Perry Timms writes on social HR and asks the questions we should all we asking about the workplace. He has over 20 years experience in business change including project management, organisational development, talent strategy and L&D. He is well-known on the blogger and event circuit and is regularly asked to chair conferences, roundtables and webinars, both in the UK and around Europe. Perry is a CIPD adviser on social media and engagement.

I’m part of a “movement” (don’t roll your eyes yet) all about working WITHOUT email. It’s called #noemail and is pioneered by technology/performance/change activists Claire Burge and Luis Suarez. I recently took part in a Google Hangout on Air with them and we talked about HR’s role in enabling new ways of working (or not) and generally why email is no longer the most efficient business tool in the box, but the scourge of intrusive, hard-to-follow, back-covering corporate exchanges.

Luis has been working without email for well over seven years. He took a decision based on the ballooning inbox, the ridiculous amount of irrelevant traffic on email and how much more human the early tools of the social media revolution were. He’s an innovator; I’m lucky if I’m an early adopter – I’m more in the early majority (reference: the Law of Diffusion of Innovation). Claire too has been working without email for several years when her research into productivity showed it as, well, less than productive.

We’ve ALL had those emails that have inflamed situations. That have caused people to blow up unnecessarily because the tone of the email was misinterpreted. And don’t even start me on the “Will people please not use the ALL STAFF email group to send messages unless approved by corporate comms”.  Followed by COPY ALL replies of “Yes, it’s so intrusive and unnecessary”.

BOOM! The problem. Email in itself isn’t a bad tool – it’s amazing. We’ve just turned it into one of scourges of modern working life.

No-one has REALLY taught us how to use email so we picked up rubbish habits. Any courses we go on try and help us with subject matter lines and not using CC all the time etc. But really?  It’s 2015, this stuff is over 20 years old and all I see is most people still using email like it was a brand new tool.

Email was – let’s face it – an electronic form of intercompany memo and then a replacement for letters outside the company. We took to it as it was more efficient than paper – drafts, photocopies, envelopes, delivery but that’s hardly a revelation when you can now watch a film on your phone whilst video calling your friend in Auckland. Yet we’re still hooked on emailing.

Just recently I’ve been to some pretty established, profitable and well-known companies. ALL drowning in emails (and meetings but that’s another post altogether). I’ve then been to some funky startups who are using anything BUT email.  The difference in energy, vibrancy and feeling of quality work is staggering.

Spot the trend?

I am guessing that most of you would like more efficient ways of communicating and working?

Then start to significantly reduce using email. It won’t get you where you need to go. Stopping use of it altogether would be amazing – Thierry Breton at Atos Origin has banned internal email since 2014. Some companies set up auto delete when you’re on leave. France has banned emails out of working hours post 6pm. The entirety of France, people. Vive la #emailnon revolution.

Let’s break down all the reasons why you can’t/won’t get rid of email

“But everyone else uses it,” you cry, “so how can I stop it?”

Smug but well-meant answer is, one exchange and one person at a time.

“My IT team won’t let me use some of the alternatives out there,” you also throw back at me.

Well, it takes something of a conversation with them to show them why you want to install and use/trial something else. If you ask and show why, I’m sure the IT team will allow your experiment. They may even be using more efficiency tools other than email themselves.

“It takes too long to track all these other threads in a range of other tools.”

How long do you spend nuzzled in your inbox anyway? Too long in most cases. I’m going to show you now how socialised tools are better.

Before you start with this though PLEASE unsubscribe to all the spam, I mean subscription emails you get from signing in to get that report. You won’t miss them, trust me.

Next, turn off your notifications from social networks. Oh the irony – you have a social app and you use it to send you MORE email. Only use them for sign up, then switch off notifications.  Please. Just check the apps themselves. It’s easier.

Now to get social with your comms and dial down the number of emails (I am down 60% on emails and that’s not because I’m unpopular – I hope).

  1. Start with some of your closest team members and ask them to join in your experiment/shift. Enlist some people to get a few involved and make it a team effort. It will also feel more like real work if it involves a few folks.
  2. Work out what tools they are comfortable using and what they would like to learn more about. Safe to start with some competence and a learning need.
  3. Figure out what messages you currently exchange and what NEEDS to be by email. What needs to be, stick with it. But be critical. Scrutinise your habits and work out what is best off on email and what can be used on messaging apps or other productive tools.
  4. STOP using your inbox as your to-do-list immediately. Even a paper-based list might be better than the cortisol-inducing (stress chemical) overspill that is the inbox.
  5. Research and play with other apps, tools and programmes. There’s no shortage so you’ll need to experiment. Lots are free for a certain number of users. Again, asking IT for help may be worthwhile. They may already have licenses for apps you could use.
  6. Use. Use. Review. Use. Review. Use. Some tools take perseverance and maybe one at a time is sensible.

How am I managing with no emails? Well I’m not. 

I’m not being a fraud though because when working with the team of freelancers and researchers, designers and facilitators we use everything BUT emails. We use the Google suite of shared, cloud-based documents, spreadsheets and slide decks. We craft; share access and can edit on the fly.

How many times have we sent the document by email then spotted on spelling mistake or numbering foible and resent the same document apologising for inflicting another email and attachment on someone?

One recent piece of client work involved the nightmare that is version-controlled Word documents, email from 4 parties and a virtually impossible thread of dialogue to unravel.  Compared to two of us live editing a Google doc and making comments that we could cut and paste from into the main document and mark as resolved. HALF THE TIME. If not even more than that. And a whole lot less inbox ugliness to put up with.

SO I’m not totally devoid of emails but where I can, one exchange or client at a time, I’m moving to other tools. So I’m #lessemailbutworkingtowardsnoemail – but that’s a rubbish hashtag.

If I get an email from a client with actionable requests in I reply – “thanks – will reply by DD/MM and then file the email away. I then create a project in Asana (a cloud-based and socially-constructed project management app) and create tasks, assigned to people, with a deadline, clipping in the document that was attached to the email and then the supporting text in the comments box. ALL monitoring is done through Asana.

I have a range of projects on the go. With a small band of helpers across them all. Instead of email updates, I’ve set up a Slack board with each project hashtagged (e.g. #AnyOrgSocialLearning) and joined the team to those threads. Instead of spamming them with emails, I post updates in the Slack channels they can browse. If I need to message them I can send them a Private Message or @mention them in the thread on the public board. Easy, low friction, different from email.

“Hang on”, you say, “that’s three places to look and not just the inbox”. 

Yes but it’s SO much more effective once you get in the habit of comms in Slack and project deadlines and tasks in Asana and email folders simply for storage. Some of my clients have joined the Asana platform and avoided emails. MUCH more focused and cleaner. Trust me.

You get into the habit of a ZERO – yes that’s right – a ZERO inbox. Nothing in it. All messages stored in folders purely for retrieval but the work is done OFF email and in a more purpose-built channel. Believe me after over eight months of a zero inbox, I’ve proven to myself it’s both sustainable AND more mentally soothing. I’m more in control of my workload, priorities and messaging. I can – literally – adopt the “only checking email four times a day” and be on top of it. 

When I see people with 11,239 emails many of which haven’t even been OPENED I am almost in disbelief at it. Just delete the lot or move them to another folder and start with a clean slate.

Now that’s only two apps I’ve mentioned so far (ones I use a lot) but you can choose other project applications like Basecamp, Huddle, Podio, Trello and other messaging apps like Google Hangouts, Viber, What’s App Groups, Yammer Groups and Google+ Communities.

So I ask again – how come social hasn’t smashed email?  Oh I know, because we’re not letting it, let alone forcing it.

It’s time to retire much of our email in favour of something more social, collaborative and energising. Any comments, PLEASE don’t email me…