Ryan Holmes in Fast Company – Why Email is a Productivity Killer – and its days are numbered

By Hootsuite | 3 years ago | 15 Comments

fast company 150An article by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes was featured in Fast Company yesterday. Holmes explores five ways that email kills productivity in the workplace, from discouraging social sharing to complicating group work. You can check out the story – and how the latest social tools offer a superior alternative – here. [clear]

The world’s first email message was sent in 1971. In the intervening four decades – as disco came and went, the Berlin Wall fell, the Internet was invented and a soft-spoken Harvard undergrad launched Facebook –  email has remained in essence unchanged: an electronic letter, mailed to a virtual address.  

Comfortable and Familiar

Today, some 1.88 billion people around the world are hooked on a technology that’s nearly a half-century out-of-date. Email is comfortable and familiar, but it’s horribly unproductive. Try setting up a meeting time with a group of people via email, for instance, and that becomes painfully obvious.

In recent years, however, there’s been a quiet revolution stirring. Major companies – including French IT firm Atos, which has 74,000 employees – have either banned or limited email use in the office. As employees embrace more efficient ways of communicating, productivity has improved significantly.

Among the most powerful alternatives to email are a new generation of internal Facebook-style networks built with companies in mind.  To reduce email use at HootSuite, developers here designed Conversations – an internal communications tool that enables teams to post and respond in real time on centralized message threads shown in the HootSuite dashboard. Appropriate messages can even be amplified to Twitter, Facebook and other networks, while poignant tweets and posts can be pulled into group discussions with a click.

Breaking the Habit

By reducing dependency on the inbox, HootSuite hopes to progressively eliminate office email in the coming year. And when you think about email’s limitations, it’s not a moment too soon.  

  • Email is a time killer. The average corporate user spends more than ¼ of the workday reading and responding to email, according to McKinsey’s 2012 Social Economy report. Amid spam, forwards, mass mailings and other non-essential emails, critical messages end up lost or deferred – creating a serious bottleneck in workflow.
  • Email is not built for collaboration. As Tim Walters, senior analyst at Forrester Research, explains: “[Email] is miserable as a collaborative tool.  But it’s still used daily by 85 percent of workers.”   Anyone who has ever attempted to brainstorm or set up meetings on email knows this well.  There are clearly better options: Facebook-style discussion threads where multiple users can post and reply; instant messaging and chat for quick exchanges; and Twitter and Facebook for true crowd-sourced collaboration.  Now wouldn’t it be nice if one platform did nearly all of those things?
  • Knowledge gets trapped in the inbox. How much insight and knowledge is trapped right now in your inbox? Wouldn’t it be valuable if other members of your team could tap into that accumulated know-how? With email this simply isn’t possible. “I have a policy in my workgroup that I won’t answer support questions by email – I’ll force the inquirer to put it into an online social platform,” says social business guru David Christopher, who famously forecast the death of email back in 2008. “I don’t want to be a bottleneck . . . and other people could be able to answer that question.” Searchable discussion threads and wikis offer a much better alternative for a modern workforce.
  • Email doesn’t have social or viral potential. Some messages are meant for just one user. But oftentimes, our emails offer insight or analysis that would benefit a larger audience, be that within a team or company or among an even broader demographic. The trouble is that there’s no Like or share button on an email. The inbox is essentially a dead-end. The right internal network, however, can allow messages to be shared company-wide and beyond.
  • Email is terrible for document sharing. In an era when elegant, easy-to-use file sharing alternatives like Google Drive exist, it’s hard to believe business users are still attaching drafts and documents to emails and attempting to edit en masse. If you’ve done this you know how difficult it is to keep track of revisions or collaborate in any meaningful way. Google Drive and similar alternatives, by contrast, allow multiple users to edit simultaneously and chart the progress of all changes.

Email use Graph

Email may still be the predominant means of corporate communication, but the writing is on the wall.  Just in the last year, webmail use has declined 34 percent amont 18-24 year olds, the next generation of office workers.  They’re finding better, faster and easier ways to communicate.  In a few years time, we may well be reading email its last rites.

For the full story, check out Holmes’ article on the Fast Company website.

Ready to try something new? HootSuite Conversations allows you to have real-time, internal conversations with everyone in your organization, or with individual teams, without leaving the HootSuite dashboard. Learn more about it.

Written by

Gregory R. Norfleet
Gregory R. Norfleet 5pts

Perhaps HootSuite will develop another must-have office tool. I can't imagine e-mail being read its "last rites" anytime soon.

While I have shifted some messages to Facebook and Twitter, and typed stories on SkyDrive or Google Docs to download at the office, e-mail is perfect for reporters when they only need to communicate with one person at a time.

E-mail is just another tool in the box. But it does a good job.

Alan Ralph
Alan Ralph 5pts

Alex has already made a strong case for email's continued relevance as a communication tool. I think it's a good thing that we have other tools available for collaboration and sharing - but there is not yet One Network To Rule Them All, and probably never will be, no matter how much the folks at Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. might wish that to be so.

I'm a great believer in using the right tool for each job. Email is still the best route for one-to-one, personal communication. Twitter is the best way to send rapid, quick-fire updates for public consumption. Facebook and Google+ support more controlled and less public discussion. Then there's services like Dropbox and YouSendIt for sharing large volumes or individual documents between partners of colleagues. Now, I will concede that this means multiple potential points of failure - but if you put all of your eggs into the one basket, and that tips over for the day, you've got real problems.

I've decided to strike a balance between mailing lists, blogs & RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other services, according to when I need the information, and use GMail, HootSuite and other products like Flipboard to bring them together for quick browsing. If there's something to follow up or store for reference, I'll either move it to a folder in GMail or save the linked article to Pocket or Evernote.

Amanda 5pts

+1 Alex.

Not to mention: The article was written to promote the author's new product. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence in its analysis.

Earl 5pts

I think to some degree the article is right but, email is exactly what is was truly meant be electrnic mail, designed to enhance and in some cases replace snail mail. It wasn't designed to replace the phone, or meetings, etc. it is true that there are more collaborative and productive ways to exchange ideas and information, but sometimes good thoughts or decisions are made over a quiet more deliberate read of a fully thought out and well written email.

Bill L
Bill L 5pts

Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn't Google Wave supposed to do all these things and kill email? How did that turn out? Email is here to stay.

Brenda Williams
Brenda Williams 5pts

Funny how I received this "tweet" to an article about the demise of email in my email's "inbox" .

Andy Au
Andy Au 5pts

Hi All,

We've received some great feedback. Based on the comments we've seen on the original Fast Company article and on the blog, there's a much larger discussion here. Many valid points have been brought up that we'll take into account in a future post. Stay tuned!

Lee White
Lee White 5pts

I half agree with the original premise. Some points for consideration:

1. In a contained environment, everything the author states is correct, IF there is a culture of collaboration, i.e. people are wiling to working in the open. This is a HUGE behavioral shift for most organizations.

2. Outside of that contained environment there needs to be a way to to reach anyone via some sort of federated mechanism, That would be email.

3. Email is great for notification, and until every vendor agrees to some sort of federated notification system (i.e. FB, Twitter, LinkedIn, enterprise Collab systems, and enterprise data systems all contributing to a single, filterable activity stream) that is better than email, email will survive.

4. Emailing attachments sucks. Centralized cloud storage and collaboration systems can be used in conjunction with email to overcome this problem. Send the link not the attachment.

Harvey Evans
Harvey Evans 5pts

The problem is the poor use of email. Not knowing how to cc, bcc, use headings and not use mail as a chat wastes a lot of time. Email has replaced memos and letters (remember those anybody?) social media and email have different uses and advantages.

Alex 5pts

I disagree. Every single point in this article can be falsified:

1: Social Networks are even bigger time killers.

2+3: Email IS great for collaboration and for sharing knowledge. Has the author ever heard of a tool called mailing list? Mailing lists are a great collaboration tool and perfect for sharing knowledge. The author wrote: "Wouldn’t it be valuable if other members of your team could tap into that accumulated know-how? With email this simply isn’t possible." - That's nonsense. Please, learn how to use mailing lists.

4: Email DOES have a social and viral potential. Again, please, learn what mailing lists are and how to use them. And please, learn how to use an email client. Email clients have already had a share button long before Facebook invented it. The share button of every email client is the forward button.

5. Of course, email was never meant to collaboratively work on documents. So what? Would you say the days of bicycles are numbered just because they can't fly?

And there is one additional reason why email is still a great tool. Email is one of the most secure communication tools. Especially in business communication, some information needs to be end-to-end encrypted, and that's what email is perfect for if you use PGP.

Excuse me, but in my opinion, the author just hasn't understood how to use email in an effective and collaborative way. Obviously, he has never heard of mailing lists and blames email for lacking functionality it has never been designed for. Just because there are tools for some tasks email was never meant for, its days aren't numbered. Bicycles can't fly. But bicycles still exist though there have been planes for decades - because they were never meant to fly.

Cristiano Baptista
Cristiano Baptista 5pts

Thanks Alex, couldn't do a better job explaining why the author is wrong.

Almost all my communications are made by email (of course I use other tools when needed) and it is by email that I actually can stay updated on almost everything that i care for, not by any other tool or social network.

Stephen Aish
Stephen Aish 5pts

Just discussing this the other day!

Half of my day is spent chasing people through endless email threads that seem to be too busy being busy. This accounts for almost 80% of the people I deal with. The problem is you can see them update Facebook and twitter every hour and then wonder what the priorities really are.

What does the future hold if email is on the way out?