Ask around your office, and chances are people fall into two categories: those with a clean email inbox, and those with 1000 unread messages and counting. Outside of personal use, people have a love-hate relationship with their inbox, something that collaboration and workflow technologies such as Yammer, Slack and Asana have tried to solve.
The first electronic message was sent in 1971 and was 10 letters long. Rumours of email’s demise at the hands of the fax began circulating in the late 1980s. Today, virtually every internet user has an email address: 61 per cent have one to two, and 38 per cent have three or more accounts. It’s no surprise then that more than 100 billion emails are sent each day, 112 of which make it into the average worker’s inbox, according to a 2015 study. Reading and answering these emails composes 28 per cent of an employee’s weekly work tasks, says a 2012 McKinsey report.
There’s a growing body of work centred on digital overload and its close cousin attention fragmentation, which have quickly been labelled the dark sides of the information technology revolution. Stories about organisations that prohibit email before and after business hours, or even ban it completely, elicit varied responses from the business community.
Most of these campaigns are spearheaded by CEOs and managers who see it as a productivity killer. “Email has become abused,” says Peter Hughes, Cisco’s director of collaboration, who goes so far as to penalise employees for sending unnecessary emails. There are even retreats for those who just need to cut the digital chord and detox for a few days.
More and more, email is painted as a necessary evil of doing business. Given the suite of alternatives, it would appear that email is facing its second threat of extinction. To test Australian email habits, Swinburne University launched the first national survey to gauge Australians’ email habits. What they found was that far from being in its death throes, email dominates the workplace and still holds its own against social media as a platform for personal communication.
The survey included questions about how often people checked email, what devices and software they used, and how they managed their personal and professional accounts. What the researchers found is that people are good at separating the two worlds.
Eight in 10 employed Australians have accounts separate from their work ones, and only four in 10 said they occasionally send personal messages from work accounts. Nearly half of respondents check their work email every hour, and the other half admit to checking it several times per day.
Email and face-to-face meetings are the top two most frequently used communication methods at work, with 84.1 per cent of respondents using email often and 85.6 per cent meeting face-to-face. Compare this to the amount of people who use internal social network programs. For context, that dinosaur the fax machine is still used 16.2 per cent of the time. A quarter of workers use existing social media to communicate at work, and the phone remains popular at 78.7 per cent.
Statistics like these challenge the “email is dead” myth. Just three in 10 respondents agreed that email had been supplanted by social media, and fewer than one in five said they used email less than five years ago.
Given that email is sure to remain a mainstay of business communication for a while, it’s never a bad idea to brush up on etiquette and best practice. Most businesses have surveillance software or rights to access employee communications from company email accounts and devices. The employee response to this is half-and-half: 56 per cent of respondents felt employers should not have access to employee email accounts, while the other 48 per cent said it was fine so long as it was in response to suspicious activity or time-wasting.
Another consideration is security. Only 13 per cent of respondents took measures to encrypt electronic correspondence despite 41.3 per cent saying they were concerned about internal and external threats. Cyber security is an arms race between hackers looking to access confidential information, financial records or IP, and businesses trying to plug leaks and strengthen the battlements. Even though email just turned 45, businesses should revisit their digital security and train staff to minimise risk.
Perhaps email is heading the way of electricity and indoor plumbing: becoming so ubiquitous as a technology that it barely registers as a system. It’s outlasted many tech fads to cement its status, at least for now. Though some occasional digital pruning won’t hurt.