Why Are We Still Using Email?

Rethinking Communications

Why Are We Still Using Email?

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  April 04, 2016

This question in the above headline is definitely in the spirit of my column, and is a logical follow-on to last month’s post, which begged the same question about desk phones. The vast majority still uses both and will continue doing so, but things are changing, and these are legitimate questions to be asking.

As to the anticipated decline of desk phones, the rise of mobility is the easy answer, but is really just one part of it. After all, this is just another form of telephony, albeit one that is more convenient based on how people are working now. A big driver of this convenience is messaging – something that desk phones don’t have – as it allows people to quickly determine when others are free for a mobile call. This makes communication more efficient, and cuts down on wasted time with phone tag (News - Alert) and voicemail. However, as noted in my last post, desk phones still have some inherent advantages over mobility, and that ensures they’ll remain in use for years to come.

While this reflects the status quo, there is a growing segment of tech-savvy people who have long stopped either using the phone on their desk or even having one at all. For them, the shortcomings outweigh the benefits, and they have found other ways to use voice. In some cases, they use voice just as much as before, but in others, the primacy of voice has shifted. There is no shortage of research showing how millennials favor messaging and short-form modes over voice and longer forms of text. This is largely driven by the nature of mobile devices, which dictates the user experience; but this demographic also engages differently, including their communications preferences.

Exploring the email dilemma

There is more to explore here about the changing role of voice, but this also serves as a segue to the main focus, email. So, why do we still use email? The initial drivers haven’t changed, namely that email is free, it’s easy to use, everyone uses it, and it has unmatched flexibility in terms of supporting short- and long-form messaging, as well as other media: video, audio, data files – via attachments.

That’s a pretty strong value proposition, yet we keep hearing how email is broken and doesn’t meet the needs of today’s knowledge workers. Just consider a few common examples:

The volume of email is overwhelming, and most people have no idea how to manage it. This gives rise to a lot of anxiety, as the inflow never stops, and the ongoing processing of messages cuts into productive work time.

A great amount of work-related email is unnecessary, such as ccing everyone when just replying to one person would suffice. Another form is following up on earlier emails to confirm receipt or close the loop on discussions that have already passed.

Our inboxes include much more than work-related messages. Aside from handling personal emails there, we get an endless variety of unsolicited email, often from sources we don’t even know. Aside from the sales pitches, there is the ongoing stream of faux messages that are just vehicles for spam, viruses, malware, etc. In this regard, even with spam filters, email remains a Wild West, and poses a real risk for both end users on a personal level as well as IT staff working to protect the network and keep business data secure.

Unlike telephony, email is not a real-time mode of communications, so the expectations are different in terms of prioritizing responses. There can be many reasons why your email isn’t answered, and a lot of time and energy gets expended trying to resolve these loose ends.

There’s a lot to like and not like about email, and this creates a real dilemma. Many of us would love to cut back on our email habit, but few are willing or able to stop using it entirely. This is where the comparisons with desk phones start to diverge. Mobility and PC-based VoIP offer alternatives to desk phones, so telephony continues to get used. The primacy of voice may be changing for some, but as a communications mode, voice isn’t broken.

With email, however, there really is no substitute to take its place. You could replicate email’s utility in a piecemeal manner, using a mix of chat, messaging, file sharing, etc., but that’s a lot of work. As well, there’s no guarantee you could work as productively since all the good things about email work very well together. It would be great if there was only some way to keep email pure and block out the rest.

Is there a better way?

We’re past the point of returning to a simpler time when there were caps on how many emails we could keep, and we only got purposeful, work-related messages. Today, that’s the minority of what clogs up our inboxes, and that makes email a chore for many. Being free, our expectations can’t be high in the first place, so this is the inevitable outcome. There’s only so much businesses can do to control what comes to your inbox, and employees value their privacy too much to have others dictate what messages come through.

Adding all this up, it’s easy to conclude that there must be a better way. There is definitely a problem here that needs addressing, but we’re not ready to move en masse off of email. While we live with its many flaws, and management deplores how it can be a drag on productivity, it’s still an indispensible everyday work tool.

The short answer is that there is a better way – but only to address certain types of problems. For this to work, however, the path will be different than telephony, since there is no singular substitute. What’s needed instead is a different approach to working, especially around collaboration. In other words, the solution isn’t just about better technology – as is the case with telephony – but it also entails employees changing behaviors and adapting to different ways of working. This is a much taller order, but in the collaboration space, progress is being made, and I’ll scope that out in my next column.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal at J Arnold & Associates (ww.jarnoldassociates.com).

Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi