When email was new, it was something that offered us major improvements in our lives. The potential for quick and easy communication was simply amazing. The emerging Internet allowed us to communicate with friends and family, pay bills and do a whole lot more, while saving tons of money on postage and printing.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and we’re getting a more nuanced picture of how email has affected us. Some 20 years in is a good point for looking at the actual comprehensive effect of a technology. In this case, it shows us that there may be quite a downside to using email so prolifically as a "one-size-fits-all" solution for communications — especially in the work world.
Email and the Work/Life Balance
One of the biggest concerns with endemic email use is the effect it has on workers. In the digital age, we've seen higher and higher demands placed on workers in many industries, partly because of new productivity models and new management philosophies, but also because of economic realities. Relatively high unemployment and sinking wages have pushed a lot of professionals in many different kinds of careers to perform, not only during business hours, but on evenings and weekends too.
When wellness consultants and others look at what's harmful about today's work model, they often point fingers at email. There are numerous studies and records showing a deleterious effect of checking the inbox after work hours, for example, in this story from New York magazine. For its part, social watchdog NPR has done its share of reporting on how email stresses us out, including recent stories on how companies like Volkswagen actually shut down email servers after work hours, as a service to employees.
No-Email Initiatives and Email Replacement
Nowadays, there is a new kind of phenomenon at work in many companies. Some call it a "no-email initiative" or "zero email initiative." These programs seek to completely decouple work processes from email, creating a modern office that doesn't require workers to continually check their inboxes.
One of the most common tools for these kinds of programs are specialized platforms such as Basecamp and others that create a unique virtual environment for work projects. Here, instead of clicking into a generic email inbox and sending emails around to coworkers and contractors, those who are signed up can leave comments or otherwise communicate through the individual platform.
These platforms often offer other collaborative tools like task management protocols, note capabilities and built-in accounting features. All of this can make life easier for a full-time employee or an independent contractor to complete his or her job in a less stressful digital environment.
That is, if you consider these platforms less stressful. Part of the new choices that we have is a tendency toward "market fragmentation" or even a single user’s migration between products, either toward or away from email, according to what he or she prefers. For just one telling example, check out this "BaseCamp Love Story" by Hamburg designer Christian Jung — and the comments that ensue, showing diverse and emphatic views on the platform, while showing that even though many love Basecamp, and have chosen it as their email replacement tool, it still has its detractors.
Eduardo Rdm describes Basecamp as "a half-product, for half-companies."
"Consider that Basecamp actually is innovating…" writes Lars Schulz.
Poster "Steven" perhaps says it most succinctly: "Basecamp: slightly worse than email."
Meanwhile, Jung, in a sprawling post, pens his own poetic, dramatic and highly personified ode to his love/hate relationship with a product that promised to crush email under its heel.
Atos Zero Email
One of the biggest drives to replace email is the Atos Zero Email program, which was started in 2011, with the goal of moving toward what Atos calls "a social, collaborative enterprise." The Atos program has gotten a lot of attention from big IT analyst firms including Gartner and Forrester, with an impact on many thousands of workers.
"The program was both ambitious and disruptive as it questioned established ways of working and tools, and introduced new technologies and behaviours." reads an Atos post from August 2014, contending that the program has affected up to 76,000 workers in 47 different countries.
Email: Is It In Our Future?
By looking at the above efforts to curb the inbox, you might think that email is headed for the end of the road. But the future will probably present a more nuanced picture, with text messaging battling it out with voice over new platforms and systems, for example, the smartwatches and other wearables in store for retail soon. It’s true that we have developed brand new tools for converting text into speech, but we’ve also developed fancy ways to convert speech back into text — so it will probably come down to what the individual user finds most convenient, whether that’s being able to read a quick message rather than listen to it, or to take advantage of totally hands-free messaging. Also, although email should have decimated the postal system, we still have mail carriers walking around all over the place — so there’s likely to be room for new models to compete without eclipsing email completely.