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Why It's too Soon to Dismiss Email for Collaboration

November 23, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
David Barry
By David Barry

Email remains the most popular platform used for work-related communication, despite the increase adoption of collaboration software like Microsoft Teams and Slack for internal communications. That was one of the findings from Adaptavist’s recently published Reinventing Work report. The report will be tough reading for anyone tasked with managing an organization’s digital workplace.

The research, based on an August survey of 1,200 U.S. employees, also uncovered a shift in hybrid vs. in-office work, with 59% of workers saying they are back in the office full time (or never left) — and just 25% saying they have a hybrid set up. 

The report shares a number of other findings that call into question certain ideas around the digital workplace and the future of work altogether. Which brings us back to email.

Email's Sticking Power

When asked “What one platform do you spend the most time using for work-related communication?” 34% of respondents named email.

According to Adaptavist's CTO Jon Mort, this may be because email remains the default external communication method. In other words, while Slack or Teams may be used for internal communications, email remains the default option with anyone unaffiliated with the organization. 

Stanley Huang, CTO and co-founder of Cupertino-based Moxo, said email is based on a federation model, in which a sender and a receiver interact in a fairly independent way, which makes it ideal for mass communications. But that's about as far as it should be used, in his view.

“While all generations know how to utilize email, overcrowded inboxes with unimportant messages slow down workflows both internally and externally,” he said. “Therefore, despite the creation of new email services to enable collaboration, it’s unlikely that email has found a second wind as a collaboration tool.”

For instance, he said, customer service tends to focus on a closed loop and improving the end user experience. This requires a collaboration tool based on a purpose-centric design, rather than utility.

The problem, according to Huang, is that while companies have rushed to adopt different channels beyond email to improve their communication processes with both employees and customers, these efforts to accommodate a growing digital-first preference have resulted in an excess of tools, leaving both teams and business processes fragmented or operating from disparate channels that lack cohesion. 

In other words, the attempt to move away from email has made email all the more relevant. The positive in all of this, Huang said, is that companies are aware of the issue and many are actively working to refine their digital transformation strategy to better meet the needs of their workforce and customers. This includes gradually dropping email in favor of a one-stop customer interaction platform to reduce the frictions caused by digital fragmentation.

“I don’t foresee email growing as a collaboration tool in this digital age, as it only adds another channel for individuals to keep track of,” Huang said. “Especially as more products today are available to reduce the chaos of managing interactions across many different channels for both customers and businesses alike.”

Related Article: How the Role of Internal Workplace Chat Tools Is Evolving

Email Challenges

Sylvie Woolf, global vice president for customer success and solutions engineering at San Francisco-based Front, said that over the past few years, email has struggled to evolve to meet the needs of the modern knowledge worker.

However, she argues that email has held true as the ultimate form of customer communications because there is no replacement for the tracking, workflow and collaboration capabilities it provides.

“Historically, email has struggled as a collaboration tool because it creates silos among CX teams, which in turn causes delayed response times, a lack of contextual details and a lack of wider team knowledge,” she said. “Any new email service that fails to address these challenges will continue to fall short and leave teams looking for better ways to collaborate.”

She said the current environment provides a huge opportunity for vendors building collaboration tools because there are major customer pain points that can be solved.

“Email will continue to be critical for customer communication, but the collaboration tools that will really take off will improve how teams collaborate asynchronously — and provide the contextual data they need to quickly and efficiently respond to customer inquiries,” Woolf said.

Related Article: Why Enterprise Collaboration and Teamwork Is Becoming More Visual

Smarter Email Collaboration

For Heidi K. Gardner, distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School and author of the book "Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work," email gets a bad rap partly because it makes it easy to be thoughtless or to lack strategy when using it.

For instance, she said, it’s easy to hit "Reply All" or add too many people to a thread, stretching the communication across too many projects and distributions lists, many of whom aren’t actually contributing. “Think about how many times have you started to read a subject line, only to delete it before you finish the phrase,” she said.

Smarter email collaboration is an entirely different beast, she said, and starts with the end result in mind. This hyper-intentional way of working requires people to be very deliberate about the people they involve at each stage.

"When email is used this way, the right people receive the right email at the right time, saving their sanity and eliciting spot-on input more quickly,” she said.

So, like with many other technologies, she said, email isn't the problem; the people who use it are.

To help, she suggests people don’t hesitate to raise their hand when they're on the receiving end of impertinent emails, asking to be removed from the thread. “This lets everyone know who they can count on and who they can’t, and gives them permission to operate like this going forward," she said.

Related Article: Communication and Collaboration at a Crossroads

A Growing Email Market

For now, though, it seems that email not only remains a central component of collaboration in the workplace, but also outside, in social settings.

Alex Alexakis, CEO and founder of PixelChefs, said there's a certain familiarity attached with emails and how they work that keeps people from branching out toward other modes of communication. And some vendors are capitalizing on that.

“It is no secret that Outlook and Gmail are major players in this market, and have been for decades now,” he said. “However, there are several new entrants who not only recognize the competition from these two email apps but also include upgrades which take emails to a whole new level."

ProtonMail, Zoho Mail, GMX Mail and iCloud, he said, are all providing new ways and advantages to using email. iCloud, for instance, offers 5 GB of free storage when you sign up and makes usage easy across all Apple devices, from phone to tablet to laptop to watch.

GMX Mail has recently been getting attention — even though it's been around for two decades — by offering a massive 65 GB of storage, which means users will never run out of space again.

And while Zoho Mail is part of a larger office productivity site and is tightly integrated with Zoho Docs, ProtonMail does not require personal information to create an account and secures your communication with end-to-end encryption.

Typically, where there is an emergence of new products, there is demand. And the email vendor space is crowding up, indicating that despite the growing use of collaboration tools inside the workplace, email may remain undefeated elsewhere — at least for the time being.

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