Is the email inbox on its way out?

28 August 2015 -

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Email has become the main method of communication for businesses big and small, but will the rise of instant messaging tools sound the death knell for the office inbox?

Blayne Pereira

Modern technology is a blessing – and a curse. It makes it infinitely easier to keep in touch with relatives on the opposite side of the planet. It also makes it more convenient for your boss to contact you while you’re on holiday in a previously unreachable location.

Teenagers today can’t even comprehend what it was like to arrange plans during school holidays without a mobile phone, and having to negotiate awkward conversations when their friends’ parents picked up the only telephone, on a desk in the hall.

In the workplace, the explosion of emails in the past couple of decades has been welcomed with open arms. It’s made communication instant and cheered those who yearned for an environmentally friendly world, as it has dramatically cut down on paper, cargo and the mammoth carbon footprint of airmail.

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But in the last five years, the rise of the smartphone has brought about a wholly unwelcome consequence. With emails now constantly at our fingertips and in our pockets – rather than remaining at our desks – many of us feel pressured to answer correspondence, even on a Saturday evening. Add to this the annoyance of being unnecessarily cc’d into a message and a recipient clicking ‘reply all’, and you are doing lots of extra reading (i.e. work) for no good reason.

“The widespread use of email, phones, BlackBerrys and tablets has been accompanied by the growth of out-of-hours working, from home and remotely,” says Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Frances O’Grady. “The TUC is worried that this development has not been accompanied by any strong regulations to limit overuse and abuse.”


Read how to help your staff to switch off when they check in 

Germany and France have led the way in attempting to differentiate our personal lives from our work lives. In 2011, Thierry Breton, chief executive of French IT giant Atos, banned all internal email within the company, while Volkswagen took the decision to deactivate its servers outside of office hours.

Fellow German marque Daimler offers employees the option to shut down their inbox when they go on holiday: the email sender will receive a message informing them that the intended recipient is away on annual leave and that the email has been automatically deleted. Closer to home, Kathryn Parsons, co-founder of Decoded – a computer code training company, ditched email last year.

Inbox overload

Various other French companies have since introduced their own versions of the practice, and a labour agreement was signed by unions and employers in the high-tech and consulting field on 1 April last year, covering an estimated 250,000 “autonomous employees” (see box below).

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“We are looking with great interest at some of the recent union agreements in France and Germany, which specify certain rest times when calls and emails are only permitted in genuine emergencies,” O’Grady tells Professional Manager. “In some cases, employers simply turn off their servers during the night. This response might be piloted in the UK.”

So, are we approaching Peak Email? From smoke signals to telephones, methods of communication have evolved over time; each providing a pivotal role in society for decades – if not centuries.

Although email can trace its roots back to over 40 years ago, it was only in the 1990s, with the rise of personal computers and commercial email software, that it took off. Just two short decades later, and the recent rapid rise of instant messaging (IM) services has brought about lively debate as to whether email has already had its day. Could it be the shortest-lived communications medium in history?

“I think it’s just mismanaged,” says Graham Allcott, author of How to be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do. “In the email age, there’s always a place for the paper letter – sometimes you get a document that really requires a paper signature. Email will go the same way, it’ll always have a need.”

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Formerly the domain of teenagers, IM systems have become commonplace as social media has established itself as a platform accessible to people of all ages and professions. What’s more intriguing is that the software – most notably Skype – has been embraced by the workplace. Professionalised as ‘collaboration tools’, these programs allow staff members to discuss various issues and share documents without the need for email.

Skype and its ilk are good news: email, designed as a tool to make businesses more efficient, is having the opposite effect. Productivity levels are crushed as staff waste their time continuously checking emails, many of which aren’t aimed at them, require no action or, in the case of the holidaying worker returning to his desk, have long since perished.

Worse still, an inefficiency develops as staff send more emails – on top of an already absurd amount – in order to try and make themselves heard amid the logjam of messages.

Consider the following example of a meeting being scheduled via email: the organiser sends 12 colleagues an email to establish a good time for everyone, giving them three options. That’s already a minimum of 12 additional emails via ‘reply-all’, not to mention the two people who only realised after they send the message that they have a prior engagement. Typically, there isn’t a perfect time for everyone and so negotiations begin and staff eventually go off on wild tangents. Before you know it, almost 50 emails have been exchanged and a huge amount of time has been wasted.

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“For some people it’s not a problem but it gnaws away at others and causes a great deal of stress,” adds Allcott, the founder of Think Productive – a company that helps organisations increase productivity and employees beat stress through practical workshops. “Important documents become buried because people have never taken care of their inbox. We’ve dealt with people who have accrued almost 80,000 emails.

“It’s an absurd number and it’s usually from someone who has been with the company since email was introduced and they’ve just never had a strategy to deal with it.”

Perhaps Allcott’s starkest observation about dealing with email is this: “You wouldn’t walk in on a Thursday and have all the paper letters you’ve received all week piling up.” He is a proponent of the ‘work offline’ feature on certain email programs, as you do not get distracted by notifications.

Time zones and smartphones

Whether email survives another ten years as the primary business medium remains to be seen. For now, wiser companies are simply taking steps to better manage an imperfect system.

The proliferation of smartphones within the last few years has meant that employees of global organisations are increasingly contacted outside of working hours. Allcott has witnessed Anglo-American companies coming up with a quirky solution.

“We’ve worked with companies in the UK whose employees agree to log on at about 10.30pm for 20 minutes or so in order to sort out all their emails,” he says. “This way, it allows them to have the rest of the evening to do whatever they wish, without having to check for updates.” It is far cry from the days of clocking off at the end of the day. But it may just be better than the alternative.

“That’s just the nature of the working world,” says Allcott. “Nine-to-five is a 20th-century idea – the way we achieve a work/life balance has changed.”

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