The Longest Goodbye

12/01/2019

The death of email has long been announced. Given the dizzying rate at which social media has evolved and become part of daily life, it’s easy to regard email as having the same archaic characteristics of ‘snail mail’ which it all but replaced. But are we being too hasty in writing off email, blinded by the hip new applications all around us? For our latest blog, we’re checking the health of workplace email, getting the verdict of users and expert insight as to its future.

Irrespective of where we work, we share a common bond that is our love-hate relationship with email. Overflowing inboxes, those ‘reply to alls’, and messaging outside business hours have become standard bugbears, with efforts to address poor practice seemingly futile. It’s these things that people point to in their valedictory articles on email. And yet, despite all of this, it remains stubbornly integral to everything we do.

Recent research commissioned by Adobe asked 3000 ‘white collar’ individuals across the EMEA region about their email usage. Their report revealed that;

  • 80% of work emails and 65% of personal emails are opened (with an almost identical percentage read),
  • most respondents expect their email use (both personal and work) to remain the same over the next two years.

The Guardian’s computer editor, Jack Schofield, also believes that email is going to be around for a while longer in spite of its shortcomings.

‘I don’t think anything is going to replace email in the near future, and probably not in the far future. It’s virtually impossible to use internet technologies without an email address. Email’s unbeatable advantage is that either everyone has an email address, or can easily get one. There are hundreds of different ways to communicate… but not even Facebook (1.86 billion monthly active users) has the same reach. Email has an estimated 2.7 billion users with 4.6bn accounts.’

Schofield argues that changing our relationship with email offers a more realistic future compared to one where we dispense with it altogether. Evidence from the ‘office floor’ also points to email’s continuing hold over workplace communication.

“For business-important and actionable updates, people know this is the channel,” says Tony Cox, Global Communications Business Partner with Imperial Brands plc. “After line manager conversations and team meetings, corporate group email is high up on people’s preferences for receiving information. This is how we make the big announcements.” According to Tony, Imperial have embraced enterprise social networks similar to Yammer, and these are helpful collaboration tools at team level. Yet whilst they can link to headline messages, they’re not relied upon as the key channels for disseminating them. “There’s still a role for business email,” Tony adds. “It’s the one thing you know that people will be regularly checking throughout the day. You wouldn’t get that with the intranet!”

It’s a similar story at information and communication technology company, Logicalis, who also heavily rely on email across the group according to Justin Kearney, Group VP Human Resources. “We introduced an intranet (called ‘Connected’) mainly for internal collaboration and storing some policies, but I would say that 80 to 90% of communication is still by email. We’ve made a point of ensuring that company-wide messages only go via Connected but if you really want to know that all employees see something the temptation is to also use email.”

These views are consistent with that of Rachel Miller, Director of All Things IC – an award-winning communication consultancy. “For many organisations, email is a communication tool. Whether it’s an effective one is another consideration altogether,” says Rachel. “If email is used as a call to action to encourage employees to join conversations and amplify employee voice, it can start to shift from one-way to two-way.” (Research such as Gatehouse Group’s State of the Sector report 2017/8 revealed email is still cited as the most effective digital channel (79%), followed by videos at 78% and electronic newsletters at 75%).

Rachel (pictured above) has encountered organisations who’ve made attempts to change email behaviour, for example shifting conversations to more visible spaces such as Enterprise Social Networks (as we saw with Imperial Brands). But, as with any cultural change, transformation will take time. So can she envisage a future where social media and real-time chat applications overtake email as the primary means of communicating within an organisation?

“Yes, I hope so! There’s constant grumbles from employees about volume of email and noise of communication channels. More often than not it’s because the timing doesn’t fit with our requirements for real-time conversations and connections. The rise of ‘shadow comms’ applications such as WhatsApp and WeTransfer within organisations is growing because employees are filling gaps between corporate channels. Where they don’t enable real-time conversations and problem solving, employees are using their own channels. I hope we will see a future where there is a choice of options for our employees to explore, from voice to chat bots and enterprise social networks.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that reports of the death of email are premature. Of course, different communication channels will work for different organisations; for example, younger start-ups or those in the digital sector may favour ‘real-time’ applications that instantaneously support collaboration and connect workforces over and above email. But overall, far from being replaced by new media, email continues in tandem with it and remains integral to how we communicate at work. And with many organisations still wrestling with the grey area of how far they use social media – in particular Facebook and WhatsApp – to engage employees, for now email remains the safe bet.

So what future for email in a business driven by the strength of human relationships? “The nature of what we do demands human contact, and we love speaking with people,” says Vana Resourcing Co-Director, Jo White. “Therefore our preference is always a phone call, and you can achieve in five-minutes what 10 emails back and forth can give. But whilst it’s a more effective use of our time, it’s not always appropriate or convenient for clients or candidates, for example if we need to send detailed or confidential information such as attachments, a compelling story on the client brand or our write-up on the opportunity. That’s when email comes in. Sometimes we’ll revert to texting (when a quick call-to-action is required, such as confirmation of interest, checking interview availability, or an urgent exchange on offer details), and we’re considering tools that can help us interact more efficiently in these circumstances and ensure our business moves quickly.”

The relationship with email throws up a parallel with another dependency of our time – the motor car. There are alternative ways to travel, and we’re only too familiar with the downside of cost and congestion, but it still dictates how we live. There’s no chance of us giving up the car any time soon, but innovation will eventually change how we drive. And so it’s the case with email. 20 years since it became commonplace at work, and as it comes out of its ‘teens’, likewise maybe our approach to this form of communication will similarly mature.