The true productivity impact of 186 million needless NHS emails

Email continues to rank as the leading organisational communication tool of choice, with an estimated 85% of the modern-day workforce firing up Outlook daily.

However, a widely reported NHS email debacle this week, which saw a NHS-wide “test email” crash the system, shows it’s increasingly unfit for purpose. We’re stuck in an email over-usage and over-dependency rut – and it’s significantly impacting productivity.

For a publicly funded industry such as healthcare, this is especially concerning. Taxpayers want to see maximum value for their money; accountability to numerous bodies and initiatives weighs on the shoulders of every Trust and CCG. Stories such as this are hugely damaging, highlighting the continuing inefficiencies and ballooning deficits rife within the NHS.

So, is now the time for the NHS to review options available to make their communication more efficient?

The dark side of email

For a tool designed to enable communication, email can be painfully inefficient.

A report by McKinsey Global Institute, which looked at unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, found that 28% of our working week is spent reading and answering email; a loss of productivity few organisations can afford.

This is a particular pain point for the NHS, where productivity has been falling for three consecutive years leading up to 2016. This has been further impacted by the strike actions of junior doctors, ineffectual agency locum hiring, and inefficient procurement processes; meaning that every facet of streamlining productivity is critical if the NHS isn’t to see another year of decline in their 2017 review.

The “email epidemic” has already been cited as an underlying cause for the UK’s overall poor productivity figures, resulting in some leading organisations opting to eliminate business email altogether. When incidences like this cripple organisations such as the NHS, the productivity drain is exacerbated further still.

A single email caused so much congestion that it crashed NHS servers; resulting not only in wasted time from reading and responding to pointless emails, but for a period, complete shut down of all access to emails. Employees took to Twitter in exasperation, resulting in the #nhsmail and #replyallgate trending to reflect the severity of the incident.

The fiasco had halted communication, caused intense frustration and ultimately stalled the ability for thousands of employees to get work done. In the case of the NHS, where lives are on the line, every minute of non-productive time has an impact.

Set out best practice

While some leaders are suggesting a ban on email, some research suggests that limiting email checks to certain times may be just as effective as banning it entirely. A policy of moderation might be enough to bring about the same increases in productivity.

More and more organisations are establishing an acceptable usage policy and educating staff on best practice (keep emails concise, start with action steps, use “FYI” on emails containing non-actionable correspondence).

In one example, Volkswagen made an agreement with its company work council to limit employee access to email on their Blackberry devices outside of working hours, with servers stopping the routing of emails 30 minutes after and reinstating services 30 minutes prior to staff shifts.

By having management set out best practice and support a more balanced approach to email usage, organisations can support productivity and better employee work-life balance.

Email alternatives?

Due to data security and compliance, email is always likely to stay in healthcare. However as figures show, usage needs limiting. NHS organisations are starting to consider means of communication with colleagues other than email for non-confidential knowledge sharing, information and notifications.

Social collaboration tools are increasing in the both public and private sector business communications as a viable alternative, and their value is well-documented. Writing for CMSWire, AvePoint Public Sector CTO Dux Raymond Sy argues:

“Enterprise social is not just a trendy buzzword – it’s a hard, fast enterprise reality that has helped to drive measurable benefits for many businesses across the world.”

Utilising recognisable and intuitive social tools such as forums, @mentioning, #tagging, blogs and team areas encourages greater communication and collaboration amongst colleagues. The result can be a dramatic reduction in email use; for global information technology provider Atos, that result was 64%.

Utilising specialist collaboration tools that offer integration with other business platforms, such as cloud storage applications or Office365, means platforms such as intranets can offer a one-stop-shop for effective communication, without always having to turn to email. With an effective enterprise search function, this means quick, efficient access to all essential business information from a centralised hub: breaking down information silos that typically result from the 1-2-1 nature of email conversations.

Additionally, the the healthcare sector faces the challenge of a fluid workforce, battling high staff turnover combined with people changing rolls internally frequently. The ability to find the right co-worker with the right expertise (and to be able to trust that information is up to date) is essential for the delivery of quality care; using email is an ineffectual way to do this.

Having a centralized employee directory that offers integration with directories such as Active Directory or Azure Directory can prove a powerful and efficient feature of a social intranet. Creation and deprovision of accounts is seamless and automated, with systems that offer rich profile fields supporting healthcare staff in finding the right people with the right expertise.

Interact’s People’s Directory, for example, offers the capacity to add skills, languages, hobbies and interests; when a user has a need to find someone who speaks Spanish or has experience in a specialized area of medical research, this provides an instant tool for connecting colleagues – regardless of department, speciality or location.

nhs productivity intranet people directory

Healthcare organisations are also now recognizing the benefits that real-time interaction can have on a workforce, particularly one that can often be dispersed out in the community, across clinics, hospitals or telecommuting. The practice of moving to solutions such as social intranets or instant messaging services as an alternative will help connect employees – and alleviate the overdependency on email.

This move away from email for day to day communication will be an advantage for a healthcare organization’s IT team too. Having a secure, compliant, cloud based intranet for communication and collaboration across departments improves an organisations security through the use of SSO, where staff can sign in to key platforms via their intranet, saving time, reducing IT burden and increasing security through the reduction of lost and hacked password incidents. Having a cloud based intranet also reduces the chances of internal servers becoming overloaded to the point of crashing, as with the incident this week.

As enterprise social tools continue to evolve, and healthcare organisations become more comfortable with opting for cloud solutions to support their move to greater efficiencies, email over useage and dependency may become a thing of the past.

Every saving made makes a difference in a publicly funded organization, and the cost of implementing a social intranet pales in comparison to that of the entire email system going down for a day. With NHS England decreeing digital transformation as part of it’s strategy to move towards a more productive and efficient NHS service, maybe intranets are what is needed to assist with the move from email to a better way of organizational communication.