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Email is broken, but it’s not going to die anytime soon

3rd Jul 2019 | 01:00pm

It seems that every few months, someone announces that email is dead, has been dead for quite some time, or will die soon. The latest such prediction came from Slack cofounder and CEO Stewart Butterfield (who is an investor in my company, Front). Butterfield told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin—while promoting Slack’s direct offering—that conventional email will phase out for Slack users between five to seven years from now.

Here’s the reality. Email is broken and inefficient for internal communication. However, I would argue that it remains critical for businesses and is far from dead.

The importance of email in the workplace

There are more than one billion knowledge workers that use email for up to four hours every workday, based on our research.
 Our data shows that the average knowledge worker receives approximately 55 business emails a day.

Email is the universal communication tool for work because it’s the simplest way to reach anyone you need to do business with. Every customer, partner, vendor, investor, or candidate has an email address. And unlike other technological tools, there are very few barriers to adoption when it comes to email. It doesn’t require special skills or knowledge, and it spans all generations of the current workforce.

Email in its current form is inefficient and broken

While email has skyrocketed as a critical tool for work, its efficiency has plummeted. Whether it’s an overflowing inbox, or a lack of etiquette, for many professional, managing email is the bane of their lives.

From spammers to unsolicited sales pitches, many people feel that they consistently have to wade through irrelevant messages. It’s challenging to find the things that matter amid all the noise.
 Email’s subject lines and formal letter style can also feel heavy and old school. Today’s employees are increasingly opting for short, concise messages with emojis and gifs.

Since email is heavy and asynchronous, internal back-and-forth over email can waste a lot of time and lead to slow decision-making.
 Given the individual nature of traditional email, there’s no way to share the load with colleagues or loop people in without cc’ing or forwarding, which creates even more email. Internal discussions about the content of email end up in long, confusing threads or get moved to other chat or project management platforms.

Tools like Slack don’t replace emails. They complement them

Email and team chats (not to mention other communication channels like SMS, web chat, and social media) are in separate tools. As a result, there isn’t a central place to search for communications.
 Email doesn’t integrate with other business-critical apps. As a result, consulting a customer record, project plan, or knowledge base requires switching to another app where it’s easy to get distracted from the task at hand.

Slack’s success is proof that people are working differently today and that traditional email hasn’t caught up. Employees want teammates and their tools at their fingertips. However, the solution is not as simple as adopting something like Slack for internal communication and dealing with (or marginally improving) traditional email for external ones.

What many have forgotten is that email is central to many workflows that require team collaboration. A customer writes in to support with a question that needs to go to billing. A marketing manager is working with a partner on an event but needs to keep teammates from several different departments in the loop. Negotiating an offer with a candidate requires behind-the-scenes coordination between recruiting, the hiring manager, HR, and finance. To prepare for a product launch, colleagues must collaborate on a detailed email documenting the plan to management. In many cases, email and internal collaboration go hand in hand.

Change is imminent

Email at work is not only alive, it’s growing. According to our research, 68% of people said the number of emails they’ve sent and received at work has risen over the last three years. According to an IDC study, the collaboration tools market will rise at a compound annual growth rate of 20% over the next five years.

Continuing to add more email and more tools will just create chaos, stress, and ultimately hurt productivity—unless we make some changes soon.

These next five years will be transformative as companies embrace the opportunity to proactively set a thoughtful approach to workplace communications—and not let tools and preferences of the day control how people communicate. Especially with the rise of a remote and dispersed workforce, it will be critical for companies to establish culture through its communication norms—or risk people burning out from needing to be constantly connected to multiple communication channels. I suspect that we’ll see the following changes:

  • AI and automation will advance 
such that you will need to spend far less time weeding through the noise to figure out what requires your attention. You’ll get the things that matter, and you’ll be free to do what you do best: deep, focused, strategic, critical thinking.
  • The transparency people have become accustomed to with Slack will transcend to other tools and platforms, including email. Access to information will be democratized, which will also boost team efficiency and productivity.
  • Synchronous/real-time communication (Slack-like messaging) will persist for certain teams like engineering. However, in pursuit of more uninterrupted time to think, the vast majority of knowledge workers will opt for asynchronous communication 
  • Workplace cultures will adapt to these new expectations by establishing communication codes of conduct.
  • Email will continue to play the central role in workplace communications. However, companies will supplement it with a strong and growing playing field of supporting tools and communication channels. These won’t be tacked on, but fully integrated in a thoughtful way. As a result, people have one place to focus, communicate, and get work done.

Email is the standard for work communications, so it isn’t going anywhere. We just need to fix our approach to it so that we’re using it in the most efficient way.

Mathilde Collin is the CEO and cofounder of Front.