The “no email” trend seems to be taking off – but we’re not convinced. Is abandoning it the right response to our growing frustration with email? Or could we just learn to use it better?
Writers in the press have recently lauded a new ‘no email’ movement, where members eschew email in favour of other channels, including instant messaging. They report increased productivity and relief at the reduction in the amount of emails they have to respond to.
They’re starting from the premise that email is a problem that needs to be solved. They point to the volume of email we receive as something requiring this ‘nuclear option’. A recent article described it as “the scourge of intrusive, hard-to-follow, back-covering corporate exchanges.”
A little harsh, no?
What’s the problem?
Well, that’s a very good place to start. If we’re going to abandon an entire communications medium, we should be really clear on the problem we’re trying to solve. Otherwise, we run the risk of this being yet another expensive and disruptive workplace fad.
Are we trying to solve the problem of too much email being sent? Received? Too much time taken on reading email? Stress and anxiety arising from email? Inefficiency? Productivity? You see, once you scratch the surface, there are many potential problems associated with email, but if we’re going to address them, we need to be explicit about what we’re trying to do.
And while there are many problems associated with email use, we can’t ignore the ugly truth: people cause emails. Aside from automatically generated ‘spam’ messages we get, the vast majority of the emails in our inbox come from people just like us. Email is the tool, we are the cause of email problems.
Research over the last twenty years, including our own ‘You’ve got mail!‘ project from 2015, has illustrated that email is a double-edged sword. It can be a time-waster, a distraction, a source of anxiety and stress and the origin of interpersonal conflict at work. On the other hand, it facilitates remote and flexible working, allows us to communicate with many people at once, regardless of time zone or country and frees our brains up from having to remember everything that was said – there’s a built-in audit trail.
So what’s to be done?
If we can be specific about the problem we’re trying to solve, we can then move on to some potential solutions. For example, research demonstrates that the volume of email we receive doesn’t relate to email pressure as strongly as some of our own behaviours – like checking email early in the morning or late at night. We can become more aware of our email habits and question how much they’re helping us or hindering us.
Email incivility or conflict could be addressed by teaching people how to both write emails correctly and how to deal with perceived conflict in all kinds of interpersonal situations. Interruptions and productivity issues may also be helped by giving email users guidance in how to use their email application, how to silence alerts and how to focus on a single task at a time, rather than multi-task.
A core problem with email is that it’s a powerful tool, but one that’s simply handed over to users without training or even a user manual. And so we copy what others do, which is rarely a great idea. Maybe it’s time we learnt how to use it better.
So what can I do?
You are of course free to abandon email right now! But think about whether you and your colleagues would benefit more from learning how to use this flexible and powerful tool to better effect, or whether you want to replace it with an instant messaging app, which everyone has to use and will quickly replace email in terms of volume and content of messages. In other words, it will become the ‘new email’.
If you want to improve your experience of email (or know someone who could do with some tips!) have a look at our guides of email use for individuals and organisations. And if you’d like to learn more about our recent research, you can download our paper “You’ve got mail!”