Work Email is Dying. What's Next?

Work email is dying. Business leaders are realizing that team communication is about productivity, not inbox zero or using the best get things done app.

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Ray Tomlinson can't remember what he wrote when he sent himself the world's first email back in 1971, but his colleague Jerry Burchfiel remembers what Ray said when he first showed him what he'd done:

Don't tell anyone! This isn't what we're supposed to be working on."

The breakthrough occurred when they were working at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) on ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. But the breakthrough coupled with Ray's worry didn't spread the beast. Sasha Cavender of Forbes put it this way:

That worry ended when Larry Roberts, a director of DARPA, the government agency that ran the Arpanet, jumped onto the system and began doing all his communication by electronic mail. That, in turn, forced researchers dependent on Roberts for their funding to get online, and the system quickly went from being a convenience to becoming an essential tool."

And there it is. Good ol' 1971. The year email began its journey to becoming the world's premier workplace communication tool.

As it still is. Even as it approaches its 44th birthday this October.

And even as new tools have risen up and made many parts of it obsolete.

While email's continued use may be shocking to many, including those of us who have replaced work email, this is how Ray Tomlinson rolls:

I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned."

He went on to say:

In particular, it’s not strictly a work tool or strictly a personal thing. Everybody uses it in different ways, but they use it in a way they find works for them."

Tomlinson is right. On a personal level, email has opened new channels of person-to-person communication that have allowed ideas to spread like never before. I've seen this happen in my own life.

I was shy as all get out when I was growing up. It seemed that I couldn't put sentences together unless I was playing Nintendo (Double Dragon!) or on the basketball court. Ike... thanks for setting a pick, man. Next time roll off it and I'll feed you the rock!

But then I'd be at the library or at a friend's house, hear the 56k modem rev and then, eventually, those magic words:

"You've got mail."

Whoa. Even if it was spam it felt good to hear that. But mostly it felt good to be able to express myself to friends (and girls!) that I'd have otherwise struggled to communicate with. It gave this introvert some space to think, breathe and collect thoughts before sharing them — and it did so at that crucial time when for me face-to-face communication felt too scary and too fast.

And on the work tool front, there's no denying that email has changed the nature of work communication.

In his article for The Houston Chronicle titled, The Impact of Email in the Workplace, Neil Kokemuller concisely lays out the goodness of work email. He highlights how email has allowed us to have broader and more diverse work teams, and how it's a great work tool for interacting with someone when there isn't a sense of urgency.

Consider This: At the time of email's creation, a letter (like... the kind on paper) served in this capacity, because a phone call carried the expectation of immediate interaction, and it wasn't until 1979 that Gordon Matthews applied for a patent on voicemail.

But the article also highlights the drawbacks, such as less personal communication (where important nuances can get lost and miscommunication can fill the gap) and of course how:

Email overload is a growing problem for many workers. Employees are sometimes so overwhelmed with catching up on email, they neglect other critical job duties. Managers who spend too much time reading and replying to emails with partners, suppliers, workers and customers have less time to coach, train and motivate...."

Despite this growing problem, work email is... hanging on. And many studies, such as Email Statistics Report, 2014-2018 (pdf here) from The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, prove it. Here's the second point in their executive summary:

Email remains the most pervasive form of communication in the business world, while other technologies such as social networking, instant messaging (IM), mobile IM, and others are also taking hold, email remains the most ubiquitous form of business communication.

Pervasive. The word doesn't typically have the most positive connotation these days. Corruption is often described as pervasive. As is drug use.

And perhaps the drug comparison is an accurate one?

We found that Americans are practically addicted to email...."

That's what Kristin Narragon wrote on Adobe's blog in August 2015. They coupled that statement with this infographic:

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On the email addiction Adobe found, Frederic Lardinois over at TechCrunch followed up with a great point:

And when it comes to addiction, people are clearly aware of their bad habits because four out of ten respondents say they tried a 'self-imposed email detox.' Sadly, the [Adobe] study doesn’t tell us if that really worked for them, but 87 percent of those who tried said they managed to go without checking their mail for an average of five days."

Taking this at surface value, some may conclude that our email addiction means we are plugged more into our work and are therefore improving our ability to get things done.

But surfaces often contain mirages...

Therefore the Master concerns himself With the depths and not the surface

—Lao Tzu

So the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) went beyond the surface information (such as how many emails the average worker sends) and instead went in-depth about what such information means and how we can use it to improve the way we work. In their report titled, The social economy: unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, they found that the average interaction worker — which they define as high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals — spends an estimated 28% of their work week... managing email. And another 20% of their time sifting through internal communication or trying to track down a colleague who can help with a specific task.

With this in mind they determined that the average interaction worker could increase productivity by 20-25% if they fully embraced various social technologies to enhance "communication, knowledge sharing, and collaboration within and across social enterprises."

Geoff Lewis and Michael Chui of MGI put a podcast together to unpack what they learned. Here's the quote that most stuck with me:

"If you look at the information that exists within an organization, our observation is that a tremendous amount of this information is locked up, kind of like dark matter, within people's email inboxes. And how much of that information that's trapped within those inboxes would actually be valuable to the overall enterprise and could actually increase the efficiency?"

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Nope.

When articles speak of email's demise, it persists.

Forbes, 2005: Beginning Of The End Of E-Mail

In the intervening years there were hundreds of similar articles, all talking about how email was nearing its end or how we were getting sick of it and would soon be going back to phone calls.

Then there was the article from Fast Company in 2010, The End of Email?, where they used this graph from Radicati to highlight the demise of business email:

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And since then there have been thousands of such articles. And most of them are becoming more predictive and gloomy.

Like this one from Inc. Magazine in 2015:

Why Email Will Be Obsolete by 2020 (featuring "stick a fork in your email")

To which email basically responded:

But here's the deal. Forrester, a highly informative independent technology and market research company, can tell email marketers that consumer "attitudes toward email have become increasingly positive." And Ray Tomlinson, the NPR-dubbed Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen, can say that email is headed where he thought it would. But for the majority of us interaction workers, managing email (especially internal email) feels less like this...

...and a hell of a lot more like this....

This is especially true for those of us who have already replaced email and watched productivity go way up and the rates of our Jim Carrey teeth-gritting-face go way down. For some of us, this has meant going from email as 80% of our internal team communication to something less than 5%.

Couple this with how Google just made it far easier for brands to place native ads directly in your Gmail inbox, and it's easy to see why articles like Fast Company's How Email Became The Most Reviled Communication Experience are on the upswing. In said article, renowned designer Don Norman told John Pavlus that:

Email... creates a context where attention goes to die."

For the record, when I was an underpaid adjunct professor, it actually crossed my mind to sell space on my classroom whiteboard. For about 60 seconds I thought I was brilliant.

To combat my disgust at the higher education system and of my potentially working full-time yet only making $16,000 per year, I would sell the left corner of my whiteboard to... Wells Fargo!

Maybe the right corner to GlaxoSmithKline?

The center? I'd make advertisers fight for it. Oh yeah, Pepsi, well Coca-Cola offered me this!

Even before the illegality factor kicked in I realized what an absurd distraction that would be to my students. They wouldn't be able to focus on whatever lesson I wrote on the board if there were bright and catchy advertisements surrounding it.

Well, that's essentially what's becoming of your email inbox. If your inbox is a place you've learned to channel your focus toward, know that every inch of available space is being viewed by many marketers as an opportunity to grab your attention.

But there are other reasons why email is increasingly ineffective. First, let's address the can of "meat" in the room:

To understand spam we must take it from the top and head back to ARPANET. Here's a brief history of spam courtesy of Dan Fletcher back in 2009:

"Though it wasn't called spam until the 1980s — the term comes from a Monty Python sketch set in a cafeteria, where a crowd of Vikings drowns out the rest of conversation by repeatedly singing the name of the unpopular processed meat — the first unsolicited messages came over the wires as early as 1864, when telegraph lines were used to send dubious investment offers to wealthy Americans. The first modern spam was sent on ARPANET, the military computer network that preceded the Internet. In 1978, a man named Gary Turk sent an e-mail solicitation to 400 people, advertising his line of new computers. (Turk later said his methods proved so unpopular that it would be more than a decade before anyone would try again.)"

For your viewing pleasure, the mad origins of spam:

Spam's madness is still alive and well. We search Google thousands of times each month for "how to stop spam" and even "gmail spam," all to little avail. The big news this year was that for the first time since 2003, less than half of all sent emails were spam.

And then there are stories like that from Joseph Pinciaro over at The Suffolk Times. An email user and spam fighter for 20 years, Joseph finally threw up his hands in defeat. His latest piece is titled, I tried to beat the spammers. I lost. Here's the intro:

"The floodgates have recently opened on the spam folder in my email account and I have a depressing announcement to make, dear reader, for which I apologize in advance: The spam people have won.

"You win, Zagat. You win, Edible Arrangements. You win, Connecticut Landmarks, FC Bayern, Golden Door International Film Festival and Miss America Festival.

"You’ve all gotten an official mention from me. Now, for the love of everything that is holy: Please stop emailing me!"

Even if you aren't sweating over spam, there's everything it takes to formulate an email. Here are just a few of those steps:

(1) Which work colleagues to include in the email? Should you BCC or CC anyone?

(2) What are the best email subject lines? Hey Erika... or no because I'll open with that so maybe just Good meeting today or...

(3) How to start an email? Dear, Hey, Hi, Hello... just the name? Ms? Mr? For this one there are countless articles to help, such as 10 Opening Phrases to Use In Your Next Email. But... ugh.

(4) Body! Expand? Keep it simple? How much should be addressed here?

(5) How to end an email? Sincerely, Thanks, Best... something catchy? We're in luck! For that there are also infinite articles, such as this one from Forbes: 57 Ways to Sign Off On An Email.

Rest assured, there are also thousands of articles about general email tips! Like this one from Seton Hill which opens with a few sentences worth deconstructing:

"Email is different from text messaging. In a text message conversation, two parties expect to engage in multiple, rapid back-and-forth exchanges, asking for clarification and providing corrections when necessary. Generally, you are texting somebody you already know well, about a shared interest, and the subject of the conversation will change as your time together progresses.

But email is part of most people’s work routine. Most professionals who get 20 or 50 or 200 emails a day do not want to engage in a leisurely back-and-forth; they want to clear out their inbox and move on to their next task."

Hold up. This seems to be saying that email isn't so much for communication as it is to get rid of communication (attain that coveted inbox zero and feel all the productivity endorphins that come with it) and move to the next "task."

And wouldn't work communication feel better if, instead of being stiff and formal, it had that leisurely back and forth feel?

For what it's worth, this article was published in 2000 and has been continuously shared and tweaked. I'd love to see these article tweaks continue now that millions of workers around the world have either replaced email entirely or radically altered how they use it.

Seeing the light

It’s been exactly 6 weeks since I’ve moved away from email as a primary mode of work communication. Over the years I’ve even conducted entire writing classes via email for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. It wasn’t that I loved email. I was just too caught up in working on the next whatever to even realize there were alternatives.

Prior to the switch, I was a skeptic. Email had worked for me and I’d been fine. Sure, there were times when I had to dip my hands in ice water at the end of the day. But that was hardly a work hazard worth complaint.

Since the switch, however, I find myself typing less but saying more.

I’m also sitting at the computer less. Because I can see when someone is on and even when they are typing, I’m less compelled to wait in the digital darkness for a response.

I’m also able to better live my mindfulness practice of staying in the moment. I bang out the task at hand and the following day I’m not spending valuable time rummaging through yesterday’s threads.

So even if you're a spam crusher, can bang out an email without working through the steps, and have a zen master's focus when you enter your inbox… ask yourself this:

Is work email your habit or your productivity tool?

If “both” is your answer, ask yourself:

What tools have I tried?

If “none” is your answer, email is your habit.

If “a few” is your answer, the growing body of research and the modern business leaders below are mounting a case for you to try a few more.

And now for the finale.

To gather more insights I asked 15 modern business leaders if work email is coming to an end. Grab your preferred brew, kick back and enjoy the collective pulse of their thoughts:

"The average employee now checks email 36 times an hour, spending a full 13 hours a week reading, deleting, sending and sorting emails, and each time we’re distracted with an email, it takes an average of 16 minutes (yes, 16 minutes) to refocus on the task at hand. The reality is that our email inboxes, once-upon-a-time the private repository of important messages, have become a burden and a timesuck at work, and with the rise of messaging apps and other collaborative tools smart organizations are looking for better ways to streamline communications and increase collaboration."

—Ryan Holmes, CEO and Founder of Hootsuite

"With more than 2 million users and 50 strategic and advertising partners, our business exists outside our office walls, yet we spent most of our time communicating with each other. About 2 years ago, when we looked at our aggressive growth plan, we knew something had to change. In order to scale, we needed to get more out of our team and we needed to give them better tools and processes to be successful. One of the first changes we made was a 100% ban on internal email. We moved all internal communication to productivity tools, team messaging apps, and project/product management services. We expected more productivity, and that happened. But an even more important outcome was how it shifted our communication. Instead of spending critical time crafting well-worded, grammatically perfect emails to each other, the team became externally focused and our conversations became more about our users and our partners. It helped us create better products and a user centric culture I know we'll never lose."

—Gina Moro Nebesar, Co-founder of Ovuline

"Our entire product, engineering, and design team is distributed across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, so we use a variety of tools — outside of email — to stay connected in real-time. From social and project collaboration tools and private social networks, to discussion groups, video chat platforms, and repository hosting tools, we share progress as a team in a variety of ways. Internally, this means that we rarely communicate with each other via email; however, email has remained an important way for us to stay connected with partners, customers, and vendors outside of our organization because it is the industry standard."

—Allie VanNest, Head of Communication at Parse.ly

"Emails arrive chronologically, an inefficient and ineffective organization method. Project management systems allow updates to be made in an organized manner, by project, and employees can review recent posts when they're ready to work on that project, rather than when their inbox dings, interrupting other work."

—Simon Slade, CEO of Affilorama, SaleHoo and Doubledot Media

"We've completely done away with internal email. We have a text based platform that's replaced internal emails and our efficiency is way up across our 140 employees in 2 countries and 3 offices. I personally did away with emails to test this theory first and to be honest, it's time-saving strategies like this that allowed us to rise up from the ashes and become the growing company we are today. Although a different strategy, we've also eliminated all bosses and managers, and that's a work in progress, but at least we didn't need to send out a company-wide email to tell everyone!"

—Jessica Mah, CEO of inDinero

"Undoubtedly email is changing but it's unlikely to ever disappear. With the introduction of tools like team chat messaging apps, automatic notification systems, multiple-person video conferencing systems and other technology barriers dropping, it's never been easier to lessen the grip of email. It's unlikely to ever go away fully but the current ping-pong nature of email and inboxes will be very foreign to the next few generations."

—Paul Armstrong, Owner of HERE/FORTH

"Emails don't work, period. Things happen in startups quickly, so to keep everyone informed and not overwhelmed is a challenge. We’ve started using team chat communication tools because of its search functions, organization, and customization settings. The team can be alerted and notified of new action items or milestones, so it really keeps us updated quickly and moving fast."

—Katie Fang, Founder and CEO of SchooLinks

"Our team rarely uses email for day to day communication. We use a few cloud based programs to communicate and transfer files often supported by text. It's faster and easier to catalog based on topic."

—Violette de Ayala, Founder and CEO at Femfessionals

"We have opted to use a messaging app as our primary means of electronic communication as opposed to email. While we still use email to a degree, the majority of our electronic communication has moved away from it. Messaging apps provide a level of collaboration that email cannot."

—Slava Akhmechet, Co-founder and CEO of RethinkDB

"Email sucks because it's too easy to miss them, and too difficult to remember to follow up if you don't get a reply. During the working day, most business communication is best done over the phone, via team collaboration tools (which include instant messaging) or in person, and email makes it too easy to hide from these channels."

—William Pearce, Co-founder of InboxVudu

"As a global company with 2 offices in the US and in Turkey, we need a fast, efficient, and effective way to communicate that will minimize miscommunication across time zones. We still use email, but we are quickly relying more and more on office messaging. I encourage our team to communicate, collaborate, and mainly use a team chat messaging app because it's a faster way to get things done, and it's also fun for us. Office messaging helps us in our business communication because our friendly chatting makes the culture a more casual, fun place to be."

—Aytekin Tank, CEO and Founder of JotForm

"I have teams in multiple offices, and we have significantly cut down on email. With so many web-based chat and task management tools available, any company should be able to reduce internal emails by 50% or more."

—Mark Tuchscherer, Co-founder and President of Geeks Chicago

"Inter-company email is quickly coming to an end. It just isn't dynamic enough. Where email used to help companies win, it now slows them down. Inter-company chat tools now exist that store all files and create a searchable company database that anybody can search. Email is just too archaic for the specialized inter-company chat tools killing it off."

—Will Mitchell, Co-founder of StartupBros

“Work email can’t die fast enough. As a millennial and CEO, I find that email is the online equivalent to voicemail: I hate it and prefer the instant immediacy of text messages and chats. Millennials are over battling our inboxes."

—Kate Finley, CEO of Belle Communications

"Email is like a gremlin. It started off nice and sweet, got wet, and now it's overwhelming everyone. Instead of trying to get to inbox zero, we've decided to get out of the inbox entirely."

—Rasheen Carbin, CMO of nspHire

A glimpse into what's next

First, it's telling that those are only the responses I received within one hour (there were hundreds more). Second, despite the headlines trying to rope us in, email isn't dying. But it's clear to me that the current nature of work email is dying as teams move nearly 100% of their internal work email to other platforms. This is happening because modern business leaders are realizing that team communication is not about habit or reaching inbox zero or even using the best get things done app. It's about productivity.

So if you're still using email internally, here's an idea:

(1) Choose and implement a team communication app within your company.

But, like attempts to quit smoking, try to wean off instead of going cold turkey. Do this by...

(2) Charging each employee $1 for each email sent after you announce use of the app. Cap it at $15 dollars for the week. After 30 days (the typical trial period for many team communication apps out there) donate the money to an agreed upon charity.

If it doesn't work for your team, cool. Now you know and a charity wins. But there's a good chance you'll see otherwise.

Organizational psychology professor Cary Cooper titled his latest piece for The Guardian:

Work email is making us a generation of idiots.

There's no better time than now to break the habit, or at least realize it exists and try to find an alternative. Your company's success might depend upon it.

***

I want your thoughts on any and all of this. What tools do you use? Do you successfully use email for internal work communication? The comment section is open and I'll respond as best I can.

Special thanks to HARO

—Photo: Mailbox Peak by Vineesh Devasia

—Photo: Is Email Dead? by Cambodia4KidsOrg

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