Email Stress Test: Experiment Unplugs Workers for 5 Days
Slave to your email? Wonder what would happen if you had to do without it? UC Irvine informatics professor Gloria Mark was curious — so she recently led a study that separated 13 people from their email for five days and recorded what happened when they unplugged.
Mark spoke with The Times about the joys and sorrows of ditching email and why the Army is interested in her research.
What made you want to see how people fared without email?
That was way back in 2005. I had this crazy idea that people were addicted to email. So I started thinking, the way you can test that is if you take people away from email cold turkey. You should see symptoms of withdrawal, the same way people are addicted to alcohol or drugs.
It took four years to find a test site willing to give it a try. Were employers worried it would wreck business?
Yes. People were interested because they wanted to find ways to reduce the email overload. But on the other hand, they just said, “Wow, we just can’t afford to do this.”
In 2009, I was invited to give a talk at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center outside Boston, and I asked if they wanted to take part. At first they said no, but then I talked to them about the relevance for soldiers in the field — what would happen if a soldier was taken out of commission? How would the other people in their unit reconfigure to communicate?
Also, everybody at Natick was complaining about email and information overload. So they agreed.
How did you do the study?
We had 13 volunteers who were civilian employees at Natick. First we did a baseline measure — we had them work as usual for several days. Then we cut off email for five days, continuing to take our measurements.
We couldn’t see a discernible trend on days 1 and 2. But at day