Is Email Broken?

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is email broken

Here at Outpost.co, we spend a lot of time thinking about email and how we can help small and medium-sized businesses leverage its power for better communication with customers and within teams.

But you’ve probably been in that situation where your inbox is so cluttered with threads and junk pertaining to questions that you barely remember asking that you’d rather just pretend it doesn’t exist. I would argue that the way we use email is what’s actually broken.

Maybe you’ve considered switching to an email-free workplace. There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about whether email will continue to be relevant for businesses.

Spoiler: Here at Outpost.co, we think that email can and should be improved—it’s our mission—but as a tool, it’s here to stay.
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Email actually has some time and focus-based benefits

Mashable’s tech editor Pete Pachal says unequivocally that email doesn’t actually need to be reinvented, “that familiar plain, democratic list of messages just can’t be beat.” But that doesn’t mean email hasn’t seen some important improvements in the last decade. Our chief operations officer, Noah Parsons, agrees. “Email isn’t broken, it just can benefit from enhanced feature sets and better filtering,” he says.

“I’d argue that email is significantly more useful than tools like Slack. Real-time messaging is a productivity killer. It demands attention when you’re trying to focus. It’s like someone constantly tapping you on the shoulder to ask you something. Couple that with no great way to leave a chat message unread and all messages truly demand immediate attention.”

A Slack user myself, I do constantly battle interruptions. And when someone sends me an important document in Slack—it’s great right in the moment when I need to look at it—I personally struggle to find that same document later when I’ve received 40 more Slack messages from the sender.

Noah says, “In contrast, asynchronous messaging (email) allows you to focus on projects when you need to have complete concentration, and then return to your messages when you aren’t trying to work with the full focus that project work requires. Emails can easily be left for later and don’t kill productivity by constantly interrupting.”

Email is still universal

One of my least favorite things is being invited to a meeting using a video conference solution that’s outside of my usual repertoire. I’m inevitably creating accounts (and passwords I won’t remember) or downloading platforms that I don’t want to use, and that I’ll probably never use again. Imagine if you had to do that every time you got an email from someone who was using a different email service.

But luckily for all 3.7 billion of us email users who send 269 billion messages every day, email is actually still pretty universal. Noah says, “everyone has email, it’s cross-platform, the technology isn’t owned by any company.”

But, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better. “What email really needs is a set of better tools to make it more useful, more efficient, and less cluttered.”

Lots of companies are already innovating. Gmail has done wonders with auto-sorting and AI replies, for example. Here at Outpost, we’re making email collaborative—making it easy for teams to share the responsibility for inboxes like marketing@yourcompany.com. Other companies have focused on features like “send later” and read receipts.

Email has a long future ahead of it as we continue to innovate and adjust to new social norms for usage.

What will make our collective pain around email better?

  • Changing our business writing conventions. A huge email “pain” is around wasting time and mental energy on salutations and sign-offs. We’re talking about “Dear Ms. Accounting Manager” and “Most Sincerely Yours.” Parsons says that salutations and sign-offs are a waste of time and effort for most internal company emails. Notice that he doesn’t say to eliminate those parts for all emails—just the ones that circulate inside your company. Save your keystrokes and mental energy for messages to customers and vendors.
  • Writing useful subject lines. Make it easier for yourself and your colleagues to find your email and make an initial assessment of the information you’re going to share. Nix: “A Few Quick Questions” in favor of “Next Steps for Updating 2018 Training Manual”
  • Avoiding the time trap: As a company, think about the culture you want to set around email. How quickly do you expect a response from colleagues? Is it possible to check email just three times during the workday? Is a zero-inbox method possible and desirable for your team?
  • Don’t settle for just O.K. Tools like Outpost to help you manage multiple inboxes when multiple people share responsibility for them. Embrace solutions that help you keep track of email and make sure that (especially external) emails don’t slip through the cracks.

Like any powerful tool, you don’t want email to be pulling you around by the nose; it’s up to you to leverage it into something useful, taking advantage of its best qualities. And as a user, keep talking about what doesn’t work.

Email will continue to evolve, and collectively, we can put our energy toward developing technologies and ways to use email that increase its effectiveness and take back our time and focus.

Posted in Email

Kateri Kosta

Kateri Kosta

Kateri is the managing editor of Bplans, the LivePlan blog, and the Outpost blog. She is fascinated by the intersection of words (and the humans that use them) and tech and startup culture.