/ Technology

Could you live without emails at work?

How many emails are sent to your work inbox every day? And how many of those are actually useful? Sift through the spam and the email ping-pong between you and your colleagues, and there might not be many left.

This raises the question – are we too obsessed with emailing others at work? Thierry Breton, the CEO of French technology firm Atos, seems to think so. He’s taking steps to ban internal email from his company communications by 2014, replacing it with instant-messaging tools or documents that can be edited by multiple users online (like Google Docs).

Breton may be onto something as well, with recent surveys showing email use declining rapidly among young people who prefer faster, less formal means of communication, like Twitter and texting. But can this really work in the office?

Stop typing, start talking

Working in an office, email is a large part of my work-based communication. It’s often easier to ping an email across to multiple people, rather than having to go round to each and every one of them with the same message. But can emailing go too far?

At my last workplace we all had to email each other when we were going for our lunch break, as colleagues had to cover the phones. I’d be deleting around 20 emails at the end of the day, most of them titled ‘Lunch – back 2pm’. With all these non-essential emails floating around, it was sometimes difficult to track down the important ones.

Emailing doesn’t do much for office relations either – have you ever had the phrase ‘it’s good to put a face to the email’ pass your lips? Breton claims his managers spend between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails – with only 10% of the 200 messages his employees get daily being useful. That’s a fair chunk of time being spent on email communication.

Emailing outside work hours

It’s not just Breton questioning our reliance on emails at work. Volkswagen is going to stop its employees from sending Blackberry messages when they’re off-shift, after complaints that their work and home lives were becoming blurred.

And the maker of Persil washing powder, Henkel, declared an email ‘amnesty’ for its workers over the Christmas period, saying messages should only be sent if there’s an emergency.

These measures shouldn’t be particularly surprising in themselves. After all, you work a certain amount of hours and you shouldn’t have to reply to emails outside of them. We all need downtime, even if we find it hard to ignore our work emails.

But this debate is wider than whether you check your work emails outside of work (which we’ve talked about before) – could live without work emails altogether? I’m not sure if I could.

Could you live without emails at work?

No - I rely on email (53%, 93 Votes)

Yes - I definitely could (25%, 43 Votes)

Maybe - I could use email less (22%, 38 Votes)

Total Voters: 174

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As I use e-mails as my only method of communication – found phone too time consuming – I’d be lost without e-mail.

I get around 100 a day roughly a third personal – a half business – the rest “adverts” from businesses I use.

At work I have used automatic filtering to move messages from colleagues into folders for priority attention. I have managed to cope with email efficiently for many years, thanks to my employer developing an effective solution to remove most of the junk. Where I have not been able to respond the same day I have always tried to at least send an acknowledgement.

With people who insist on sending lots of emails my solution has been to phone them. A brief chat can save a lot of time.

The idea of losing work email brings me out in a cold sweat. For me, email functions partly as a to-do list. If someone asks me something in person, or just grabs me for ‘a quick chat’ it’s easy to forget what it is they want me to do (because the nature of my job means I’m working with lots of people). So I always ask people to drop me a quick email to confirm anything they want doing, that way I can flag it and make sure I prioritise it properly.

I suspect if I lost work email I’d have to resort to a complex system of post-it notes, adding new ones every time someone spoke to me. I want to keep my email!

Email is vital for the success of a company. Having said that too many small minded CEOs just don’t grasp what it can do for them. There’s a trick to getting email to work for you and again too many people don’t understand that either.

When I had a job I was constantly complaining about the poor way the various teams used email.

For instance the server team needs to bounce a server/ the database team needs to bounce a database engine, yet would they bother to work out who was using them before sending a email warning of the downtime (assuming they had even remembered that their services had users). It wasn’t unknown for things to go down without any notification. Or they’d email one group of users and not the rest.

I heard of one poor woman on the other side of the planet who had an 8 hour database run ruined as the server team bounced the server without communicating or checking who was using it. The joys of outsourcing.

Out of sight, out of mind.

I’d love to see how Mr French CEO could warn users of these types or issues without emails. Does he think the support teams would have the time to ring round 50-100 people asking them to log off.

Company email usage needs to be carefully planned and not just rolled out. Like when emailing customers also include an internal mail account so this these communications could be monitored and saved so we don’t end up with clients being promised things by an account manager without the teams needed to do the work being informed. Until said account manager asking how the work was coming on a couple of days before the delivery date.

Rant over, sorry.

I definitely rely on emails at work, but I do try to make an effort to speak to people in person or over the phone. I do wonder how we would do if we scrapped emails altogether and moved to something like Yahoo! Messenger. I’m not sure how well it would work.

What amazes me is the number of people who rely on Web-based email systems rather than email clients for work their email. I can see the value of being able to use Web-based email if you are away from your own computer, but that’s about it.

It depends on your job role I suppose.

At a previous job, they migrated from a hideous web based system to the GMail system which was a massive improvement – so much so I ditched thunderbird and used the web based interface instead.

Saying that though, my current job relies heavily on time management and requires me to maintain a calendar of appointments – something Outlook does extremely well.

Outlook is not without its faults, but I would rather use it than GMail any day.

I can understand why many people use Web-based systems for personal email, but that’s irrelevant here.

I find that the worst culprits for resisting the trend from e-mail to instant messaging are senior managers, many of whom communicate heavily via their Blackberrys which do not have instant messaging clients that are compatible with corporate Windows-based instant messaging systems. Until Blackberrys and other corporate smartphones have the same instant messaging clients as everyone else, this problem will continue.

E-mail is asynchronous and should be used primarily when it is necessary to transmit paragraphs of text to multiple recipients. E-mail should not be used as an instant messaging tool or as a file transfer system.

Anne says:
26 January 2012

How exactly are instant messengers – which are insanely irritating – meant to be better? I was expecting it to say he was replacing it with phone calls…