The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail

Xconomy San Francisco — 

I. Too Much of a Good Thing

I’ll begin by admitting my biases. I don’t like electronic mail. In the pre-Internet days of the 1970s, when e-mail as we know it was invented, it may have been a decent solution to a certain problem—namely, the need for users logged into a single mainframe, server, or network to exchange short messages. But those users were scientists and engineers, and they were mostly sharing technical information.

The difficulty is that e-mail evolved into a tool used in millions of workplaces around the world, without ever being updated or redesigned to suit its new users. We long ago phased out other flawed or imperfect 1970s technologies, like analog TV broadcasts and leaded gasoline. But when it comes to knowledge work and interoffice communication, we’re mired in the past.

E-mail’s flaws as a communications platform for modern business are many, obvious, and frequently lamented:

1. It’s too democratic. Anyone with your e-mail address can send you a message at zero cost, and it will show up right at the top of your inbox, pushing down something truly important from a boss, a spouse, or a colleague.

2. It’s too opaque. Unless you pay for special tracking software, e-mail doesn’t provide anything similar to the “signature confirmation” option offered by the good old U.S. Postal Service. So you have no way of knowing whether the person you’re trying to reach received or opened your message.

3. It creates the illusion of immediacy. Many people treat e-mail as if it were a real-time medium, just one step short of sending a text message or picking up the phone. But in fact it’s highly asynchronous, meaning urgent messages might end up sitting in the recipient’s inbox for hours or days before they’re seen. To make matters worse, there are no built-in features on the recipient’s side to distinguish between the truly urgent messages and the merely informational or the outright spammy (see Item 1).

4. It’s too dangerous. Because it’s such an open system, e-mail can be hijacked for spam, phishing attacks, worms, and viruses. An e-mail message’s header information can be spoofed, making it easy for bad guys to trick you into thinking their messages are coming from a trusted source. And because e-mail isn’t encrypted—unless both you and your intended recipient have the patience to use a wearisome cryptographic system like S/MIME or OpenPGP—you might as well be sending a copy of everything you write to the National Security Agency.

5. There’s too damn much of it. The average e-mail user gets about 100 messages per day. If you have a job that involves gathering information or collaborating with lots of other people, the burden can be far greater. McKinsey found that reading and answering e-mail takes a whopping 28 percent of the workweek for the average knowledge worker. Think about it: that’s like spending all day Monday and half of the day Tuesday just answering your e-mail, and getting around to your actual work starting Tuesday afternoon.

There’s another way of looking at this, of course. For many knowledge workers, communicating with other people is their actual work, or a big part of it. And for lots of important messages, e-mail can be faster than the alternatives. Many people complain about how much e-mail they have to deal with, when what they’re really complaining about is how much work they have.

The question, to me, is whether e-mail makes the rest of your work easier or harder. As a journalist, I’m in constant communication with sources and colleagues, so managing e-mail is a big part of my job—but only part of it. I also write articles, which requires uninterrupted time to think. My personal beef with e-mail is that it saps this time. I get a lot of messages (see Item 1) and people expect swift replies (see Item 3), so I have to check my inbox dozens of times a day. It’s a lot harder to carve out time for thinking when e-mail is always vying for my attention.

In short, e-mail and related digital distractions force us all to be multi-taskers, and that’s a role for which most of us are ill-suited. Recent studies by neuroscientists have shown that only about 2 percent of the population can switch back and forth between multiple tasks without causing their performance on any individual task to plummet. This leads to real costs in the workplace. Indeed, one research firm estimated in 2007 that the task-switching caused by e-mail costs $650 billion a year in lost productivity and innovation.

So, the pain from e-mail is widely shared. And because it’s the job of entrepreneurs to address pain points, there’s a growing array of alternative communication services, from enterprise social networks like Yammer and Jive to document-sharing systems like Box and Dropbox. But e-mail isn’t likely to disappear from the office anytime soon. That’s because it has one insuperable advantage: nobody owns it.

“The challenge is that right now no one is creating a unified model” to replace e-mail, says Aaron Levie, the co-founder and CEO of Box in Los Altos, CA. “And unless there is one provider that can [deliver information] as pervasively or as predictably as e-mail, then we can never get away from it. Think about somebody having that much power in a proprietary model. It’s unlikely to happen.”

Facebook may be a good medium for hitting up a friend with a quick message, “but that’s because Facebook has a billion users,” Levie adds. “Until that happens in the enterprise you are going to have e-mail as the ubiquitous tool.” And he’s speaking as someone who has every reason to wish otherwise: Box has raised more than $400 million in venture funding to pursue his belief that office workers want to send less e-mail and spend more time collaborating on shared documents stored in the cloud.

So e-mail is here to stay. To paraphrase Churchill, it’s the worst form of communication, except for all the others.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ongoing efforts, at Box and other startups in its peer group, to rethink the life of the modern knowledge worker around supplemental forms of communication and collaboration. In fact, for the first time in decades, there’s a collection of smart, decently funded companies proposing that office employees step away from the e-mail—or at least minimize its use within the walls of the business. A few of these companies offer a radically different vision of the business organization and how things get done inside it.

In a company where every employee is tied to Outlook or Gmail all day, the atomic unit of work is inevitably going to be an e-mail message. It’s the smallest, most indivisible representation of a thing that somebody needs to get done; it’s the vessel carrying information about the task, who’s assigning it, how it’s to be carried out, and when.

But certain workplaces are experimenting with a new kind of office physics where the atomic unit of work might be, say, a task on a project list, or an appointment in a digital calendar, or a status update in a news feed, or a document in a file-sharing system.

I’ve spent the last year tracking a few purveyors of this new science, including companies like Asana, Tempo, Yammer, and Box, and evaluating whether their ways of doing things might eventually displace e-mail. The answer is yes, perhaps, at least inside certain kinds of organizations.

E-mail won’t go away because each new internal system needs to interface with the outside world, where e-mail is still the standard. In a perverse way, this means the new systems can end up generating even more e-mail messages.

But maybe that’s okay. I’ve also been spending time talking with people who think there are ways to redeem e-mail, and even make it a pleasurable and productive part of one’s work. A correctly configured e-mail client, one young startup argues, could become the clearinghouse for all of your work-related tasks, giving you the clarity to know at all times what needs to be done next.

I’ll get back to that in a minute. Meanwhile, come with me on a brief tour of some ideas for sidestepping, supplementing, or salvaging e-mail.

II. The Task at Hand

No company I’ve visited is as ambitious and dogmatic in its battle against e-mail as Asana.

The tag line on the San Francisco startup’s website is “Teamwork Without E-mail,” and the company’s founding philosophy is that tasks—not e-mails, not documents, not meetings—are the real atomic unit of work. If that’s true, then one effective way to get things done in the workplace would be to have a single, trusted repository of data about all the projects an organization is working on, where the people responsible for each sub-task could communicate directly. In essence, it would be a mashup of to-do lists and e-mail, and would replace both.

That would sound like a grandiose and quixotic idea, if Asana’s founders, Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, hadn’t already proved that they can build world-changing communications systems. Moskovitz, 30, was a co-founder of Facebook and served as … Next Page »

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One response to “The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail”

  1. Christopher Noble says:

    Congratulations on a well-researched article on a compelling topic.