01 Jul Email RIP?
As newer platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams begin taking root, companies are beginning to rethink their reliance on email
By Sheryl Nance-Nash
Remember back in the 1990s when email was the best thing since penicillin? It brought the convenience of putting your thoughts together day or night and hitting the send button for instant delivery. It freed you from being tied to your desk. Email from anywhere. That was then.
This is now. Email has come to be viewed by some much like the word processor. Those predecessors to computers, once useful, are now considered old-school. Is it time to reevaluate how business communications are handled internally, between a company and its employees, and between a company and its customers and other stakeholders? Or is email still the most effective way to communicate?
There’s no shortage of opinions. Email loyalists, who tend to be in the 40-plus demographic, are sticking to their preferred method of business talk. Others, such as gen Zers, say that with the emergence of new tools like Slack and WhatsApp, email’s reign is over. Some see the benefit of using a bit of both. Despite the chatter, email isn’t going away. The experts share their thoughts on the clash of the generations. Let the debate begin.
The case for email
Tina Hawk, senior vice president of human resources at GoodHire, a provider of employment screening services, isn’t jumping on the email-is-passé bandwagon. “Emails are free, easy to use, and have an almost universal geographical reach,” she says. “Email accounts can be set up within minutes and provide immediate outreach to a large number of recipients, making e-mail extremely useful for organization-wide communications.Another significant benefit of emails … is the ability to manage incoming messages through folders, tags, and other tools. Email has become fundamental to and synonymous with business.”
The thought of email taking a back seat in business is downright heresy to some. “Despite the prevalence of social media, a business email remains the most effective form of communication,” says Shiv Gupta, marketing director at Incrementors Lead Generation, a digital marketing company. “The benefits of using email in business communication are numerous, including the ability to improve brand alignment, increase brand retention, and drive traffic to your website. It also increases your visibility, making it easier for current and potential customers to identify your company.”
Simply put, the diehards declare, email is here to stay. “Organizations can easily back up the data, monitor the use, and, more importantly, be more inclusive,” says Natasha Bowman, author of You Can’t Do That at Work!
The challenges of email
On the other hand, email can only do so much.
“Emails are losing steam in the modern world because they’re more disruptive to your work than other communications,” says John Li, cofounder and chief technology officer of lender Fig Loans.
Truth is, email can be ignored or lost in the massive amounts people receive in their inboxes. Alex Mastin, CEO and founder of Home Grounds, a community of coffee hobbyists, baristas, and travelers who research, test, and share knowledge in the home barista market, says, “We don’t need [handwritten] letters any longer and such is the case with electronic mail, piles after piles that will never be read and not even seen.”
The quest for “inbox zero” is unending, and just one day away from the office can lead to an anxiety-inducing email buildup. “Finding information in email chains is long and fiddly, so catching up is rarely smooth,” Mastin says. “There are messages we’ve been unnecessarily cc’d in, and there are those people who insist on hitting that dreaded ‘reply all’ button when there is literally no need.”
Mastin adds that the sheer amount of productive time we lose to email is shocking. “The average worker sends or receives 112 emails per day, taking up 23 percent of their day,” he says. “We need more interactive and time-responsive modes of communication.”
Then too, email must be handled ever so carefully. “Unfortunately, email is often not as secure as one might think,” says Kristen Bolig, CEO of SecurityNerd. “Companies often don’t employ proper cybersecurity measures when it comes to company emails, which leaves their sensitive information—and their customers’—vulnerable. While I don’t think that companies need to get rid of email entirely, they need to consider a more secure and encrypted platform for sending and receiving sensitive information.”
To Slack or not to Slack?
New technology is testing email’s dominance in the workplace. The under-40 crowd is big on Slack, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, and other tech solutions.
Elise Oras, cofounder of Wheels Up Collective, says, “At our marketing agency, we rely on email less and less internally. Our preferred method is Slack to communicate timelier and more efficiently than email. We even have collaborative Slack channels for quick communication with clients. Additionally, sharing information where everyone has access has helped us stay on top of things with clients. This is especially helpful for urgent issues where the main point of contact isn’t available.”
Slack has its upside, for sure. With its many available integrations, and the ability to keep each subject/client/project separate, you can ditch the email chain and stay organized. “It’s a welcome relief for most overwhelmed inboxes—plus it helps avoid the dreaded night/weekend/vacation call because the info was hidden in your email,” Oras says. “For the few colleagues we have who still prefer traditional email [and particularly, foldering], Slack offers wonderful email integrations that allow users to send emails to Slack and receive emails from Slack.”
When integrating email with Slack, Slack provides a “secret” email address in which you can send an email or forward an email, either by DM or to a Slack channel. You can create as many email integrations as needed. This can be used for internal and external emails and is not limited by email provider, although some email providers have their own email integration apps for Slack, Oras points out.
Using Slack internally is one thing. What, though, about using it for clients, vendors, and others outside the com-
pany? Oras explains, “We invite clients into a collaborative Slack channel. Clients are [invited only] to that specific channel. We use this for quick updates, to quickly ask questions and receive answers. It’s often easier and more efficient than email. With clients that work in this fashion, it works well. We find that email is reduced as more back-and-forth is handled via Slack.”
Oras adds that there can be kinks to work out. “We do find that our client team looks at emails less frequently, and we sometimes have to send a Slack message to respond to an email. For clients who have not adopted Slack, we realize they still rely on email for foldering/searching and still prefer to have all information sent to their inbox. However, we’ve found clients who have adopted a collaboration in Slack are more likely to stay on track with timelines, are able to give consolidated feedback more easily, are generally more informed about programs, and require less status updates on client calls.” This saves account management hours.
Truth is, for some, email is so yesterday. Sending emails when a fast response is needed isn’t a good move, points out Kathy Bennett, CEO and founder of Bennett Packaging. “I know organizations that have already moved to more secure and convenient ways of communication. For example, Telegram is popular among people who are working in media because they are able to send and receive bigger files, [and to] answer/ask quicker because of the increased accessibility. This is for people who work on a sensitive timeline and for whom instant responses are necessary.”
She believes people prefer technologically evolved modes of communication, saying, “2022 is high time we adapt our practices toward something that is less rigid than email.”
Digital can be complicated
If your company is trying to navigate the best way to communicate in these decidedly digital times, you’re not alone. In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language and the report “The Digital Communication Crisis” shares how she helped a company sort through its digital communication issues.
“The organization brought me in to assess a team’s digital communication channels,” she says. “The division leader wanted to know why there was so much daily dysfunction: missed deadlines, emails ignored, reports of uncomfortable chat room conversations, and a lot of peer-based passive-aggressiveness. It didn’t take me long to discover that the team in question was using its collaboration tools in every which way but the right one. In the team’s hands, Microsoft Teams chat had become a devious way for members to avoid video-call collaboration. Members were also sharing the same messages and documents using multiple collaboration tools, making it hard for anybody to know where to go for what. Finally, some members were commenting on tasks using 10-word IM messages, without explaining if their message was an opinion or a request for action.”
Her solution was to work with the team to create best practices for every communication channel. Many companies may find themselves going through similar analysis.
How best to communicate isn’t a black-and-white issue, but gray. That gray means companies will likely find a happy medium, a mix of email and other technologies to keep the information flowing efficiently and effectively for their organization.
When it comes to email versus Slack and other alternatives, Devon Fata, CEO and founder of Pixoul, a digital product design consulting and staffing firm, doesn’t value one above the other. “I see a ton of value in making sure that your entire organization is communicating in a unified way. Miscommunication issues that arise from people not checking the right medium can be a serious issue, and also tends to be a great way for office cliques to form as different groups get used to communicating on different platforms.”
Your company’s demographics or remote-to-in-person ratio may dictate which communication platform works best for you.
Kelly Harris Perin, founder of consulting firm Little Bites Coaching, says there are ways to use email effectively. “If we get rid of email at work, we’ll likely just spawn a bunch of different problems,” she says. “The best way to reduce stress and confusion around email [and other communication channels] is to decide what email is used for and set clear communication expectations around it.”
She says a short set of simple company or team email expectations can go a long way. “I often recommend email for more official company communications, such as benefits updates, performance review documents, and board agendas, and suggest that the company-wide expectation is to check email at least two to three times a day and reply to all emails within 48 hours. Slack channels and group text threads can be great for sharing fun updates and quick questions but shouldn’t hold mission-critical updates and information.”
One thing’s certain: the great debate of email versus Slack, WhatsApp, and whatever comes next isn’t going away anytime soon. If you’re looking for a definitive answer about what you should do, sorry. Simple advice likely won’t do you much good. This is a not a one-size-fits-all kind of problem. The smart strategy is to choose what works best for your own business. DW
Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, business, and travel/lifestyle. Her work has appeared in Money magazine, Forbes.com, The New York Times, AARP The Magazine, and Newsday, among others.
“The average worker sends or receives 112 e-mails a day, taking up 23 percent of their day.”