For years now, the top minds of business and tech have been heralding the demise of email. Surely a technology that breeds such inefficiency is ripe for disruption. And yet, it persists. You may, in fact, be considering emailing this article to a colleague right now! (Of course, we’d prefer if you tweeted it, but let’s not quibble). So why do we still suffer the trials and tribulations of the ‘Reply-All’ and forwards?
Most software designed to solve this conundrum runs into adoption hurdles because of the investment required for training. Folks start using email in the early days of school, so they’re well accustomed to it by the time they hit the workforce. If software that promises to save time and eliminate work demands significant time and work from your employees before they even get started, then it’s doomed to fail.
Another reason email prevails is that it seems to hold the distinction of being the bearer of the most important news. Let’s face it, the IRS is not going to update you via Snapchat (although don’t you wish that message would disappear?) so we’re never able to ignore our inboxes. Email is just a tough habit to break.
Email is sticky
The battle cry of “Time To Kill Email!” has been trumpeted by some pretty smart people. Whether they’re trying to lead the charge against inefficient communication, or just one more person decrying the invention of the ‘Reply All’ button, their reasons are usually sound: email is a time suck and a productivity killer. So if its weaknesses have, for more than a decade, been all but universally acknowledged, and the people most motivated to destroy it are the Silicon Valley set with the means to do so, why is email still so sticky? For five reasons, at least, but probably more.
- It’s open. To the delight of spammers, email remains a truly open and decentralized platform. Most of us rely on Google or Microsoft for our email service, but as one former U.S. Secretary of State proved, you can set up your own email server in your garage and have the same access to the same network as everyone else.
- It’s free. When Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein left Facebook in 2008 they set out to build an email replacement. What they came up with was Asana, which now boasts such high-profile customers as Airbnb, Dropbox, and Pinterest. It’s free for up to 15 users, but what if you need to communicate and collaborate with 16 people? Free means scaleability. While Asana may have many happy paying customers, email remains frustratingly alive and well.
- It has no training cost. Do you remember having been taught how to use email? Your answer may depend on your age, but even if you’re of a vintage that you do, it’s unlikely that the lesson took more than 20 minutes.
- It’s flexible. Email has evolved over the years to fit our needs. Whether the message is private or intended to be disseminated widely, personal or professional, urgent or trivial, email works. It’s biggest failure is the volume of it we receive—in a sense, a testament to its flexibility.
- We’re all habituated to it already. Communication habits are hard to change, let alone break. Part of their resilience is that effective communication requires a minimum of two parties. So if you’ve been updating your team on an important project using a weekly email thread and you switch to Yammer, for instance, you need to be able to trust that everyone on that thread will check Yammer. We’re all habituated to living in our inboxes. (That’s why we know “I didn’t get your email” is a totally BS excuse for not doing something.)
How social media emptied our personal inboxes
The above list of five reasons we’re still stuck with email for communicating at work are all also true of the tools that have already succeeded in dramatically reducing the volume of messages we see in our personal inboxes. If you hop in the wayback machine and examine your personal inbox circa 2004 you’ll see your friends sharing photos from the previous weekend’s party, a different group planning the following weekend’s event, massive forward chains (the beginning of viral content), and short link-sharing messages with subject lines like “you gotta see this.” Facebook was founded that same year, and before long it had absorbed all of those messages.
You probably still can’t completely ignore your personal inbox, but you can’t ignore your physical mailbox either. (Jury duty. Dang.) Occasionally good things arrive in both, but they’re essentially legacy technologies. Everything that can be better served by social media, from news feeds to photo sharing, migrated rapidly to the new, open, free, easy, flexible thing that we all became immediately habituated to. Many of us now check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn more frequently than our personal inboxes outside of work hours. But when we sit down at our desks in the morning—or stand, if that’s your thing—the first thing we open is still email.
The importance of bottom-up adoption
Unless you work in a fully Slack-ified office. The workplace communication tool may be more widely known for its rapid growth, but among devotees its claim to fame is killing the unkillable email thread. So to what feature does Slack owe its success? Tools like Asana have much of the same functionality, and in some cases more. But it’s not actually the what that matters; it’s the who. Slack isn’t winning over workplaces with features and functionality; it’s succeeding by becoming entangled in the office culture. The brass may declare that everyone needs to adopt a new tool for the sake of productivity, but it’s only when the troops are using the same tool to slack off, have private conversations, and share inside jokes that the tool becomes truly sticky. Demonstrating an intuitive sense of the importance of bottom-up adoption, the team that built Slack included features like a Giphy integration that.. well, it’s just fun.
Facebook at Work, the zero-training solution
Facebook’s workplace communication offering has been in closed beta since January. (Hootsuite is one of the businesses that’s been testing it.) With the official release expected imminently, the best chance we have to finally overcome our email woes with social software is on its way. The biggest strength of Facebook at Work will be that almost all of us are already using it in our personal lives, so the adoption barriers that get in the way of so many communication and collaboration tools succeeding should be non-existent. There will be no training cost and almost no onboarding friction for most use cases.
If you work in an office that has a ‘Reply All’ problem, or you find yourself constantly wondering ‘why am I on this thread?’ Facebook at Work can alleviate some of email’s biggest pain points. Where email conversations often degenerate into a time-consuming back and forth, the real-time chat functionality will keep your ‘unread’ count down. While your inbox can often feel like a black hole swallowing up relevant messages, Facebook’s search functionality makes it a lot easier find relevant content. Social features like the ability to tag your coworkers in a post and follow the people you’re most interested in make office communication more open. And if your office adopts Facebook at Work, the News Feed will probably become the first thing you check in the morning, not your inbox—a win in its own right.
Those eagerly awaiting the death of email may have to wait a little (or maybe a lot) longer. For the foreseeable future, there will still be some kinds of messages that will be best delivered by email—that’s unavoidable. And probably not even undesirable. If workplace social media can do what it did for our personal inboxes and take over everything it does better than email, the need to kill email will lose its urgency. Why kill something you can ignore?