For its time, email was remarkable. From anywhere on the planet text would show up instantly on your screen, eventually becoming sophisticated enough to include pictures and designs. Since that point, though any further advances have felt more like lipstick on a pig – especially where business messaging is concerned. It's time to move on.
What? What does this even mean?
Well, you have to remember that the email we have grown accustomed to was really designed in the early 70s. Over 40 years ago. It was a protocol to get text from one place to another within small working groups in smaller academic and research settings. It was not conceived of as a way to send and receive hundreds of messages every day to work on projects in multiple disciplines with multiple clients, customers and topics of interest with differing time demands.
Email is not a tool for the modern age.
We spend between 50 and 70% of time on a task managing the email messaging associated with it instead of the task itself. That's not good overhead.
Group conversations or threads go off topic, blend or blur issues creating long and unwieldy strings of content no human can be expected to make sense of – details get missed, balls get dropped.
Spam filters regularly miss bad emails and filter good emails.
The nature of what is believed to be a timely interaction gets confused with a simple message with no particular time-based urgency – as a result we spend inordinate amounts of time reading and responding to messages on and off during the day when a to-the-minute response was not required. It takes 16 minutes to focus back on our tasks at hand after becoming distracted – email is unwelcome and unnecessary distraction because of its lack of purpose.
Email is context-stupid. It has no idea of the type of response required, the project or task it's associated with, or the group of people truly needed to be involved.
I want you to take a moment to read over those points again. What is the commonality at the end of each point? Stress. And more of it the more wayward email we get.
This covers both security and workflow. For security we need to focus messaging in areas that we can properly control the nature of message transmissions. Simply, we need to have a better "approval" of who is communicating with us. For business collaboration this usually means using a social-productivity collaboration system. All users are registered members and outside 3rd parties can be invited on an ad hoc basis to participate.
Accountability covers technical performance. Email is terrible at controlling and validating how your outgoing message reached the destination when you sent it. You cannot be sure that by hitting the send button, the message will arrive in the next minute or so. Mail server-to-server communication isn't that robust given all the filtering and external issues that could intervene. All too frequently, email takes a good deal longer than we realize to arrive, more so when dealing with customer's free email services. They do a great job at being free, relatively easy to use, but make no promises when it comes to timeliness.
Proper collaborative, registration and socially-oriented systems must give business strong control over when an intended message was sent (from a client or customer/partner) as well as delivering it to the intended person, group and topic.
By controlling the intake process of that incoming message, business can control the accountability of its action steps, assignments, and required deliverable timelines. What topic was this message regarding? When does it need to be read or reviewed and by whom? Does it need to be escalated as urgent? Should it be reflowed to a different department – re-assignment?
Probably the most overused but biggest behavioural quagmire of communication protocol of the past 20 years is the dreaded "Reply-all". Staff are caught in the should-I-only-send-to-one-person and I-need-to-cover-my-butt process over and over. Throw in "I'm too busy to think about this" stress and people stop caring.
By contextualizing messaging according to use cases, projects, topics, tasks, milestones, groups messages can be focused, streamlined thereby making your collaboration accountable to your agreed-upon process; not the whim of the user at the moment.
Is there a solution?
Use a collaboration or project management system. Spend time on your intake and messaging workflow to focus what happens to your messages – in the context they were intended. Even the simplest of optimizations to your messaging workflow can mean hours upon hours of saved time, saved grief that will translate into clarity for your team and, in turn, improved response for your clients and customers which spells only good things for your brand.
This is perhaps the biggest Trojan Horse of them all – creeping into people's lives slowly and insidiously until they become trapped in their email without knowing it. Most users bring in their email into a single inbox regardless of topic, context or demand; regardless of project, deliverable or group. This is a disaster for professional workflow and efficiency – not to mention stress.
Messages can, and should be brought into a folder, or project and topic according to the nature of the message :
Is there a solution?
Time sensitivity : can be it be read and responded to over the next few hours, days or does it need instant repsonse? You should be able to set a deadline alert if you need a response by a certain time.
Topic : keep individual messages on topic, if you need to address a different topic, use a different message addresses to that project topic discussion
Group collaboration : if your team is prepared, the topic or project should already be set up to share with the appropriate people. They know this is happening, with only the key stakeholders included. Good project messaging systems can even distinguish between the primary stakeholder who receive all messages, and secondary stakeholders, who can see the topic but may not receive all alerts.
Pre-Filtering your Email : because email is not going away anytime soon, you can still make the most of organizing what email you do receive by using your mail rules or filters. All decent email software provides pre-built mail filtering to organize your mail for you the moment it arrives. It can move messages into folder, change colours (I love this one, great for visual message distinction), trigger sound alerts, and even send copies of messages to other users or systems.
Limit your email use : this one is not new. If you acknowledge all of the above and that email is not and should not be treated as instant messaging, then you can limit your email checking to once or twice a day. There is a big following around this philosophy. It can help to set an auto-responder to alert people who send you messages to this workflow habit (though ironically, the auto-responder is causing others increased email flow).
Turn off your email alert noises and popups : you will check it when you need to check it. Your brain doesn't need to see every little thing flying by. It (your brain) wasn't designed to be distracted like that.
Adjusting your personal and team culture takes time. Some things will become second nature faster than others. But by realizing and owning the reality that if you don't take control of messaging it will slowly poison your workload, efficiency and culture – share this with your team and make sure they are up to speed. Their peace of mind and efficiency will improve their lives.
As you change working habits and workflow policies, make it clear to your team when you're doing it, what it involves and why. Things won't instantly go according to plan, but if you get a message to the wrong place, sent the wrong way, remind yourself how to get that person to adjust their habits in line with the team.
Continually and gently remind that person to please use the appropriate method to send the message instead of just email – be consistent and be repetitive. It will take time to roll out and will be worth the effort.
This is by no means a complete or fully comprehensive list.
We use ActiveCollab, but there are many out there like BaseCamp and SalesForce. Choose the one that fits your demands defined by the nature of your tasks or incoming messages; in some cases it might be as simple as having messages come into you content management website system into a messaging area.
Use email filters : that's it. Use them. If you don't know how, go read up on it it's easier than you think.
Where do your messages come from? Where do they need to go? When do they need to be responded to?
Decide what a time-sensitive message is, and what is not. If it's very time-sensitive, then DON'T allow those to go to email. Use a real-time chat platform or other more controlled web-form-based system. Many project systems also have intake messaging that can facilitate this kind of messaging.
Your people, work culture and brand will appreciate you for it. By streamlining your internal and external communications you will be doing your brand a great service by giving your team the peace of mind that they have the right information at their fingertips at the right time as well as the knowledge that things aren't flying off in all directions. That is the kind of staff peace that will help you build a great brand and business.