The death of email has been discussed within IT community since 2010 or so. Discussions have been reviving after each arrival of new collaboration tool to challenge email – like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Trello and many others.
Where are we today in this trend? John Brandon at Inc. has celebrated the death of email executed by Gen-Z two years ago. Still some authors like Nigel Davis at Forbes propose, that email will continue to play a signifficant role in our life and will not join the fax machine yet.
While writing this article I made a quick survey on LinkedIn and asked my connections how they manage their work today – which tool helps them decide how to start the day and what to plan for the afternoon. 74% chose email! Obviously, email is not dead, at least in my LinkedIn bubble.
How did we get here?
Like majority of those over 40 I have been using email since 1990s. Back then email was just an electronic alternative of surface mail or fax. I was walking to my campus library several times a week to check email, just like mailbox in the post office.
Emails were still quite rare in business back in 2000. Using telephone 2-3 hours a day to solve majority of issues was normal. Possibility to get documented and structured answers to requests on the same day raised the new standards of communication. And the proportion of phone vs email has slowly twisted in the favour of the latter. Unnoticed mailbox has become a work management tool. Much better than a paper notebook– with all business information in one place, all communication well tracked. What can be better? However, mailbox has also grown into a general container for different types of information – discussions, tasks, files, invitations, reports, snail. Everything was thrown in one list. And the most recent items always appeared at the top.
Email was PUSHING tasks and information to me while I had plans made for my day and week. Distracting and reordering my priorities, making me busy and exhausted, but not helping to deliver results. It required extra concentration and resilience to keep focused on the most important, get bigger things done and follow a strategic line. I remember working as email communication manager all day and then concentrating on real work in the evening – champion of information economy I should call myself. 100 emails per day was a norm. Marking „important“ emails with flags or moving them to different folders helped very little. Tens of flagged emails were sinking to the bottom of the list with new emails pushing them down.
And now it‘s gone. Well, at least half of it is, and I am working to reduce even more.
Of course I will first thank Slack and Messenger for replacing the largest portion of email. Group discussions, operational communication on projects, sharing ideas has gone to a different space, controlled separately. Of course it is still disturbing and pushing, but I can prioritize groups to limit my engagement to the important ones.
Change Push with Pull
Getting rid of some group discussions in the mailbox helps, but the challenge of managing work in a fast-changing world remains. The core problem of email is its visual structure, which ranks the items by recency, not importance. If we check email each morning and set up a daily plan based on items in the top, we risk remaining stuck in the information age and be late for the next one.
This has changed for me since I started using a digital Kanban board. How does it work in practice? If I receive an email, which sounds like a task or issue to take care, that I would mark with flag – I enter it to the „backlog“ column in the left side of the planning board. It is parked there and waits to be pulled to the right – „ready“ and „working“ columns. The focus is always on those two. I PULL items from the „backlog” myself. I make these decisions myself, prioritizing what is really important now, that will best serve the business. If an email suggests, that the new task is very important, I can revise priorities, but then something from „working“ has to be moved to „waiting“. Since the item in „working“ was prioritized among many others, the reason to switch must be really serious.
So now I am more productive and more efficient. But this sounds a bit egoistic, doesn’t it? How do my colleagues know what are my priorities? Shouldn’t they get help when asked? Right – a board works well only if it is shared, and if the organization takes this transformation collectively. When everyone is managing their priorities themselves, also everyone adjusts their expectations on colleague’s behaviour. The culture of communication changes. Short meetings in front of a shared board become a routine. When no one wants to be interrupted, everyone thinks twice before interrupting someone else.
Ok, in reality it might not be as easy as it sounds. It took me joining Teamhood to experience full replacement of email in work management. So my suggestion is to go step by step. Start with small team and start from analyzing your email. If it is a thing to do – enter it in the board. If it is a discussion, have it in a chat. If it is company or industry news – read it before sleep. If it is an information, that you don’t need – unsubscribe.
So is the death of email coming?
Probably not soon. My survey shows, email is still the main platform to manage work in October 2020. Looking further – email marketers even enjoy the forecasts for growth of email usage until 2023. We will get more beautiful, interesting, engaging and personalized newsletters. Email will also serve as information, notifications channel. What email will hardly serve in the near future is work management and collaboration. Just like the mailbox in front of my house doesn’t. There are plenty of other tools to do the job.
Are we entering the age of Boards? We have been there for long time already. Kanban Boards or white boards were hanged on the walls in our offices long ago. However their usage required significant physical effort and access was limited. Today with all the choice of productivity tools, wide spreading of agile culture and COVID19 in the same time, companies are adopting digital, interactive, engaging boards. Using them takes no effort, access is immediate and application possibilities unlimited. Will the boards repeat the digitalization story of email? We will see soon.