I love email, but I also hate it.
Despite the alternative communications tools at my disposal that I don't use enough at work, I feel trapped in an email cage. It's a productive cage, but a cage nonetheless.
There's a good argument, outlined in a survey of 250 IT managers and 750 line-of-business employees by managed services provider Softchoice, that non-email communications tools sit idle because they're deployed without knowing what employees need from them.
Perhaps a larger problem is that employees don't know what they need from them either, and the tools go unused while we send group emails to 27 people.
Consider these numbers from the Softchoice survey: Seventy percent of respondents said their company has deployed video conferencing tools, but a measly 5% of employees use them every day. The usage numbers for other communications tools don't fare much better: teleconferencing (69% deployed, 12% use every day), screensharing (60%/8%), social collaboration tools (40%/10%).
[Adding another tool won't cure email overload. Read Google Inbox Won't Fix CYA.]
We're still mostly old-school about how we communicate. At work, we like to speak in person or via email and instant messaging (IM had a 68% deployment rate, and 40% everyday use rate). The desk phone remains a strong form of communication (with an 86% deployed/82% everyday use ratio). This struck me as a surprisingly high use percentage as I've found the phone has become a last resort. But I suppose that depends on your job.
While we may yearn for face-to-face time, that's harder to pull off with more workers in remote or home offices. This is the new normal of work, but it's left people leaning on that passive-aggressive beast called email. A report from Radicati Group last year on email statistics found that more than 100 billion business e-mails were sent in 2013 every day, and that number is predicted to pass 130 billion by 2017.
Email's lure is understandable. It casts a wide net and can solve problems quickly. It's become as comfortable as an old winter coat. I couldn't do my job without it.
The deployed versus everyday use numbers for email in the Softchoice survey are 97% deployed, 95% everyday use. Yep, email owns us. For all the talk of email's demise brought on by social media -- especially among hip startups and Millennials who see email as a lumbering oaf -- email's very much alive at businesses.
But we need to loosen its grip on our throats.
Who hasn't seen their inbox turn into a fire hose of messages from co-workers and the outside world that leaves you at the mercy of a daily email deluge? It's a distracting game of whack-a-mole that Slows. You. Down.
Obviously, we can't kill email. It will remain a necessary tool for communicating with external sources like clients, customers, and the like. But for internal teams, it's time we give the collaboration tools highlighted in the Softchoice survey more of a chance to lighten the email load.
Video conferencing platforms like Skype and Cisco WebEx offer a humanizing complement to email, but social collaboration tools like Yammer, Chatter, and others can replace email for much of your team's communication and document sharing. And email, for all its comfort, is terrible at building rapport among far-flung colleagues (more group emails? Really??), whereas chatrooms within social collaboration tools excel at it.
The low adoption rates of these tools are a bit baffling given the potential productivity benefits -- only 40% of respondents in the Softchoice study say their companies have deployed social collaboration tools, with 10% of employees using them every day. And you really need to use them every day or they get dusty. But if employees aren't using them, can you blame IT for holding back on deployments?
What's needed is a combination of IT groups deploying the technology and educating employees and team leaders devising concrete plans to use the tools consistently to do better work. But listen to employees. They are overwhelmed by email, but need help in breaking the habit. Most unified communications tools fail, according to the Softchoice study, because employees are left out of the process.
I'll leave you with five tips for IT groups from the Softchoice report on helping employees use (and keep using) unified communications tools:
1. Consult: Survey and create a vision by talking with employees to understand what will make their jobs easier.
2. Communicate: Make it clear to employees what problems the new tool will solve for them.
3. Educate: Thoroughly train employees on how to use the new tool.
4. Measure: Set objective, measurable adoption goals and benchmarks pre-rollout and monitor progress.
5. Repeat: Continually seek employee input, address employee hesitations, and measure user adoption.
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