A double-edged sword: the pros and cons of email

Picture this – an empty email inbox. How do you feel about that? Relieved? Worried? Skeptical?

As we’ve noted before, email plays a big part in many people’s working lives. It can definitely be our friend – but why then can it also be such a painful activity for some of us? Research from the last twenty years has shown that, like most communication tools, email can be used for good or bad. Our literature review of this area revealed that email is perceived both positively and negatively at the same time – hence our reference to it being a ‘double-edged sword’ in our research report, You’ve got mail!

We were eager to make sense of this strange relationship, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of email.

The pros

Unlike its earliest origins, we can now access email from a multitude of devices, meaning we’re not tied to a single desktop computer. Email also gives us one more communication channel to use at work, perhaps for when a message is simple and needs to be sent quickly, or when the recipient isn’t available for a phone call. We can also review emails sent at a time that suits us, rather than receiving a constant stream of phone calls. Email provides us with both flexibility and convenience.

Email also makes it easy to reach a large audience concurrently with an identical message or to share large volumes of information with a specific audience. This can simplify communicating a message or gathering feedback on a topic, and is particularly useful within organisations when arranging phone calls or meetings with so many colleagues would be both time-consuming and inefficient.

Email is sent quickly and arrives in the recipient’s email inbox almost instantaneously. It’s definitely faster than ‘snail mail’, especially when we’re communicating with people over large geographical distances. These days, we can get information to a colleague in Beijing as fast as we can to one in Birmingham!

We can review previously received emails to check who said what and when, helping to remind us of key decisions and how we arrived at them. This written audit trail can be much more reliable than our memories of face-to-face conversations, where various parties can ‘re-remember’ or misinterpret what actually happened.

The cons

On the other hand, each of these advantages could also be seen as a disadvantage – which is why we talk about it being a double-edged sword. You’ve been on the receiving end of a ‘reply all’ email, right? They might be convenient for your colleague, but they’re a chore for you and many others who’ve been thoughtlessly copied in. And just because you’ve sent someone lots of attachments and background information doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve understood or even read them.

So, what do people complain about most it in terms of how email is used?

The general lack of email norms and expectations. For example, without clear guidance within the email, how do I know what kind of response you require, if any? And how urgent is this? Organisations frequently fail to establish these norms, which means that all kinds of unhelpful behaviours can take over. If my manager has sent me an email over the weekend, does this mean she expects me to be reading them? And responding?

Unlike face-to-face communication, or even video conferencing, email lacks non-verbal cues. This makes it easier for us to misinterpret the purely written communications we get in our inbox. Sarcasm or humour are both difficult to identify when we can’t see the sender’s facial expression, which can lead to all kinds of problems. It’s also possible that email is too spontaneous. Who else has sent an email in anger, or later realised they’d misinterpreted the sender’s message? We can respond instantly – but should we? Unlike in a face-to-face conversation, we can’t self-correct when we notice we’ve made an error – unless we want to send another email.

A common complaint about email is the sheer volume we receive. Unfortunately, it seems its widespread use, speed and convenience have combined to increase the number of emails we receive daily. At it’s most benign, a large volume of emails can distract us from our priorities. The feeling of email overload is a common experience, one that can lead to frustration and stress. And that moves email to something beyond an annoyance.

So, email is far from perfect – but you intuitively knew that, didn’t you? So what can we do about it? Watch out for the next few blog posts in this series, which will explore what both individuals and organisations can do to tame the email beast.

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