When did we all fall out of love with email?

An article in which I ponder how and when email ceased to be the employees’ best friend and consider what comes next.

by Darrell Woods, Senior Account Manager, Devoteam UK


In my previous article I discussed how the world of work has already undergone waves of transformation. Clearly the arrival of email was one of those, creating a virtual in-tray for workers that looked to deliver immediate leaps in efficiency – a couple of dashed-off sentences and the internal issue was transferred into someone else’s queue. A slightly more considered construction and you could reach any external contact and propel your call to action up their priority list (assuming of course pre-internet that you had their email address). And this was merely 1:1. The addition of groups, of the dreaded CC and BCC, of macros, and you suddenly could broadcast to an unlimited number of folk with a single click. What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a bit as it turned out.

Email has its place, in my opinion, to communicate things that need to be formal, but has floundered as a panacea for a host of reasons. Here are the ones I think are most pertinent.

1. Globalisation and workforce changes leading to death by email

Email can be a productive tool if the community is small enough. Yet as organisations have flattened, the workload on every employee in every industry has continued to rise. Too busy and you soon hit the email wall – where even the important stuff can be lost in a near-infinite inbox. Research suggests that as much as 25% of the working day can be “lost” to handling email… “My email is a full-time job” (take a look at ServiceNow’s Survey of 2016, Today’s State of Work: The Productivity Drain*, which is still relevant).

2. SPAM

If the challenge of handling so much email was tough, multiply that by the number of unwanteds and the patient stopped breathing. Yes, filters have tabs and even more clever suppressors arrived but it was too late for most of us. Falling out of love is normally a one-way door! The simple fact is people ignore email now as there are so many arriving that anything important or urgent is likely to get lost. Further, the younger generation/Generation Z coming through simply doesn’t have that legacy of email use as they have (and prefer) a multitude of social channels. We have to factor this change of demographic into the trend.

3. Mobile and “Look at me”

Blackberry was first to bring mobile email to the world in 2000 and has a lot to answer for! The “always on” nature of email, no respecter of time zones, holidays or working hours became from that device onwards, something that you couldn’t hide from. And a time stamp meant that the hero culture appeared: “Of course you were working at 5am even though the holiday nightclub was still open!” Most Employers did what might be expected – the wall to private time, to rest, to leisure was repeatedly attacked. If you were not quick in responding regardless of physical state or geography you were letting the side down.

4. Asynchronous workflow

Fundamentally email is not efficient because it is not guaranteed response; it is unstructured and is immune to workflow. Who shudders at recalling email chains that bounce around until no one can quite remember what the original question was, but now at least another dozen people have been dragged in? Yes, it’s still happening. Many business processes come unstuck with free text but the same organisations continue to confuse structured workflow requirements loitering unwanted inside email like a drunk at a party.

5. Laziness leading to communication breakdown

The human voice is a wonderful communication tool. Tone, pitch, rhythm all communicate emotion and detail that the words alone cannot. And yet people would rather send an email! It used to make me so mad when Support would say “I’ve sent them another email” but then confess that, no, they hadn’t spoken to the customer. Sending emails into the void and then somehow believing that this transferred responsibility to the victim became a crime precisely because it was left to go unpunished.

6. The curse of CC

As work pressures grew through the 90s, many looked to email as a kind of audit trail. You could demonstrate that you had actioned the task, or you could cc Management so that this could cover you for later if questions were asked. I know of at least one manager that would instantly delete unread all emails he had been cc’d on, on the basis that the action required was not on him, but this was unusual and has never become a trend.

So, given the above, a more valid question might be:

“If email has been exposed for the overhead it is, just why is there still so darn much of it?”

It was way back in 2012 that Atos received a lot of press coverage for seeking to ban all internal email. By setting the objective, but not being too prescriptive on timeframes, Atos announced it had achieved a 60% reduction by 2018, but that took six years! Collaboration tools have been around forever seeking to offer an alternative to email – Lotus Notes started down the right path with a more collaborative approach but lost out on usability/complexity. They were simply too early, in my opinion.

Search for other examples, however, and they are few: Volkswagen, Daimler and Porsche played follow-my-leader to restrict email from reaching people who were on holiday or from it landing out of working hours. Sensible and respectful of employees but hardly a sea change.

At Devoteam, much of my job working with ServiceNow is to help clients realise the benefits of process automation. I always seek to include a modest reduction in email of, say, 20% in the project success criteria on the basis that this is more than achievable. The project then fights certain stakeholders who want the new system to send more emails!

We live in a world all about outcomes. A well-constructed user portal will be adopted if the consumer, internal or external, can clearly conclude that they get what they want done more quickly than through sending an email. I try to convince clients to prevent inbound email from even being allowed to start a process – there is rarely enough information captured and categorised correctly to support this method, but here again, clients are reluctant to dictate, in my experience, and will integrate with email even if it be through gritted teeth.

No, instead organisations now seem to rely on gradual adoption – no fanfare announcements or launches. Chat is king and the take-up of Skype, Slack, Facebook Workplace, Google Hangouts will perhaps hasten email’s withdrawal. Add Chatbots and more intelligent Virtual Agents and Chat might even scale!

Of course, every site where structured workflow is being poorly performed by a mixture of spreadsheets, email and SharePoint is a great opportunity for us to add value – and (un)fortunately this is still the case in most companies! Perhaps the biggest driver as we move into the Analytics age is that email really is useless for reporting. Other than an email count what does it tell you? Whatever your views on Big Data, what cannot be disputed is that fast decisions are only possible on the basis of data that can be quantified and analysed from several viewpoints. Perhaps this, more than usability and efficiency issues, will finally propel email to the legacy drawer?

Please get in touch – Devoteam can certainly help – but preferably not by email 🙂

*ServiceNow’s survey, Today’s State of Work: The Productivity Drain, published in 2016 is available from Devoteam at uk.info@devoteam.com!

Contact

Darrell Woods

Senior Account Manager – Enterprise, Devoteam UK