The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail

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a forum and knowledge bank for an entire organization. “Yammer allows you to post your question, and people can discover it and answer, or refer it to the person who can,” he told MacWorld in 2012. “There’s nothing discoverable about e-mail. It’s either addressed to you or not.”

So, is it possible that the Facebook-style status update is actually the new atomic unit of work? Well, maybe.

It’s true that the openness and transparency baked into social media technologies are useful solvents in organizations where information is too compartmentalized. As Moskovitz, the Facebook and Asana co-founder, puts it, “The perfect Facebookiverse would be all about frictionless sharing.”

But it’s hard to measure whether this level of sharing actually makes organizations more productive, or whether it simply means that workers spend more time checking their news feeds. “The Yammer value proposition is ‘We reduce e-mail and create archives with searchable, shared access across an organization, resulting in greater productivity,’” says Tempo’s Singh. “But it’s never really been quantified. And the irony is that a lot of these tools generate e-mail to pull you back into the service.”

That last point is, to my mind, the main reason social media tools will never be an e-mail killer. They are, in fact, symbiotic with and to some degree inseparable from e-mail.

According to Cisco’s SenderBase e-mail monitoring network, about 0.1 percent of the 80 billion e-mails sent every day come from Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg and friends just can’t wait to tell you about all the cat videos and other status updates your friends have posted while you were away from the site. Similarly, every update posted to Yammer, Jive, and similar systems generates a cascade of e-mails to notify workers that they should check their office news feeds. Systems like Yammer are properly understood not as a replacement for e-mail, but as part of a multi-channel communications system where the overall volume of messages is probably even higher than before.

VI. It’s Handled

Within the larger church of knowledge work and productivity, it’s likely that only the most devout members of the priesthood will line up behind task-centric systems like Asana. Only publishers and a few other sects could get by with document-centric systems like Box alone. Calendar-based systems like Tempo are useful mainly to the clergy who spend most of their time in meetings. And social systems like Yammer are wonderful tools for the chattering laity, but it’s questionable whether they boost overall commitment and efficiency.

Which leads us back to where we started. In the beginning was the inbox, and the word was e-mail.

In short, e-mail is still the only common system for sharing work-in-progress across organizational boundaries. And as long as we’re stuck with it, we might as well try to make it better.

That’s what venture investor and entrepreneur Shawn Carolan is trying to do at Handle. The San Francisco startup is backed by Menlo Ventures, where Carolan is a managing director. His team is working on a free Web- and mobile-friendly system that lets users process their incoming e-mail faster, while also tapping some of the best ideas from the worlds of task-list management and calendars.

Carolan has been thinking about e-mail and productivity for years. “People have cobbled together systems with string and duct tape,” he says. “They mark messages as unread. They send e-mails to themselves. They flag stuff. They put e-mails on sticky notes. They use Evernote with tags. They have text documents, flat files, paper documents where they cross stuff out and copy it to the next piece. As an investor looking to create value for our investors, this is the perfect type of problem. There are so many people in pain.”

Shawn Carolan, founder and CEO of Handle

Shawn Carolan, founder and CEO of Handle

You can see the basic outlines of Handle’s solution in its Web app for the Safari and Chrome browsers, released last year. The interface combines a classic e-mail inbox with a to-do list and a calendar. It’s designed to help you power through your overloaded inbox faster by making it easy to decide, for each message, whether to reply to it, archive it, delete it, unsubscribe (in the case of spam or unwanted group e-mails), or turn it into a task with a certain priority level.

There are built-in keyboard shortcuts for each action, including 1 for “Must Do,” 2 for “Should Do,” and 3 for “Want To.” Once you learn the shortcuts, you can blast through a stack of e-mail messages very quickly, unless you have to slow down to write actual replies.

The central idea in Handle is that knowledge workers need separate buckets for e-mail messages and tasks, but that these buckets should be part of a single app. Otherwise too much time is lost switching contexts.

“E-mail is everyone’s number one source of tasks,” Carolan says. “I can’t tell you how many people say to me, I put this stuff in Things [a popular task manager for Mac and iOS], and then I got anxious and went back into e-mail and abandoned it, because it wasn’t the trusted system. With an outside task management system there is just a lot of friction going back and forth.”

Emptying your inbox is only half the point of Handle. Once that’s done, it’s time to go back to your task list and start tackling the jobs stacking up there. That takes real work—and the company is working on ways to make it easier—but at least each task will be classified and prioritized.

“Peter Drucker, I think, was the one who put it pretty articulately: the challenge of knowledge work these days is not knowing how to do something, it’s knowing what to do,” Carolan says. “Our goal is to get you to the point where everything that came in was characterized.”

Indeed, Carolan prefers to call Handle a “priority engine” rather than an e-mail client or a task manager. “It’s not about getting to inbox zero,” he says. “It’s about helping you finish the two or three things that are the most important to you today, by having one list.”

Handle’s Web app hasn’t evolved much since the company unveiled it at TechCrunch Disrupt in April 2013. That’s mainly because the company has been busy building smartphone and tablet versions of the app, according to Carolan. Over half of all e-mails get opened first on a mobile device, he says. “When do you first see a piece of information and when does it become actionable? Both of those speak to a mobile use case.”

Sometime after the mobile apps are published, Handle will start experimenting with premium add-on services that busy knowledge workers might pay for. Whether the next version of Handle can actually pry a large number of users away from Outlook, Yahoo Mail, Apple Mail, Gmail, and other familiar e-mail clients will come down to the usual questions facing app makers: Does it have a slick design and a few killer features? Will Apple and/or Google anoint it as a top application in their app stores? Can it generate lasting buzz? But there’s at least one new multi-billion-dollar company lurking somewhere in the e-mail, calendar, and task management market, Carolan says, and he thinks Handle has a shot. “I would not be doing this if I didn’t think that,” he says.

E-mail will never die, Carolan predicts, because it is “nothing more and nothing less than asynchronous communication between people. That’s why we say embrace and extend e-mail, don’t try to run away from it. Everybody who tries that fails.”

That idea doesn’t make me happy. I’d like to see something better come along. That being said, an asynchronous medium like e-mail is a whole lot easier to live with than a synchronous one like the telephone. If we had to answer the phone every time it rang—if every message required an instant reply—we’d have no control at all over our time or attention. And those may be the scarcest resources of all.

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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.