Email is like a tax that we all collect from each other.
Over recent years the influence of changes in technology has changed the way we communicate in our personal lives. We are the whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram generation. The number of different available platforms and formats has led to helpful thinking about the relative pros and cons of different channels and the structure of communication.
In business the default method for digital communication is email.
Let’s be honest, email is starting to look more and more like a relic of the 1990’s that really should be going the way of the curtains haircut and Dawson’s Creek. While it’s associated with modern tech, email inherited it’s communication norms from a different era, decades before the likes of Whatsapp showed us how good communication really works in the digital age.
We’re in the Whatsapp generation – Why should we lug around these overflowing message boxes with message piled on message without context, structure or prioritisation?
The Economist, Harvard Business Review and McKinsey have all made the case for messenger apps over email. They make the point that the low “cost” of sending messages, coupled with the unstructured, unprioritised and context-free architecture of the system kills productivity and ensures that knowledge workers can spend as long communicating about the work they do as doing the work itself.
I see four main benefits of chat/messenger based apps (such as Slack, Hipchat, or Teams) for business:
- Context-driven Structure (different channels can exist for different projects or teams)
- Prioritisation (notifications can be prioritised for particular channels)
- Reflects actual communication norms (no “Dear X …. regards, Dan”)
- Threaded structure & retrieval (previous messages are immediately there when you refer back to a channel, test search is generally effective)
There are also some common criticisms, which I see more as issues with the way we work rather than the system itself. More on all of this below.
What the research says
A number of articles have been written citing the efficiency gains from alternative methods of communication, and the disadvantages of email:
The Economist May 2016 – The Slack Generation
How workplace messaging could replace other missives
Short summary: workplace messaging systems such as Slack can improve productivity by up to 30% due to: contextual structuring of messages into channels, less formal and more natural style of communication and the ability to work seamlessly across desktop and mobile devices.
Harvard Business Review Feb 2016 – A Modest Proposal – Eliminate Email
Short summary: email engenders an unstructured workflow that can be damaging to productivity, this arises from the architecture of the system: the low cost of messages combined with the association of messages with an individual, rather than a project or task. The attention-switching that the need to constantly check email entails is also very disruptive.
McKinsey & Company 2012 – Unlocking value & productivity through social technologies
Short summary: McKinsey wrote in 2012 that using communication tools that leveraged social-media functionality in a business context could enhance communication, knowledge sharing and collaboration. They estimate this could enhance the productivity of knowledge-workers by 20-25%. They find that the average knowledge-worker spends half their time in the office communicating about their work and a third actually doing the work they were hired to do.
Email for work, particularly internally, is starting to feel more and more like a relic of the 1990’s. Why should we lug around these overflowing message boxes with one message piled on top of another without context, structure or prioritisation?
Business comms for the whatsapp generation
I see four main benefits of chat based apps (such as Slack, Hipchat, or Teams) for business:
Many knowledge workers receive hundreds of emails a day (non-spam), being away from the desk for an hour can easily result in 50+ unread messages at certain times. While all of these messages may be valuable at some level they will generally have a very different prioritisation level,which isn’t obvious without sorting through them. Some might be a cc to keep you in the loop on something, or an update from a supplier (which are valuable but not urgent). Others might be a request to urgently review a piece of client work.
A chat application gives one clear channel for high-priority messaging that can be accessed easily and distinctly from email. We already have this in our personal lives with text and whatsapp. Would you email your friend if you were on the way to meet them and needed to let them know something? It isn’t realistic to rely on email – messenger releases what would otherwise be a bottleneck to making fast decisions in certain areas.
Some of the chat platforms allow notifications to be set up and “pushed” selectively (ie from certain groups but not others), or to set up do-not-disturb messages.
A common criticism of email (repeated in the HBR article cited above) is the lack of structure, and the unstructured workflow that email facilitates can be quite negative for productivity. Messages of varying priority, both internal and external, connected to a myriad of projects or clients land in the inbox one after the other. One of the benefits of the messenger apps is the creation of channels relating to specific teams or project groups, which helps structure incoming messages. Ultimately this facilitates more effective collaboration (also cited in the Economist article above). Due to the structure, emails quickly become unmanageable when multiple people in a project team reply to the same thread, whereas the messenger format helps responses to be more organised. This is particularly important in environments with more remote-working, which is the direction we are going in.
- Casual: reflects actual communication
As noted in the Economist article quoted above, the protocols around composing email are still relatively formal (“Dear X …. Regards Dan”) which in many situations is less efficient than how we would communicate in face-to-face. Messenger applications facilitate communication in the same way as we would interact in person so can be quicker and more to the point. Email tends to be hierarchical and a one-way broadcast. It does not tend to be a tool that naturally prompts feedback or discussion.
Some message platforms allow “liking” of messages which – given how social media has evolved – represents a more natural and elegant way of indicating agreement than adding another message to the system.
- Thread structure
The discrete nature of each email means that communication by email frequently results in searching through an inbox for previous communications on the same subject. There is an advantage to preserving the thread in a group chat channel for everyone to see and easily refer back to. In addition some of the messenger platforms have deep search capability due to indexing all the contents of messages and attachments. I for one would love to get back all those working hours I have wasted searching through old emails for something crucial. If used well this can also serve the function of replacing frequent update meetings where face-to-face meeting needs to co-ordinated (which is time consuming, and also less easy with remote working).
The main challenges that need to be solved in adopting a messaging app for business purposes are around information and data security and setting the right boundaries around work/home life such that it does not lead to unwanted out-of-hours bombardment.
Having used Teams at Redington for about 6 months I’m a huge convert – simply put, it makes your comms more organised, more efficient and urgent. It un-clutters your workflow and will make you more productive.
However, there are some commonly cited criticisms which are worth addressing as I don’t see these as negatives in themselves but rather they reveal deeper issues with how work is structured in general.
Criticism #1 “I’m in too many Teams channels”
This isn’t an issue with the app, it’s because you are working in too many teams! The HBR article The Overcommitted Organisation put this really well in describing the situation that many knowledge-work organisations find themselves in whereby multi-teaming (deploying individuals over a variety of teams simultaneously) whilst efficient can also stretch the organisation. This isn’t the fault of a messaging app per se, but structuring messages in channels is more likely to reveal this as an issue.
Criticism #2 “I can’t copy people in who aren’t in the Team”
Ah yes. The Cc box. That brilliant invention of the email era, that lets us push out our messages to anyone and everyone that we like. Adding and removing names, allowing the channeling of information to ebb and flow between varying groups as we wish. But think about it for a second. This isn’t how communication should work. We shouldn’t be adding and removing people from groups and teams with each message we send. Those that are on the team should see all the messages. Those that aren’t, don’t need to be bothered by them. By all means welcome new people to the team (and some might join for a short period of time, others longer), but much better to be clear about who is on the team and who isn’t, and messenger apps bring this to the fore, whereas email allows us to be too lazy about it.
Here’s to the end of email!