Time to pull the plug?
The back and forth nature of email started as a blessing. You could reply to messages when it suited you, rather than being interrupted by a telephone call – which requires your immediate attention – or else playing phone tag with people who are never available to take your call.
But for email to survive as a business tool it must be used efficiently, otherwise it makes us busy rather than productive. We engage in long and convoluted email exchanges, which could have been quickly resolved simply by talking to the person in the next cubicle. This problem is made worse by the fact that some people only skim incoming emails, firing off a quick response to the first question while ignoring the rest.
Increasingly, businesses are turning to a combination of tools including business-focused applications and project management tools to help improve the flow of information.
What are the alternatives?
Email still has its place, just as we continued to post letters after the invention of the telephone and continued to make phone calls after the arrival of email, SMS and instant messaging. The challenge is knowing which tool is best for the job at hand.
The immediate nature of instant messaging can be a more efficient tool when a quick response is required. When people think of "IM" they think of Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messager and others, but there are business-grade alternatives. There are the usual suspects aimed at big businesses like Microsoft Office Communications Server, Cisco Unified Presence and IBM Lotus Sametime, but also options for small businesses like Slack, HipChat, and Campfire.
Microsoft, Google and Zoho all offer Instant Messaging features, plus their online office suites also let multiple users edit the same document simultaneously and add comments. This can be far more practical than emailing document revisions and struggling with version control. Meanwhile many project management tools like Basecamp, AceProject and Zoho Projects feature communication tools which might serve better than email when discussing specific projects. Training tools like Zunos also have communication and collaboration features.
How do you make email work for your business?
Rather than going cold turkey on email within your business, there are a few guidelines you might introduce to help email work for you rather than against you.
Write concise emails with descriptive subject lines. Get to the point, without being rude, and make it clear exactly what you need from the recipient. If an email becomes too long and complicated it's less likely to be effective, so a phone call or face-to-face conversation might be a more efficient way to resolve the issue.
Keep group emails to a minimum and avoid the Reply All button where possible. If your business is plagued by group emails, consider whether these conversations should be moved to collaboration or project management tools.
Email isn't dying, but it needs to be kept in check so it doesn't choke your business. Small businesses of the future will use email sparingly to ensure that staff spend less time in their inbox and more time on the job.