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Email: The Beginning of the End?

May 13 2015

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Psychologist Sir Cary Cooper has concluded that an ‘email epidemic’ has caused UK employees to be less productive than their international counterparts. Employees are frequently answering emails outside working nights, weekends and holidays. Sir Cooper says that this isn’t good for the health of our country. He warns that without time away from work, including work emails, Britain’s workforce will suffer from exhaustion, and that we have embraced digital technology “a bit too enthusiastically”.

More than 80 billion work emails are sent worldwide every day, yet the usefulness of email has been called into question. Emails, both important and trivial, sometimes sent to large numbers of people whether they are relevant to them or not, sit in inboxes and pile up until they are sifted through. Often emails are written back and forth between people multiple times when a live conversation could solve misunderstandings easily. The emails that you send might not be answered for hours, or even days, for any number of reasons. It’s easy to see why the average employee loses a quarter of their day to email.

According to national statistics, the UK is the second least productive of the leading G7 industrial nations. Cary says that constant emailing is a contributing factor, as well as the development of a ‘macho’ working culture that suggests that employees should be available at any time for an email. This is leading to stress and depression, which is actually making workers less productive.

Sir Cooper is professor for organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and has advised the Government Office for Science about mental health in the workplace. Sir Cooper wants companies to ban internal emails as an alternative to face-to-face communication. He also suggests using automatic flash warnings whenever employees answer emails during time outside work. He even states that taking extreme measures, such as shutting off employees’ servers at the end of the day, might be an option for companies.

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The French IT company Atos has now banned internal emails, the beginning of its ‘zero email initiative. Many other companies may follow suit. But if email is dead, then what will replace it? Here are some alternatives to email.

1)Instant Messaging

Instant messages have the benefit over email that they are instant. People can see and reply to them immediately, you don’t have to click in to your inbox and press send in order to respond.

2)Group Chats

While emails can be sent to multiple people, they are often missent to more people than need be. Using group chat means that people can go in and out of chats depending on whether they are relevant to them.

3)Collaboration tools

Digital collaboration tools include public calendars, Kanban project management charts, digital whiteboards, etc. These tools mean that people can keep updated about the progress of projects immediately, without getting bogged down in trivialities.

4)Internal Blogs

Blogs can reach large numbers of people and keep them up to date without clogging up their inboxes. Also, conversations about blogs can be continued in the comments section, which people can choose to read or not.

5)Social Networks

Emails don’t differentiate between business conversations and social conversations. Emails about the budget for next year, and about the plans for the charity raffle on the weekend, are both important in their own way. But social media sets up the distinction more clearly, so that employees are better able to prioritize.

6)Video Conferencing

Video conferencing has advantages over purely text based forms of communication. Most of our communication is nonverbal, so video communication could lead to fewer misunderstandings between people.

None of these solutions will be perfect for every situation. But as communication becomes more integrated by technology, email – which is essentially a complicated hodgepodge of admin, project management, social communication and advertising – will go the way of regular mail, used by a handful of romantics and out of touch institutions.