Whither Email?

5 min read

Photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher via Wikimedia Commons.

Is email really as terrible as we think it is? Sure, it takes up more of our time than we might like. But is it worth spending even more time worrying about how bad it is? Or reading about it? Or writing a blog post about it? (A question I have asked myself many times over the past hour or so.)

And anyway, do we really have a choice?

A recent Huff Post piece by Meredith Arthur certainly makes some valid points about email’s limitations, its relative obsolescence as a technology, and its cultural frustrations. But these are basically the same issues that used to bother us about our snail mail, our telephones, and the hallways of our apartment buildings. Unless you fiercely defend your hermetic existence, life basically requires you to make a lot of responses. It might be nice if we could compartmentalize this more, but it’s not entirely up to us.

And yet, there is something to this complaint. I was tempted to give this post the more commanding title, “WITHER, Email!” because I know we often wish it would magically dry up and blow away. While I don’t get as much email as a lot of people I know, I still find myself wanting there to be even less.

It’s not the sheer amount of it, though, that’s really the problem, and I think this is Ms. Arthur’s point. It’s the clunky way we’ve adapted it to a number of marginally related functions. The large group emails and announcements that don’t really apply to us. The loops and conversation threads that keep coming back to our inboxes, just because we got copied in on one little issue that was very quickly resolved. When it comes to meeting, collaborating, and tracking projects, we live in an age in which there are ways to accomplish these objectives more sensibly. But here’s the problem: Which way?

There are messaging platforms built for collaboration (like Slack) and enterprise social networks (like Jive or Yammer) that are particularly attractive for fostering community within large organizations. What they seem to have in common is transparency and flexibility. So instead of everyone who might need to know being copied on every interaction, people can loop themselves in and out as needed.

You can also look in as an observer. One of the benefits touted by Slack is that it serves as a kind of knowledge archive, providing organizational newcomers the ability to get themselves up to speed on one project, or the whole operation, just by browsing or searching through old interactions (though honestly, this sounds kind of time consuming).

Slack in action (via Slack.com).
Slack in action (via Slack.com).

This article about Slack seems to give a balanced view of some of its attractions and drawbacks. Creating and managing channels of messages and files without hassle is appealing, but that transparency can be a double-edged sword; everyone can just as easily see what you’re not doing, and that can cause problems. And while the emojis and custom icons serve to make interactions more personable, they can also derail productivity. As with email, the line between healthy jocularity and clogging the system with fluff can be tough to discern.

Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and formerly a British government advisor on mental health in the workplace, sees all the new technological solutions as “symptoms of the same problem.” He says that the compulsion to deal with work email has actually caused UK employees to become less productive than their counterparts in other countries, but sees the problem as cultural, not technological. “Every organization,” he says, “has to come to a conclusion as to what is a good way to be operating, and the best way to do that is by asking the employees themselves how do we stop this epidemic of us being linked all the time to our emails.”

New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles. ALDS Game 2. October 8, 2012.
“Why don’t you put it in an email, and I’ll get back to you.” Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

What does he recommend instead? Face-to-face conversations when possible. Or phone calls. Which might be fine at first, but what if everyone started doing it? Remember when your phone used to ring more than a half dozen times a day? Do we really want to go back to that? I don’t.

Obviously, email isn’t going away entirely. At the very least, it will serve as a baseline means of identity in the digital world for years, if not decades, to come. And though email marketing has seen a resurgence in recent years, it’s probably worth noting that people may be spending less time there lately. Also, thanks to email streamlining efforts like Gmail’s Inbox (which bundles like types of messages in an effort to reduce clutter) your organization’s message may end up somewhere near the bottom of a folder with a title like “Promos” that doesn’t get opened all that often.

It’s also a good time to remind ourselves, as marketers, that just about everyone out there is as busy as we are. Our messages had better be relevant, helpful, and to-the-point. And it doesn’t hurt if they look nice, too. Even in the virtual world, there’s no need to make more junk.