Maybe Turning Off Email Is Catching On

David Strom's picture

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)



Eric Ethington's picture

I disagree that turning off emailing is catching on. The article mentioned using mobile phones as a way of checking messages. However, I personally feel frustrated when I try to write an email using my phone. For this reason alone, I think that desktop emailing will not go away.
jlepinski's picture

I don't think email is going to go away. As audio interfacing becomes more prevalent in society, I think that we will see an evolution of email. Already google voice can send you an email (though often inaccurate) of the message that someone leaves on your phone. The audio is attached to that email. Who's to say we won't have applications reading our emails for us in a year or two. I'm sure the technology already exists, it just hasn't found it's way into popular society yet, so it can't be perfected. At some point I'm certain that phones and email will evolve together into something entirely new.
kharring's picture

The way we communicate is changing--and I agree with that, but not I'm quite sure that email should go away. Email these days is a very loose term. Email doesn't have to be a one-on-one conversation. I use email as a way of communicating with my co-workers in the "public eye" of the company. Texting and email are fundamentally the same--we text data over a network to one another, but the way in which we apply these ideas are applied makes the difference. If email clients become available on phones, what's the difference between a text, FB message, and an email?
mrelusive's picture

I don't think email will disappear at all, even in the corporate setting. In the software company I work for now, email is an handy tool for receiving server error notifications that are simply too large for transmission via text messages. Imagine trying to break down several stack traces on your smart phone! Email is also really useful for sending snippets of code to one another. We could probably use an instant messenger to send the code snippets, but then we would lose the formatting capabilities of email. There are a lot of use cases for which email is still more appropriate than instant messaging, texting, or social media.
Jason Thompson's picture

I absolutely disagree that email will disappear. If anything email is only going to improve and get better. Back when email was the hot new topic all it could do was send messages from computer to computer. Now email stores messages from 3+ years ago, the available inbox is only increasing in size, people can send larger and larger messages as well as attach larger and larger files, and everything is online allowing it to be accessed anywhere, anytime as long as they have an internet connection.
pretty girl has arrive's picture

umm hiya
tkeene's picture

This is a FUD article. Attitudes about email are certainly shifting, but modern offices require email to one degree or another. It's ridiculous to think that text messages will replace email. Even today employees consider it strange and rude to fire someone via text message.
djhaskin987's picture

This is more of a how-to guide for how to move away from email rather than showing that email is in fact going away.
druzzy's picture

I think email should stay. Email is more formal than most other communication, and it can sort your messages.
csmith82's picture

Email will remain as long as it fills a need. This article shows how other forms of communication fills some of the same needs that email fills. Email replace a lot of physical mail because it is faster, cheaper, and easier to keep track of the other person. It is used for bills, bank account information, work info, and many other communication needs, that used to be done by physical mail. We still use physical mail, especially for special events like birthdays and weddings; it is safe to assume that email will continued to be used for many purposes. Until a new technology can fulfill all the needs of email, like the computer did to the typewriter, it will continue to exist.