Last year I wrote this post reviewing 40 years of using email. I am old enough to recall many of those events and while I wasn't exactly present at the dawn of email, I know people who were. But it seems as if email, at least corporate email, has come and is in the process of going all in my own lifetime. A number of factors are making turning off, or at least reducing your email dependency, more viable these days. And I should point out that we are talking here about just eliminating internal emails; no one is suggesting that we go without emails to connect people in different domains.
- First, corporations are shifting notifications to mobile phones. While they still may get email, needing a desktop email client to be running isn't always necessary. This isn't quite turning off email, but it is displacing a lot of email traffic that might have waited until someone was back online. Of course, this also has the consequence of working 24/7, as people check their phones at all times of day and night, and even leave them on their nightstands when they supposedly sleep. The further consequence is companies such as Volkswagen that will turn off email access for some unionized staffers in off-hours. (But this is about one percent of its total workforce, too.) According to this story on ABC news, other European companies are starting to do this.
- Second, as social media becomes more prevalent, it becomes easier to have conversations in the public eye, or at least on the corporate Intranet. I don't mean just using the built-in messaging feature of Facebook, but posting questions and replies using the discussion features of these products, so that everyone can see the conversation threads. But it isn't enough for something like Yammer or IBM's Connections to be popular, they have to be universally used for this to work. One social media advocate, Luis Suarez, was chronicled in Wired this month showing how he does this. Now, granted he works for IBM, and IBM has done a very solid job of moving all of its employees to Connections over the past few years. But if you only have a couple of departments that have become socialized, you are still going to need email to connect to the rest of your enterprise colleagues.
- Next, more people are practicing inbox zero messages. This means you try very hard to file incoming messages and delete those that don't apply to the here and now, so your inbox only has a few messages in it at any given time. This has been my own standard operating procedure for many years and works well, but you have to say on top of it. It also means when you go on vacation, or are away from the Internet, your inbox will pile up quickly.
- Finally, other technologies are taking the load off email, including texting, Instant Messaging and group chats and other services. This is certainly the case for many Gen Y'ers, who grew up with these kinds of technologies and as a result were slow to adopt email as their native communications tool. Again, this has to be universal throughout a corporation; otherwise it won't work as a substitute for email. None of these are really good solutions for getting rid of all email, and even the IBMer Suarez still uses emails for meeting notifications (I guess they haven't completely trained folks how to set up meetings in Connections.)
What really helps is how the management team deals with their own emails: there are still some companies that have secretaries who print out emails for their bosses, I know how barbaric! But if you have the right mix of people and under the right set of circumstances, I can see email playing less of a role in our communications in a few years. Of course, you can always pick up the phone or send a fax. (Just kidding.)