agreed to stop their BlackBerry servers sending e-mail messages to employees outside work hours. Other companies now encourage their employees to take e-mail breaks.
Ryan Holmes, chief executive officer of HootSuite, a social media management tool set, is one of e-mail's most vocal critics, describing it as the "new Pony Express" and "an unproductivity tool."
"E-mail is familiar, it's comfortable, it's easy to use," he wrote in a Fast Company magazine article published in October, but added, "it might just be the biggest killer of time and productivity in the office today."
He added: "It's not just me who thinks e-mail's days are numbered. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, time spent on Web mail has declined 34 per cent in the past year alone, and nearly 50 per cent since 2010, according to comScore's 2012 U.S. Digital Future in Focus report."
In fact, there seems to be a backlash against e-mail as companies recognize that, for all its advantages, e-mail is not necessarily the best tool for the job any more. What was once the fastest and most efficient way to communicate across boundaries is increasingly viewed as outmoded and cumbersome.
It is out of step with app-centric devices and less effective for real-time interaction than the many cloud-based collaboration tools now available. In marking the second annual No E-mail Day in December, Next Web's Martin Bryant wrote: "Honestly, does anyone like e-mail? I can't remember the last time I didn't view my inbox as a chore."
"This was what spurred us to launch his zero e-mail initiative," says Lee Timmins, senior vice-president at Atos. The company's own research and comScore data also showed that younger employees tend not to use it, preferring social platforms or IM for messaging. It also revealed a growing frustration with e-mail overload.
When 300 Atos employees measured their e-mail traffic for a week, they found they had sent or received 85,000 messages. Within Atos, 73 per cent of employees estimated they spent more than one quarter of their time managing e-mail, and 82 per cent said they had trouble keeping on top of it. Most importantly, the majority felt this time was wasted and added no value to their day or to the company.
"Of course e-mail's defenders would argue that it's not the software but the user that is the problem, and there is no question that bad habits are a big contributor to e-mail overload," Mr. Timmins admits. "Opened up first thing in the morning, it can be a constant distraction, with the urge to check and respond to messages preventing us from concentrating on more important tasks."
But perhaps most important, Mr. Timmins says that in organizations such as Atos with large numbers of "knowledge workers," "e-mail overload can erode motivation, dent productivity" and make attrition worse.
"Younger 'millennials' and knowledge workers prioritize career opportunities that allow for learning and development. They also want to do meaningful work. There's little more dispiriting than knowing you're wasting your talent and your company's time on low-value tasks, or getting to the end of a productive day, only to be greeted by a bulging inbox."
Nevertheless, Atos accepts that eliminating e-mail is about more than taming the technology: it's about how to enable individual performance. Cutting out e-mail is part of a wider program aimed at improving work design so that individuals have some control over their day.
"The way we work is changing – and so are the tools available for us to carry out that work," Mr. Timmins says. "Enterprise social networks and software are a far better way of encouraging collaboration and releasing valuable information from individual inboxes."
In an ideal world, he believes the working day for Atos employees would be divided between training, working creatively and collaboration.
This prompted Atos to investigate other tech tools that might meet these requirements. "We didn't switch e-mail off overnight, but are easing it out gradually and using advocates to spur viral change," Mr. Timmins says. To help employees change habits, the company has invested in an enterprise social network that allows employees to selectively subscribe to relevant subject and networking groups and deployed its own cloud-based enterprise social software called blueKiwi.
"We have [also] been using YouTube and video diaries for training and development," Mr. Timmins says. "Instead of valuable experience and knowledge being tucked away in an individual's inbox, it can become part of a library or portal that adds to the company's collective smarts. This also frees up personal time so that we can create group training opportunities for employees."
Atos is also testing so-called "brain-training" apps including Luminosity as a way to make training more fun and digestible, and social administration apps are replacing automatic e-mail forms for basic tasks such as expense filing.
"Ultimately, it's about tailoring the tools to fit the individual's role," Mr. Timmins says. "Ideally, they will be able to create a 'cockpit' of the most fitting tools for their job. Similarly, managers will take a more tailored approach to individual performance, behaving more like sports performance directors."
So how far has Atos moved towards Mr. Breton's zero e-mail goal? "At the 2012 London Olympics, we were able to zero-e-mail certify some processes – a first – and [we] look set to be e-mail-free internally by the end of 2013," Mr. Timmins says.
The company is also considering excising other "time-thieves" from work: There is potential for "zero PowerPoint" and even "zero meetings" on the horizon. "We are taking our cue from the late Stephen Covey," Mr. Timmins says. The American educator and author famously wrote, "Your life doesn't just 'happen' – whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you."