Don’t Hit Reply-to-All (and we really mean it!)

Regular readers know of our attempt to get knowledge workers to use discretion when replying to e-mail with multiple recipients.  There is no question that knowledge workers themselves contribute to the problem of information overload and that e-mail overuse is a prime contributor to the problem.

For years, I’ve asked knowledge workers to observe the following rule: I will not overburden colleagues with unnecessary e-mail, especially one word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!”, and will use “reply to all” only when absolutely necessary.

We know that information overload costs companies billions and that information overload itself is a result of workers grappling with the growing tide of e-mail, instant messages, phone calls, wikis, Weblogs, and, more recently, social computing tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Radar.

Despite my heightened awareness of what the abuse of reply-to-all can occasion, I never considered the worst case scenario.  Today, I found it in a comment posted to an article quoting me and my advice on this topic by Toni Bowers at TechRepublic.

A knowledge worker employed in a fairly large call center reported that someone sent an all-hands e-mail (to 2000+ people) to see if someone would work her shift for one day in the coming week.  The questionable wisdom of this notwithstanding, the real problem began when colleagues began to “reply to all,” at first saying they couldn’t work the shift.  This was followed by other “reply to all” e-mail, admonishing various senders “please don’t send to everyone next time” and “yeah and don’t reply all.”

Things got a bit worse after a while, and the conversation degraded: “well, you reply all too so you’re no better” and “you’re all stupid, we’re trying to work here” are representative of the banter.

This eventually overloaded the e-mail server and the IT department had to shut it down.

Please click carefully out there.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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