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Is Email Outdated as a Workplace Communication Tool?

July 05, 2022 Digital Workplace
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

In today's digital workplace, communication is key to success. Remote and hybrid workers are collaborating online more than ever before, and it has become critical for organizations to ensure they provide the right tools to their employees. But what about email?

With the proliferation — and rapid adoption — of various enterprise social networks such as Slack and Teams, is email still as relevant as it once was? Perhaps more importantly, is it even an efficient method of communication?

Changing Communication Habits

This is not the first time the relevance of email in the modern workplace has been brought into question, but after two years of remote working and the explosion in the number of collaboration and communication tools now being used, the debate has taken on new meaning.

Research from Austin-based software company Spiceworks Ziff Davis (SWZD) indicates there is a move away from email in favor of newer tools. But the report, entitled Workplace Communications in 2022 and Beyond and published in May, shows the adoption of communication solutions for video conferencing and collaboration was already on the rise before the pandemic.

The survey of more than 1,000 IT decision-makers in businesses across North America and Europe also found:

  • For internal communications, most end users (51%) prefer real-time business chat apps (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams) over email.
  • Analog voice usage continues to fall year over year, dropping from a 52% adoption rate in 2019 to 43% over a three-year period.
  • Following rapid adoption increases in 2020, the usage growth of web conferencing apps and business chat apps has leveled off.
  • Most companies (51%) now prefer providers that offer all-encompassing communications solutions.

According to the report, while there were security concerns associated with the use of communication platforms early in the pandemic, those have since eased as vendors have improved their offerings. In fact, 63% of companies now believe their communications tools offer adequate encryption to secure internal and external communications, up from 49% in 2019.

Related Article: New Wave of Collaboration Apps Look to Cover All Team Collaboration Needs

The Impact of Digital Transformation on Communication

Digital transformation has been a big topic in business for the better part of the last decade. Yet it wasn't until the pandemic that companies felt the true urgency of achieving their transformation targets.

“In most industries, customer preferences have become digital-first — especially in the last two years," said Stanley Huang, CTO and co-founder of Cupertino, Calif.-based Moxo. It was only natural that business leaders would work with their IT teams to meet this demand and speed up their digital transformation initiatives, automating processes and moving services to the cloud.

This surge in demand prompted software companies to develop new tools and improve on existing solutions. But the proliferation of tools has created confusion in the marketplace, and the haphazard implementation of digital communication tools has left both teams and business processes either fragmented or operating from disjointed channels that lack cohesion.

“Ultimately, digital transformation has resulted in fragmentation,” Huang said. 

Instead of streamlining operations and gaining efficiencies, the adoption of new digital platforms has created significant friction and bottlenecks in the exchange of information in the workplace. Most businesses today still utilize all forms of communications, from email, phone and text to collaboration tools and enterprise social networks, with much redundancy. But Huang said this is all about to change.

"The shift to one-stop communication solutions will be gradual but is surely underway," he said. "Both customer and employee expectations are moving in the general direction of unified solutions that bring an 'uberized' experience to the workplace.”

Related Article: Digital Transformation Isn’t a Sprint, It’s a Marathon

The Role of Email Today

For now, however, email continues to play a key role in the post-digital transformation workplace. And despite being over 50 years old, email is still evolving, somewhat surprisingly. 

According to Nick Larson, senior product marketing manager at New York City-based Staffbase, while employees may prefer Slack or Teams, email remains a powerful tool for internal communication. Case in point: Gallagher's State of the Sector 2022, which looks at global internal communication and employee engagement insights and trends over the past year, shows that even with all the digital channels available to workers, email remains the main channel (94%) used by organizations to share corporate announcements with employees.

What has happened is that there is a shift to chat tools, but not for all communications. Digital communications platforms are most used for day-to-day messages and peer-to-peer communications; they help clean a lot of the noise out of the email channel, leaving it open for more important communications, such as company announcements and client communications.

This highlights the still-important role of email in today's workplace. Larson said there are, indeed, many reasons why email isn't likely to be replaced any time soon, among them:

  • Reach: Most people have an email address. Many organizations already have the distribution lists and systems in place to email staff, partners and clients.
  • Access: Accessing email does not require VPN or workplace access, making it an easier go-to solution.
  • Segmentation: The internal email tools available today make it easier for internal communicators to design, segment and measure the messages sent in a way that cannot yet be replicated in chat tools.

Related Article: Enhance Internal Communications to Engage the Modern Workforce

The Issue of Collaboration Security

One of the most important roles of email is external communications. According to Neil Clauson, regional chief information security officer at UK-based Mimecast, that is because email is easy to use, ubiquitous and secure. Mimecast's State of Email Security report in fact shows that email usage rose at eight out of 10 companies in 2021.

Clauson said while collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are excellent solutions to augment traditional communication mediums, they have also introduced new attack vectors and data protection challenges that security teams are still struggling to adapt to.

“Until security solutions for these collaboration tools become more mature and provide the depth and breadth of functionality that security teams require, most will not be eager to see employees make the move to collaboration tools as the sole communications platform,” he said.

The thinking here is that the risks of sensitive data loss, lack of insight for audit and compliance, and significant potential for the introduction of malicious content are simply too great.

“As more organizations onboard messaging technology to complement email platforms, it's critical that we secure them as part of the greater communication ecosystem,” Clauson said.

Related Article: It's Time to Re-evaluate Your Cybersecurity Strategy

Create a Holistic Communication Strategy

For a communications strategy to work in an enterprise, leaders need to think holistically rather than focusing on the merits of one single application. Companies trying to rid the world of email, or any one method of communication in particular, have the wrong approach, said Chris Reaburn, chief marketing officer at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Nextiva.

All these ways to communicate and collaborate — video meetings, chat, text — each serve a different purpose for companies, employees and customers. This has created the challenge of siloed data and the need to bounce between different platforms to locate information.

Reaburn said the right answer isn't choosing one method at the exclusion of all others, but rather creating an environment where employees can use the communication channel they find most appropriate to the conversation they are having and making conversations seamless across all channels.

“Businesses intuitively know that opting to use one application, to the exclusion of all others, risks missing out on crucial factors like providing customers their communication vehicle of choice," Reaburn said. “That's why so many businesses struggle to use all of them in separate standalone applications. Application toggling and context switching is a real cause of employee frustration with communications.”

The future of communications is not about eliminating choice. It is about bringing these applications and channels together to enhance the experience for both employees and customers.

Related Article: How to Make Collaboration Work in the Hybrid Workplace

The Asynchronous Communication Advantage

The Great Resignation has placed a focus on the importance of the employee experience and the need for leaders to ensure employees' well-being. For many, working from home has meant finding it more difficult to disconnect from work. Email provides a less intrusive way of communicating with employees outside of their work hours since an email can sit in an inbox until the employee opens it.

The pandemic has undoubtedly compelled organizations to give their people space and autonomy in the workplace. Lars Hyland, chief learning officer at Totara Learning, said because of that, an increasing number of companies are turning to asynchronous communications to successfully operate their remote/hybrid workforces. The logic is that, for many domains of work, asynchronous collaboration has been found to be more effective than forcing people to communicate in live events, using tools that fail to allow fair and balanced input from all parties.

“Of course, many other organizations failed miserably and drowned their people in back-to-back Zoom/Teams calls, which have proven draining at best, damaging to wellbeing at worst — both detrimental to company performance,” Hyland said.

In his view, synchronous communications also carry a bias toward people with more extroverted personalities who dominate the conversation. Asynchronous communications allow all voices to be heard, promoting different viewpoints. The result is often better quality decision-making.

“Developing guidelines and learning resources to support open communication is a key step toward building an async comms culture that will eradicate large amounts of wasted time consumed by unnecessary meetings,” said Hyland.

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