Email traffic is no indicator of productivity, Manchester United’s new owner should know better

Manchester United co-owner Jim Ratcliffe found a new excuse for ordering employees back to the office, and it highlights something business leaders consistently get wrong about productivity

Manchester United Return To Office

Employers’ justifications for returning to the office full-time are typically vague. For example, when Boots CEO Seb James called workers back into the office five days a week, he simply said it was a “much more fun and inspiring place” for people to work.

The latest feeble rationale for banning home-working has come from the new Manchester United Football Club co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe. In a recent message to the club’s employees, he bemoaned the “disgraceful” untidiness in the office and called an end to the flexible work-from-home policy which has been in place since the pandemic.

For those that were unwilling to comply with his new diktat, Ratcliffe had a simple response: “If you don’t like it, please seek alternative employment.”

There’s a simple reason that so many business leaders have struggled to back up their assertions that working in the office is better. The current available data points to an increase in productivity when companies implement hybrid working, albeit a very slight one. 

Stanford University professor and all-round authority on work-from-home data Nick Bloom has found that employers see around a 3-5% increase in productivity from hybrid workers. Part of this is due to the extra time gained when not commuting, and the rest is due to the quieter home working environment, he claims.

Email overload

But the reason Ratcliffe’s justification for ordering a return to the office is particularly grating (beyond the fact he resides in Monaco) is his use of email traffic as a measure of productivity. In his message to staff, Ratcliffe cited a 20% drop in email traffic at one of his other businesses when it experimented with working at home on Fridays. 

His comments highlight the fact that too many businesses focus on the inputs, rather than the outputs of desk-based workers. An employee’s value can’t be determined by the number of emails they fire off. In fact, having to constantly respond to messages often gets in the way of people being able to perform the more important parts of their job.

It can also lead to higher levels of stress, as one University of California study found when it hooked up 40 office workers to heart rate monitors. It revealed that the longer someone spent on email, the higher the person’s stress levels became. While speed might be of the essence for bosses like Ratcliffe, the researchers found that people answer questions more hastily when anxious, taking less care and using more language that expressed anger.

The solution, according to the researchers, is for organisations to make “a concerted effort to cut down on email traffic” to improve the health and wellbeing of employees.

An employee’s value can’t be determined by the number of emails they fire off

This doesn’t stop business leaders, like Ratcliffe, consistently referring to email activity as a performance metric. Hours spent online and number of emails sent were the most frequently cited methods for tracking employee productivity, according to a 2023 survey of global executives by Slack and research firm Qualtrics.

In fact, this preoccupation with emails incentivises wasting time on performative work, making the business even less productive than it was in the first place. When the same survey turned the question on workers, 70% said that fewer meetings and emails would improve their productivity.

While efforts from business leaders to improve productivity are not unwarranted, an infatuation with emails is not helping solve this problem. As someone with 1,000 emails currently sitting in their unreads, I’ve always found a clear inbox is more often a sign of procrastination than productivity.

Perhaps the Manchester United owner’s most pressing concern should be the club’s performances on the pitch, rather than its office employees’ sent folder.