Is the death of email nigh?

Though we all use it every day, email might not actually be all it's cracked up to be. So how to improve workplace digital communication?

CEO Nick Atkin’s lightbulb moment came a few years ago after returning from holiday. “It was the usual thing where you come back and you have a bulging inbox. And after about two hours you think ‘why have I bothered?’ because all you’ve heard is that the dishwasher broke on five occasions, all that kind of stuff,” he recalls.

Compounding the boss of Halton Housing Trust’s sense that something had to change when it came to email were two more things. A survey had found staff felt under pressure, and that email was a significant factor. But it was an article on IT service company Atos’s eventual goal of eradicating email altogether that spurred Atkin into action.

“The research showed that the average person at Atos used to spend 40% of their working week dealing with internal email that added no value to the business,” he explains. “We said: what that means is that no one at Halton does anything of benefit or added value until Wednesday.”

So Atkin created an ‘email charter’. “That’s things like: we take as default you’re grateful for an email even if you don’t reply, and that you agree with what’s been said if you don’t reply. Then you don’t get those emails that are like: ‘I agree, so do I… so do I!’,” he says. “We also publish our top 10 senders in a league table. The numbers absolutely fell like a stone when we did that.” Down from 125,000 emails sent collectively a month to 37,000 now to be precise.

Not the best e-fit

As Halton Housing’s Atos inspiration shows, it’s in good company when it comes to larger corporates similarly rolling out wellbeing- and productivity-enhancing rules around email. Two other notable examples are German carmaker Daimler, which stops employees receiving messages while they’re on holiday, and Volkswagen, where German employees don’t receive emails on their mobiles from 6.15pm to 7am the next morning or on weekends.

The logic goes that email has entered our lives in a haphazard, unchecked way. So it stands to reason we may want to start being a bit more thoughtful around its use. It also makes sense that a tool developed 40 years ago may not be the best fit for our modern communications needs.

Which means key to reducing emails at organisations has been rolling out other, newer communications platforms in email’s place. “The vast majority of people are on Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp; they communicate in completely different ways from when they’re at work. But then when we bring them into work we say: ‘We want you to communicate in a completely artificial 80s way’,” explains Atkin, regarding his firm’s use of Yammer.

Digital agency Rarely Impossible is similarly convinced of the need to use smarter tools. Its email charter places particular emphasis on which tools to use when. Its four pillars state that: if staff need to ask someone something they should ask it in person, or call or text; if they want someone to do something they should create a task on the company’s task manager; if it’s more of a social communication it goes on chat tool Slack, so if people are around and in the mood for socialising they’ll see it, but if not they won’t be distracted; and all information and materials sent by email go on Dropbox so that everyone has access.

“Stuff tends to live in email but what we found is if you split everything into the four areas of chat, tasks, conversation and knowledge-base then not much slips through,” explains MD Lee Mallon. The results have been a productivity boost in the first month of 25%.

Digital distractions

The idea of introducing yet more platforms for employees to contend with will, however, bring many out in a cold sweat. “One of the problems is that all the alternatives still represent a digital distraction,” points out Monica Seeley, expert in email best practice, visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University and Bournemouth University Business School, and founder of email consultancy Mesmo. “You have to upskill everyone on Slack, for example, and you’ve got to be very clear what you use all the different products for.”

Mallon confirms that none of this would work without that all-important charter. Just as companies are making wellbeing and productivity gains by implementing email use policies, so too must these surround new platforms, he explains. He cites the example of the agency’s new task manager: “One thing we found was that tasks started suffering from the same issue as email where people weren’t taking accountability, and would say ‘I sent an email at 3pm and you didn’t reply so I couldn’t do my bit’ without chasing the person up. So we said: if you create the task, then you’re responsible for making sure it gets done.”

Other, wider supporting moves have been similarly crucial. As well as just generally boosting wellbeing, standing desks have made people much more likely to go over and actually talk to each other instead of sending an email; and rejigging the week so that no products are released after Tuesday, so the company has Wednesday to Friday to respond to any issues, means staff no longer receive those pesky weekend emails from clients.

So far, so inspiring. But, by Mallon’s own admission, Rarely Impossible is a very small team. Although they may be able to do smart things around policing email use, much larger organisations, with legacy systems and entrenched ways of working, will likely face a much tougher challenge in rolling out new tech.

A job for HR

“It’s really difficult for a large enterprise to change its IT infrastructure,” confirms Stuart McRae, executive collaboration & social business evangelist at IBM’s Social Business Unit. “Businesses haven’t switched to chat solutions because pushing everything to one platform is easier to manage and cheaper.” McRae is encouraged though that UK plc’s gradual shift to the cloud will open up “a more diverse set of tools and modern capabilities” at no extra cost.

The Times newspaper is a good case study of how a large, diverse organisation might rise to the challenge. Production editor Matt Taylor explains that when his digital development and strategy team started using Slack to share codes and files, it quickly realised how advantageous the platform could be for the whole newsroom. But the challenge was that, in the world of news, “there’s no slowing down”.

The key has been working with HR, who recommended “finding key individuals and their teams and rolling out to them as quickly as possible in succession, then working with the outliers later,” explains Taylor. This highlights the strong opportunity for HR to utilise its culture change expertise here.

Halton’s Atkin points out how psychologically engrained email addiction has become, highlighting research that found that “the same chemical is released when someone gets a new email notification as in a gambler when cards are dealt”. Seeley adds that research has shown that volumes of email go up dramatically in times of uncertainly (Brexit springs to mind). “People are emailing about the kinds of things maybe years ago they’d have had a chat about. But underlying that is culture,” she says, reiterating the very human motivations and behaviours that drive email, and so HR’s important role.

Unfortunately, in Seeley’s experience, it’s an opportunity many are yet to seize. “I don’t think HR is doing anywhere near enough,” she laments. “Nothing seems to have changed in the 20 years I’ve been in business. When HR hears ‘email training’ they think that means Outlook, press all the buttons. It doesn’t; it means having an email culture that’s correct.”

The death of email?

The pressure to change things, however, is very much on. To the inevitable question, ‘will email ever be obsolete?’ Mallon would say: potentially, yes. “In the UAE they bypass desktop. They just use WhatsApp for corporate communications. So even if email doesn’t die here in the UK, the technology in other developing markets has circumvented it,” he says, explaining that UK companies may need to catch up fast if they have interests further afield. (He adds that although email is still used for external communications with clients at Rarely Impossible, the company has already made good headway in encouraging customers to follow suit in avoiding it.)

For others, however, it’s the very fact email won’t be dying away any time soon that makes the need to be more mindful of its potentially negative effects all the more pressing. “Email isn’t going away in the near future, it’s what everybody has so it’s about being more savvy about how you use it,” says Seeley, adding: “It’s telling people: ‘think before hitting send – could I do this differently?’ That could be as simple as talking, or as sophisticated as using a different channel.”

“If HR wants to get started, get a small group of people together, or a department who are keen to change their email culture and do a pilot, and use that to say ‘look, we’ve reclaimed half an hour a week, people are feeling less stressed,'” she advises. “It’s classic change management: don’t try and do it overnight.” And in case you were in any doubt about your role in this, she adds: “Sit up, HR, because we’re talking about all the things that are key: wellbeing, performance, productivity and stress.”