There was a time when email was a new technology that promised to make workplace communication easier, faster, and more efficient. That time was the 1980's.
Fast forward a few decades, and many argue that the constant stream of emails most employees now receive from dawn 'til dusk simply isn't sustainable. An internal survey at leading global IT firm Atos, for example, found that of the 200 or so emails its employees received per day, about 10 percent were actually useful — a statistic so alarming its CEO launched a campaign to eradicate email from the organization.
On the heels of our 2014 "State of Workplace Productivity" report, which found that 60 percent of workers report feeling overworked and overwhelmed, we asked futurist Jacob Morgan, author of the recently released "The Future of Work" and co-founder of the Future of Work community, to help us imagine a world without overloaded inboxes. Here, he explains why smart, forward-thinking companies are ushering in the end of email as we know it.
First things first, is there a connection between email and the overwhelm?
Definitely. I also think employees are being pulled in many directions. The first thing people do when they wake up is check their email, they feel guilty when they go on vacation, they work in the evenings ... it has gotten completely out of hand and there’s this expectation that because you are connected you are always available. I think that we need to be focusing on the opposite, which is that connectivity doesn’t imply availability. And we need to set some boundaries here.
So what, specifically, is the problem with email?
Email itself isn’t bad. You can’t ever blame a technology for being bad (in the context that we’re talking about). It’s how we use the technology that has become overwhelming. We use email like a chat messaging tool. All we do is stare at our inboxes every day and we’ve created a culture where you have to respond to email as soon as you get it, any time you get it, wherever you get it. So part of it is just that we let it get out of hand as employees and as people that work for organizations.
For generations older than Millennials and Generation Z, email is part and parcel of workplace communications. What do you say to people who have trouble imagining life without it?
You simply tell them that there are better and more effective ways to communicate and collaborate with people besides email. And of course it’s challenging — it’s kind of like if you’ve been so used to driving a car then one day somebody comes by and says, ’hey, there’s a hoverboard that you can use to get around.’ You’ll freak out at first. But I think once you can identify people’s pain points and help them see that they can be using something else, it becomes pretty clear.
So how can the "hoverboard version" of workplace communication ease employee overwhelm?
Well, email won’t go away. If you switch to a social network or collaboration tool, you’ll still get notifications through that as well—however, the types of notifications that you get will be different. When you contact and communicate with collaboration tools, other people have the opportunity to answer for you on your behalf. So you’ll still get notifications, but I think the stress that it will put on you will be less.
Overhauling email is just one small piece of a larger issue you point out in your book—that we must find more effective ways to inspire employee communication and collaboration within companies. Why is that so important?
Most companies operate on the premise that all decisions should be made by managers at the top of the food chain. There are several problems with that approach. It assumes that the people at the top know more than everybody else and also places a lot of pressure on people at the top to make decisions on behalf of everybody else at the company. But the reality is that there are a lot of smart employees that are part of organizations. So the shift in thinking has been, 'why rely on the wisdom of a few when you can rely on the collective intelligence of many?' Any employee should be able to come up with an idea or with a solution to a problem. Any employee should be able to provide feedback or share ideas on something and contribute value.
In other words, the future of email — and really, the future of work — demands a new way of thinking and new technologies to match.
Yes. You can’t have collective intelligence at the scale that we’re talking about without using technology to make that happen. Part of it is certainly culture but technology is, and always will be, the enabler to make a lot of these new behaviors possible. There needs to be an emphasis on both, right? You need to change behaviors, yes, but also give employees the means to change those behaviors.
Photo: Can Stock
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