Just checking the e-mail…

iOS e-mail

What’s the first thing you do in the morning? What’s the first thing you do when you sit down at your desk at work? I suspect you are probably checking your e-mail? It wouldn’t surprise me that you leave your e-mail client (like Outlook) open all the time and respond as those little pop-ups appear on your screen. So how often do you check your e-mail?

Actually I would think that if you are reading this blog, having seen the link on social media, that your answers to those questions would differ from the norms of the behaviour of most people in the workplace.

For many people e-mail is their work. Usually the first activity when arriving at work (after making a coffee of course) is checking the e-mail. Then throughout the working day the e-mail is checked and checked again. Productive activity is interrupted by those lovely notifications popping up. Mobile devices like the iPhone suddenly make e-mail even more accessibly, those red numbers going up and up and make it essential the e-mail is checked again, even when travelling, at home and at weekends. Work is e-mail and e-mail is work.

I find it interesting how often we default to e-mail as the main communication tool, to the point where it replaces other forms of communication or discussion. People also often use e-mail for various activities that really e-mail wasn’t designed for.

How many times have you had a face to face conversation with someone and it ends “oh could you put that in an e-mail.” What’s that about? It’s about using e-mail as an audit tool, so that there can be an audit trail. What also happens is that numerous people get cc’d into the e-mail trail so that everyone is aware of the conversation (or worse people are bcc’d into the conversation). Now e-mail is really bad at being an audit trail and it makes it really challenging to see a train in e-mail. The reality is that people’s inboxes just become clogged with e-mails for an activity which can be done more easily using other tools, and in most cases can be done better using other tools.

Often management of staff is undertaken by e-mail, tasks are sent by e-mail and then the completion of those tasks (or non-completion of tasks) is also done by e-mail. Add more tasks and then the stream of e-mail becomes unmanageable. Task management can be done by e-mail but can be done much better by other tools.

I have used tools such as Jira and Covalent for both task and people management. Even for Outlook fans the tasks function could be used for audit and management over e-mail. Though where I think tools such as Jira and Covalent win out is the reporting function.


Discussion and conversations are often held in e-mail. Often I have found that an e-mail reply turns into a conversation. If the other person is at their e-mail at the same time… If I find myself in this position I usually go to the phone or these days Skype. I have even been known to walk down the corridor to talk in person. However it is something that seems to happen a lot, again sometimes to have a record of the “conversation”. This is where tools such as Slack, Google+ become useful, not only are group and individual conversations in one place, but these conversations can be organised by team or project. This means conversations are organised into different areas and not all into a single inbox as often happens with e-mail.

One thing I have been guilty of is using e-mail as a mechanism for storage, mainly as I would often remember who I sent a document to, but not necessarily the name or even the location I saved it in! I would get annoyed if I ever reached my mailbox limit and had to delete or archive e-mails. Following various job changes I needed to adjust my own behaviour; one key technology was desktop search, first with Google Desktop Search (sadly no longer available) and then Spotlight on the Mac. Today one solution is to use something like Google Drive which has quite an effective search and lots of space.

When you need to collaborate, e-mail is often the mechanism that is used to review documents. As soon as more than another person is involved, the process can become quite messy with multiple versions of the document swimming around people’s inboxes.

Anyone who had used something like Google Docs or a shared document on Sharepoint, will realise what a revelation this can be when you have multiple people working on a document. Wiki style tools such as Confluence can improve on that process even more. Then there are tools such as Basecamp which allow for more than just storage, with discussion, calendar and to do lists.

The social use of e-mail is one that often causes problems within the workplace, inappropriate pictures and jokes use to be shared quite frequently when e-mail was introduced into organisations. I would often ask people not to include me in their distribution lists for those viral jokes and memes. Of course what is interesting is how most of that traffic has already left e-mail and moved to social media on tools such as Facebook and Twitter. I do think this demonstrates how we can move a behaviour from one kind of tool to another.

The use of the all staff e-mail is one that appears to cause a lot of bother across organisations. One of the first things that often happens with e-mail is people complaining they get too much e-mail and so the decision is taken to stop people sending all-staff e-mails and the move towards online notice boards on the intranet. People then complain they can’t send all staff e-mails, as they say people won’t read online notice boards. I love the assumption that people won’t read online boards or messages on the intranet, but will read the countless all staff e-mails they get.


Part of the issue is that everyone believes that their e-mails are important and need to be sent to all staff. Importance is being determined by their priorities, not necessarily institutional priorities. We know one person’s important critical e-mail is another person’s spam cluttering up their inbox.

Moving these e-mails to other tools, usually pages on the intranet is often seen as a way of solving the all staff e-mail issue, but the complaints that nobody reads these, isn’t the real issue, if no one reads them, did they need to be sent?

I do think a solution such as Yammer or mailing list tools such as Jiscmail actually do solve the issue. What they do is give people a choice, if they want to receive notifications as e-mail they can, if they don’t, they can choose not to.

As we move to a culture, which is mobile first, what is also possible with tools such as Yammer is they are mobile friendly, so if you install the Yammer app you can choose to have notifications on your phone and not through e-mail. Other tools such as Basecamp, Google Docs, Jira have similar functionality.

Over in the US, many start ups are using different tools for conversations, communication and collaboration. What is interesting is hearing how e-mail isn’t becoming less important to these organisations, but actually becoming more useful and more focussed.

I find myself engaging less with email as we start to use a more diverse set of tools. I am using tools such as Slack, Jira, Basecamp, Confluence, Skype (and Skype for Business) and Yammer. A lot of internal conversations and other things people use to use e-mail for, have moved to these new tools. To a lesser extent, the same has happened for some external conversations. For many of these external conversations, Twitter and Google+ seem to have replaced some e-mail discussions and conversations.

OS X e-mail

But, I hear you calling, how much you like e-mail! As mentioned, one feature of all these tools is the functionality to add notification by e-mail. You can get notifications for every action if you really want, or a daily digest. My default is to have no notifications and ensure that checking of the tools is part of my daily schedule rather than waiting for an e-mail notification. With many other tools you can opt in and opt out.

New tools aren’t necessarily killing off e-mail, but what they can do, is kill off a culture that has a dependency on e-mail. A culture that is less dependent on e-mail is one which is often more organised and one where more gets done and is more effective. So where do you stand on e-mail, a necessary evil, or are you embracing the new tools which are out there?

One thought on “Just checking the e-mail…”

  1. I am in complete agreement but in a position that though I’d like to move to something better my colleagues do not wish to follow. I need a killer task that will model new, more affective, ways of collaborating. Any advice on that?

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