Since the rise of hybrid work, the digital tools we use to share information, track projects and connect with each other have drawn a lot more scrutiny. The physical office no longer serves as the business headquarters or foundation of culture it once did. As companies like Slack and Axios HQ pioneer the Digital HQ, a déjà-vu debate has re-emerged for another run: Is it time for email to die?
Email caused a lot of workplace stress before the pandemic. Since COVID-19 began, however, as even more communications were delivered through inboxes (and nearly all communications felt urgent), email’s impact has only gotten worse.
There’s also the fact that younger generations particularly dislike email. A 2020 study found that “for those 30 and above, email was among the top tools they used for collaboration. For those under 30, Google Docs was the app workers associated most with collaboration, followed by Zoom and iMessage.” The employees of the future don’t just prefer something over email to collaborate; they prefer, it seems, anything over it.
Dustin Moskovitz, founder and CEO of the “work management” platform Asana, decided in 2019 that Asana employees would no longer use email for internal communication.
“It’s just very natural for everyone to be organizing their conversations around the actual work,” he told the New York Times. “Most of the time, when you’re having an email thread with your coworkers, it’s really about some project that you’re working on, or some action items or goals. In Asana, that’s all organized in 'projects' or 'tasks' and each of those can have conversation threads around them. So our conversations happen there.”
Leaders shouldn’t underestimate how form really can affect the content of these conversations. As folks have been pointing out for years, email tends to feed a “selfish,” indulgent style of communication, in which many tend to communicate far more information — or far more often — than is actually helpful for their colleagues.
To put it plainly, email is just bad at doing what it’s supposed to do. It makes collaborating, not to mention tracking information, files and projects, an unnecessarily cumbersome, exhausting task.
Then there’s the counterpoint, the reason we’ve known all this for more than two decades but still use email: it’s comfortable!
For as flimsy as comfort might sound as a real reason to wait before you do away with email, it’s a legitimate one. For many companies, the change fatigue and disruptions to work caused by getting rid of email would be more damaging than sticking with it could be. This is certainly true for us at Gagen, and it’s a legitimate factor to consider. You can’t really claim to be a user-centered organization and decline to meet people where they are.
So, what can we really do?
For many companies, it may never be the right time to totally move on from email. The future of employee-facing tech, anyway, is not in organization-wide bans or adoptions. It is in flexibility itself — in empowering individuals and teams to use what works for them, to whatever extent possible.
Email, however, will not work as your de facto Digital HQ. It can serve as a tool in the toolbox — an option for those who prefer it — but it should not be the first touchpoint in your people’s daily digital experience. It’s too cluttered, too distracting, too stressful and, frankly, too lifeless to not start building a better home base.