Some companies are reducing or eliminating e-mail in a bid to staunch the spread of disruptive computer viruses and spam.
The Weymouth Club, a Boston-area health club chain, is cutting off some PCs to the Internet. Merrill Lynch last month banned employee use of AOL, Yahoo! and other outside e-mail services to better protect its network. The Sports Section, a photography company in Atlanta, forced its 100 employees to change e-mail addresses six months ago and also banned the use of Web-based e-mail addresses.
Phones4U, a mobile-phone retailer in England, has gone so far as to ban its 2,500 employees from e-mailing one another. Customers still can e-mail the company.
Executives admit the changes may be extreme.
E-mail is considered the most efficient form of non-face-to-face communication at work, according to 80 percent of 500 businesses surveyed this year by Meta Group.
But e-mail spam and viruses -- which often spread via e-mail -- cost companies billions of dollars a year in lost productivity.
This year, half of all external corporate e-mail -- or more than 2 trillion messages -- will be spam, researcher IDC says.
Meanwhile, about 450 viruses are discovered a month. Employers also want to curb excessive e-mail and Web surfing by workers. To bypass e-mail, companies are:
* Using alternatives: Software maker Mobile Automation whacked e-mail use by 20 percent this year when it relied more on cell phones and instant messaging which, so far, isn't a big spam target.
Security-services firm Guardent recently armed 25 of its 150 employees with cell phones. "People were spending five hours a day doing nothing but trading messages and deleting spam," says Paul Brady, company president. "E-mail was not that productive or the best direct communication."
* Limiting access: The Weymouth Club is terminating Internet connections, and thus e-mail, to seven of 28 PCs after a spate of virus-related problems the past year. It determined those employees didn't need the access. Some PCs are used by several workers. Those keyboards are locked up during non-work hours. "Users are more likely to download dodgy material when it is a shared PC," says executive Rich Synnott.
* Tightening security: Corporations are adopting stricter e-mail policies, which often ban the downloading of suspicious e-mail attachments and secondary e-mail addresses for personal use.
Up to 80 percent of U.S. businesses will have policies in place next year, twice that of today, says market researcher CipherTrust Research.
Companies could sacrifice productivity if they overly restrict e-mail, tech analysts say. Spiking e-mail to avoid spam and viruses "is like someone deciding not to drive because they might get in an accident," says Meta's Matt Cain.
When The Sports Section forced employees to change e-mail addresses this year, employees complained it hampered communications with customers.
"It's unfortunate but a better alternative than spreading a virus to one of our 185 outlets, which has happened," says Joe Lindenmayer, company vice president.