People Don’t Like Work Email – Is It Time to Re-Evaluate How Employees Communicate?

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Ashley Leone

We’ve talked before about how millennials have been labeled lethal when it comes to trends, industries, and established norms. Add one more to the list that you wouldn’t expect: the work email. This past week, The New York Times published an article whose title posed the question: Could Gen Z Free the World from Email?

The piece focuses on a push from young members of the workforce, more recently observed with many working remotely, to move away from email communications and more toward quicker, more efficient collaboration channels like Google Docs, Zoom, and iMessage. It also touched on the connotation that comes with work emails for these generations, which ranged from “stressor” to “eternal chore” and was even related to the feeling of being stabbed. And those sentiments were not limited to millennials and Gen Z. Many, including author Cal Newport, have been advocating for the extinction of work email for years. Here are some of the biggest reasons why:

Ping Pong Problems

Back and forth work emails—and the time it takes to stop, remember the conversation, write the message, and wait for a response—can make project progress move at a snail’s pace and require more time and effort than more responsive forms of communication, like instant message.

Work Emails Overwhelm

In 2019, Adobe surveyed more than 1,000 American workers on how they use email, finding that responders spent more than five hours a day checking their work email, with only 46% saying that they’re able to clear their inbox. To add, 26% said that they expect their email usage at work in increase over the next two years (aka, now).

All Things Equal

Okay, sure, you can use the little exclamation point, but outside of that one tool, all emails appear equal. As Cal Newport notes, this “unstructured workflow” ensures all tasks, “be it a small request from HR or collaboration on a key strategy—are now handled in the same manner: you dive in and start sending quick messages which arrive in a single undifferentiated inbox at their recipients. These tasks unfold in an ad hoc manner with informal messages sent back and forth on demand as needed to push things forward.” Getting organized and prioritizing becomes a big to-do that only grows as the day goes on and more emails come in.

Still Somewhat Finicky

To this day, people still have to go through spam folders to make sure nothing important got pushed in there, which really defeats the purpose of the spam filter. Phantom attachments, HTML, and formatting issues between devices can create massive problems in efficiency, and online scams, phishing attempts, and viruses only complicate manners more. These issues compound on each other and make the user interface difficult despite email’s long tenure in the office.

An Interrupter in the Worst Way

Work email is one of those weird communication channels where messages either need to be responded to very quickly or not at all. Because that ambiguity exists (see All Things Equal), it can feel like every email needs to be read as soon as you see it in case it’s a hot item. And even if it’s not, there’s the feeling that you should respond right away because it just requires a “quick email.” But if you’re having to constantly start and stop your work to manage your inbox, you’re also losing momentum on those projects by taking yourself out of that headspace, resulting in time lost and lower efficiency.

Boil it down, and it comes down to work email being an outdated, stress-inducing communication that’s gotten wildly out of hand as a means to communicate efficiently in the workplace. Will work email really face extinction with the rise of a millennial and Gen Z workforce? It’s hard to imagine, but if napkins, golf, and casual-dining chains were made to meet their end, anything’s possible.

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