This is the second article in a two-part series in honor of the 50th anniversary of email. The first part can be found here.
The case against email is predicated on the idea that collaboration services do everything that email does, as well as addressing all of its shortcomings – from siloed data and clunky user interfaces to the opportunity for security incidents.
However, a direct comparison between email and services such as Slack or Microsoft Teams is inappropriate in a number of ways, because the two are used for different (albeit adjacent) purposes.
According to Andrea Loubier, CEO at email client Mailbird, it’s “like comparing apples and oranges”. “There are many new tools that challenge the use cases for email, [but] I see these technologies as complimentary,” she says.
For example, the rise of collaboration platforms has changed the way colleagues communicate by championing a more informal approach. Gone are the days of “sincerely” and “kind regards” and come is the hour of the comedy GIF and reaction emoticon.
But while the ability to build deeper personal relationships with remote colleagues is one of the main value propositions of collaboration platforms, this is also one of the fundamental reasons they haven’t displaced email, as some predicted they would.
The inbox has become the last bastion of purely functional, transactional and asynchronous communication. It’s the place where the most serious and, frankly, boring communication happens, and that’s why it’s so valuable.
Another respect in which the two services differ is in expected response time. Although collaboration vendors claim to facilitate asynchronous communication, in reality these platforms incentivize near instantaneous responses. In a shared channel, for example, a query will be buried beneath a torrent of fresh messages if not dealt with immediately.
However, it’s widely accepted that email does not always demand an immediate response. In a world in which hundreds of push notifications vye for our attention every day, the ability to communicate in an asynchronous manner is vital for the purposes of productivity, but also sanity.
This style of communication also affords interlocutors more time to consider their response. For a quick request or informal chat, collaboration tools are by far the superior option, but email thrives when due diligence is required.
“Email is tried and trusted; it’s been around for such a long time because it works, despite the many frustrations that come with it,” added Loubier.
“Our tool belt for productivity and communication has broadened, with email becoming the core technology framework to which new tools contribute efficiencies and workflows.”
The noisy neighbors
Companies operating in the collaboration market, however, tend to see email’s core attributes through a different lens; as limited and sluggish, rather than task-specific and slow by design.
And this perspective is also backed up by data. A recent survey from Mail Manager found that 32% of workers spend at least an hour managing their inboxes each day, which amounts to an eighth of the working week or more.
If an employee is paid $30,000 per year (close to the US average), time wasted on email management can be said to cost the employer $3,750 per year. A business that employs 1,000 people, a third of whom are bogged down by email management, will effectively flush away $1.2 million per annum.
This is a productivity hole that collaboration services believe they are equipped to fill, in part by integrating a wide range of functions into a single application.
Many collaboration tools began as simple messaging apps or video conferencing services, but have since become centralized hubs for work, absorbing cloud storage, file-sharing, project management and customer support functionalities into one package.
Some players in the space, like Asana, view their relationship with email as a reluctant symbiosis. According to Simon O’Kane, the company’s Head of EMEA, email is a “communication tool misused for work coordination”.
“We know that managing work effectively goes beyond back-and-forth message threads. As a communication-based tool, email will never be able to help businesses coordinate their work,” he told us.
“Email isn’t likely to become fully extinct; despite its limitations, it is still a globally-adopted means of communication. [But] it is organizations which identify the most helpful tools and push away legacy systems that will thrive.”
Microsoft sits on both sides of the fence, operating both email products and a collaboration service. Nick Hedderman, Director of the Modern Work & Security Business Group at Microsoft UK, told us that the use cases for each product type will become increasingly divergent over time.
“Email is here to stay as a core productivity tool, especially useful for ‘open loop’ communications, such as connecting with customers. There is also a role for collaboration tools, as a way to connect with an ‘inner loop’ of colleagues,” he said
“Empowering employees to work on their teams with cloud-based software that is always up-to-date, can be accessed on different devices and built on a secure platform will be critical.”
Other companies in the space, however, are frank about their ambitions to consign email to the technology scrapheap. The pandemic in particular, they say, has provided a perfect case study in the pitfalls of email.
“Although it remains the default option among some more traditional firms, the pandemic has brought the truth about email to light: it is an archaic and ineffective means of workplace communication,” said Stuart Templeton, Head of UK at Slack.
“Knowledge work is collaborative work, and remote working has underlined how openness and transparency in communication is key to creating alignment and to enabling better and faster decisions to be made. [Email] eradicates visibility through direct messages and closed threads, sharing knowledge only with a handful of people and insulating it from the wider workforce.”
Templeton even went as far as to predict a transition away from email as businesses shift towards a hybrid working model, whereby employees divide their time between home and the office.
“Email in the workplace is a tool suited to closed-door decision making, siloing key information away from those who need it most. The days of being copied into long email chains may well be numbered, and that is something we can all be grateful for.”
The future of email
The case for the death of email is built on the idea that email’s best qualities can be replicated by services that are also able to buff out its imperfections. But this is a theory, not a truth universally acknowledged.
One of the most significant problems for email challengers is their proprietary nature. With an install base as large as email’s and taking into account its centrality to the operation of the web, it’s difficult to see how any one rival might topple email from its perch.
Further, if email were to be superseded by an alternative, questions would need to be asked about what happens to mail in storage. The WayBack Machine catalogues the history of the internet, but there is no such equivalent for email, so to eliminate the technology would be to erase a significant portion of recent human history.
Nonetheless, with such a large target painted on its back, email will need to continue to develop. Asked how the technology might change in the years to come, those we consulted largely sang to the same tune.
A few suggested it will be displaced or augmented by emerging communications technologies, others believe security and data privacy concerns will demand wholesale changes, but the majority agree that the future for email lies in integration.
“At the moment, there is no business application in sight that could compete with the reach of email and it remains the only common and open standard for business communication,” said Oetjen, CEO at email service GMX. “The silver bullet will be to link it intelligently with other means of communication.”
Pip White, MD UK & Ireland at Google Cloud, also believes tighter integration could paper over the insufficiencies of the 50-year-old technology.
“Email will remain central to businesses’ evolving work plans, helping to bridge the gap between the in-person and the ‘somewhere else’, but as part of a much broader suite of tools,” she said.
“People are overloaded with many tasks across many tools with blurring lines on where work happens. It’s important that the essential communication and collaboration tools including email, but also video and chat, work better and more closely together.”
If and when email makes it to its 100th anniversary, then, it will likely have become a different beast entirely.