Is business email on its way out?

An article released this week by the Times may signal the approaching demise of email as the preferred tool of communication within the business environment, as social collaboration tools see a global marked increase in usage. Meanwhile, President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party is about to vote through a measure that will oblige French organizations to draw up a charter of good conduct that will set out the hours that staff are not supposed to send or answer business email.

The discussion follows the controversial decision of Cheshire-based Halton Housing Trust to remove internal emails entirely from its business communications. Responding to findings that 40% of staff time was spent on internal business email, the Trust initiated a two-year process to phase out its internal usage, with the ‘switch-off’ of its internal email services set to take place in the coming weeks.

Research showed the Trust received an excess of 122,900 business email each month; an average of 436 per person. However, 62% of staff felt it was the least effective form of communication.

Within 12 months of pledging to phase out email, Generation Y employees had all but eliminated use of e-mail; however, the Trust admitted; “the biggest challenge is changing an engrained culture that has become embedded from 20+ years of people relying upon email in the workplace. Don’t underestimate the addiction we all have to email.”

An email epidemic

email epidemic

The Trust are not alone in their desire to reduce time lost to internal emails and communication. Research conducted by McKinsey points to the damaging impact of internal emails on productivity levels (28% of the average working week is lost to reading and answering emails), a claim backed by former government advisor Sir Cary Cooper who referred to the practice of compulsive checking of emails by staff as an “epidemic” that spelled out serious repercussions for the health of the country. The UK currently suffers with the second lowest levels of productivity of the G7 countries, coming only marginally ahead of Japan.

However, despite the potential cost, business use of email has continued to increase: the Radicati Group placed the global number of email users in 2015 at 2.6 billion, with projections that number will reach 2.9 billion by 2019. This may be attributed to the need for an email address to register for many IM services or to complete online banking and shopping.

Increasing social collaboration in the workplace

business email increasing collaboration

With the growth of the Millennial generation, smartphone usage and instant messaging services such as WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, reports show a marked decrease in consumer use of web-based email services. This is particularly evident amongst the 18-24-year-old category; usage declined 34 per cent between 2015-2016 and is down nearly 50 per cent since 2010, according to social media management providers Hootsuite.

In response, organizations are increasing adoption of social tools; 93% of respondents to a McKinsey survey confirmed their company used at least one social technology, an increase on 82% in previous years. 66% of executives expect social technologies to improve internal communications and shift the very nature of collaboration to a more fluid, project-based process, as opposed to being team or function based.

Decreasing business email dependency

business email decreasing dependency

Payday loans organization Dollar Finance, customer of Interact, discovered after a 2012 internal survey that its 2,000 employees felt bombarded by emails in-store and wanted an easier way to speak store-to-store and obtain information, rather than purely communicating via central services. The organization sought to address concerns through investment in its company intranet, Dollar Online Retail Information System (or DORIS for short).

Focusing on social collaboration tools, the company achieved a cultural shift that now sees around 100 blogs posted daily, with 77 daily bloggers and daily manager emails replaced with this more centralized form of communication to give visibility across the business, rather than silo-ing communication into one-to-one or team-based emails.

In addition, the organization put business questions to its workforce using intranet forums; for example, asking whether it should open on weekends or if they should introduce a uniform. The collaborative nature of the forum saw all 600+ Store Managers engage with the question of weekend hours; showing the sheer reach of the platform. The company also introduced “email blackouts” at Christmas, asking that staff only communicate via DORIS during their busiest time of the year. All measures have contributed to a decreased dependency on email as the primary internal communication tool for the business.

Measurable gains

business email measurable gains

In a 2013/14 survey conducted by Interact, just 20% of respondents felt that the introduction of their intranet had reduced emails by more than 10%. However, in 2015, this reversed: a huge 78% reported a marked decrease in email traffic, due to the uptake of social tools for collaboration as an alternative.

What’s more, the cultural shift had other measurable returns within the 2015 results:

  • 70% felt social collaboration and intranet use had delivered a “substantial increase” on productivity;
  • 83% reported a “marked transition” in the way they were able to collaborate
  • 81% noted “significant increases” in employee engagement

Due to the global use of social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, the use of enterprise versions is increasingly intuitive for business users, making mass-adoption more achievable. By nature, their transparency and collaborative nature means information is widely available rather than trapped in an email inbox; making it searchable and accessible by others, speeding the resolution of many business problems and increasing efficiency and productivity.

McKinsey’s Social Economy report demonstrates that improved communication and collaboration through social technologies could raise the productivity of interaction workers by 20-25% and reduce time spent by employees searching for information by as much as 35%.

Cold Turkey?

business email cold turkey

Flicking the ‘off’ switch on the internal email server may seem an attractive option given the potential gains, however experts warn that the ‘cold turkey’ approach is not feasible for the majority of organizations; the process requires cultural, structural and process change and is unachievable without the full participation of employees.

In order to support employees in “breaking the habit” and achieving greater work-life balance, some organizations have taken the step of rolling out a ‘no-email Friday’ or flagging individuals who send business email on the weekends or into the evenings. For some, the process of removing internal email will be an ‘all or nothing’ manifesto; including French IT organization Atos, whose Zero Email program has received extensive recognition for its bold decision to change the way its 76,000+ employees interact as part of a Wellness@Work intiative.

As social collaboration tools continue to evolve and enterprise versions filter into the workplace, it’s likely business email will continue on its path to demise. But will it ever disappear from the office altogether?