Email is Killing Your Business
Email has become the elephant in the room. For just about every single business and education institution, the utter dependence on email as a primary communications and knowledge sharing channel is putting a quiet stranglehold on every aspect of operation.
Email as a problem space goes so deep and so wide, it’s difficult for most people to articulate. Even though much of their job is centered around the operation of email, and passing information from one entity to another through it, people have a hard time getting past the “necessary evil,” descriptor.
Yet entire organizations, almost as a function of cognitive dissonance, continue shoveling coal (read: dollars and workplace efficiency), into this steam engine that is fundamentally broken.
This dawned on me recently as a large agency (who’s name will be withheld to protect the innocent), announced it was switching from Outlook to LotusNotes. Say there’s 1000 employees there using Outlook (there are many more, but just to have a nice number).
Is it too far fetched to say that simply by making this switch and having to adjust to a new email interface, and new email-capable phones, each employee loses 1 hour of work time in the year? What about 4 hours? Ten hours? At a blended rate of $150 per hour and net revenue of $60, the agency decision just lost $1,500,000 in billables and $600,000 of net revenue. For each employee to spend two extra minutes a day fidgeting with a device or interface. That’s completely outside any of the actual client work.
So what can we do to make email work in today’s workplace?
Equip employees with a second monitor
This is the thing you can do right now to jump how efficient people are in the workplace. Lifehacker had an article from years ago imploring office workers to upgrade from 17″ to 19″ monitors, citing research that showed an 11% increase in productivity just by adding those two inches.
Today I see it all the time. Much of people’s jobs, especially account leads and managers, is about correctly, efficiently relaying and presenting information in email. Or comparing documents. Or comparing emails and documents to Websites. Casually watching them work on a single screen is more frustrating than any user test.
With every new email or comparison, the constant switching of screens is a cacophony of inefficiency. With every application that needs to be brought to the front, the employees concentration is broken. Then the inevitable, “Wait, what was I looking for?” comes in, and a task that should take 15 seconds is now stretching into 2-3 minutes.
When you have two monitors, these tasks across applications flow with relative ease. Personally, I like to put all communications windows in one monitor and have the other dedicated to workspace. In this scenario, where you have one screen dedicated to email, IM, Twitter, Yammer, etc., new information takes only a glance instead of a small application-flipping process.
Again, this is a quick, get-IT-to-install-it-today kinda fix. The total cost to the organization is less than $1000, and you’re buying into at least 200 new billable hours and better quality for everyone that gets upgraded.
Make a new email interface for your business
Seriously. You’d never think to just roll out a default WordPress installation, or a default CRM, yet everyone in the organization is working from the default design of Outlook, a program little changed from a decade ago. How can this work well for you? It can’t. So everyone tries a workaround. From Yammer to Basecamp to Wikis, people are tacking on anything they can get funding for and alleviate their email barrage.
We need to accept that email isn’t dead; that it will evolve into something else over the next decade as boomers retire. With this acceptance, we need to start looking at how much email people get, how they use it, and the best ways to present it: on the devices the people in the organization use, and for the amount and varying levels of importance email carries. We keep the technical structure, but reformat the interface to better suit our users.
One particular interface design I’ve thought applies well to email use today is TweetDeck. While it’s built to deliver filtered information from Twitter to the desktop, think for a moment about how well it would handle email challenges.
Most emails require nothing more than a cursory glance at the first few lines to update some small bit of information: like a scheduling change, project progress, even a “thanks.” And most replies are friendly ways of saying, “I see this.”
At the same time, most heavy email users employ filters to automatically put emails into folders. But that’s not “flat,” in the sense that you can see what’s in that folder without losing the information you’re currently looking at.
Here’s a quick sketch on what such an email client, built in a platform like AIR, would look like:
Having shown this interface model to a few project lead friends, the early, highly qualitative and unanimous response is “Wow, this would be awesome.” In essence, it treats emails the way people process them: allowing them to scan first, and read selected items in more depth second.
BYO communications app ecosystem
I’ve grown into a big fan of building application ecosystems on top of Apple’s distribution infrastructure. But the bottom line is that the way your organizations runs projects has a core of repeated activities that today we spend a lot of time working around. Getting clients to review content like copy, images, and movies. Milestone and deadline awareness on different project aspects.
Let’s bring these tasks and objects into the enterprise environment: so that companies can gain not only efficiency, but control over the brand, interaction design, and ultimately the complete presentation of the deliverables that make such a valuable part of the relationship.
And this doesn’t even account for workflow that needs to extend all the way out to an external audience. These days, companies are starting to grasp that brands need to leverage social networking to atomize the brand into smaller more personal relationships with the audience.
Building a communications system that accounts for this channel, whether it’s talking directly to an audience, or flagging assets for a community manager to promote is just one of the key differentiators both agencies and brands need to embrace fully before they get left behind over the next decade.
Ultimately Social Media should be teaching companies how to be scalable and nimble enough to transact communications on any platform quickly: wherever and however the internal and external audiences want.
We’re right on the cusp of communications infrastructure being a selling point for employers and agency selection. The question is: who will be the first to tap into this next computing goldmine?
And Kudos to you for hanging with me through all 1100-some words! If you’re still with me, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below, or on Twitter @mleis.