Email Is The New Pony Express—And It's Time To Put It Down

Email, like paper letters delivered by horseback, has become an unproductivity tool and may just be the biggest time killer in the modern workplace. Here's where companies are headed next.

In early 2011, the CEO of a French IT company issued an usual memorandum. He banned email. Employees were discouraged from sending or receiving internal messages, with the goal of eradicating email within 18 months. Critics scoffed. Workers rebelled. But Thierry Breton, the CEO of Atos, has stuck to his guns, reducing message volume by an estimated 20%. His company, by the way, has 74,000 employees in 48 countries.

Email is familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to use. But it might just be the biggest killer of time and productivity in the office today. I’ll admit my vendetta is personal. I run a company, HootSuite, which is focused on disrupting how the world communicates using social media. Yet each day my employees and I send each other thousands of emails, typing out addresses and patiently waiting for replies like we were mailing letters on the Pony Express.

As we’ve expanded from 20 to 200 employees over the last two years, the headaches have only grown. Anyone with an inbox knows what I’m talking about. A dozen emails to set up a meeting time. Documents attached and edited and reedited until no one knows which version is current. Urgent messages drowning in forwards and cc's and spam.

It’s not just me who thinks email’s days are numbered. (In fact, AOL is quietly working on a major email overhaul that wold look like mashup of Twitter, Pinterest, and Gmail.) Among 18-24 year olds, time spent on webmail has declined 34% in the last year alone, and nearly 50% since 2010, according to comScore’s 2012 U.S. Digital Future in Focus report.



So what's the solution? Our idea: Turn email into a conversation. Get rid of the inbox. Build an online platform where departments can post and respond to messages on central discussion threads, Facebook-style. Then integrate that with Twitter and Facebook so great ideas can be broadcast--with a click--to the world. Conversations isn’t a revolutionary concept; it’s a duh-it’s-about-time concept. And it’s worked for us and 5 million clients. A year from now, we may well be reading email its last rites. Here’s why:

Email has become an unproductivity tool. Right now, the typical corporate user spends 2 hours and 14 minutes every day reading and responding to email, according to McKinsey’s 2012 Social Economy report. Our inboxes have become an open door for anything and everything, some of which is pure spam and most of which is neither time-sensitive nor relevant in the here and now. The average business user wades through 114 emails a day, which works out to 41,610 messages a year (or one email every 12.6 minutes of your life).

Email is linear, not collaborative. Email was never intended for collaborative work. Try setting up a meeting time with a group on email and that becomes painfully obvious. Messages flood in, getting out of sync and leaving users scrolling madly to track the conversation. A better option: Facebook-style discussion threads where multiple employees can post, reply, and view centrally in real time.

Email is not social. Email is where good ideas go to die. Brilliant messages race across the Internet at light speed only to end up trapped in an inbox. The clear advantage of social platforms is that content is shared and reshared among whole communities of followers, triggering the viral cascade that makes social media so powerful. Using internal networks and discussion threads instead of email, enterprises can instantly broadcast innovation and crowdsource solutions company-wide. HootSuite's Conversations takes this up a notch, enabling employees to amplify select messages to Twitter and Facebook, sharing ideas with the world at a click.

Your inbox is a black hole. You may be able to quickly and easily search your inbox, but odds are the rest of your department or company can’t. And all that locked-up knowledge represents a massive, wasted reserve of internal expertise. Office productivity could be improved by up to 14% just by moving those emails to a searchable, central discussion thread, message board, or wiki, according to a 2012 McKinsey report.

Sharing documents on email is a joke. Let’s set aside the inconvenience of uploading and attaching files, over and over again. The real trouble with sharing on email starts when multiple recipients download and modify a document. It’s all too easy to lose track of which revision is the latest, leading to redundant edits and wasted time. An infinitely better solution is to put a single document in one, shared location accessible to all stakeholders. Using tools like Google Drive, history can be tracked and multiple collaborators can edit simultaneously.

Seeking the path of least resistance, the next generation of office workers are finding better, faster, easier ways to communicate. It’s about time.

Are you trying new alternatives to email? Tell us about it in the comments below.

--Author Ryan Holmes is the CEO of HootSuite, a social media management system with 5 million users, including 79 of the Fortune 100 companies.

[Image: Flickr user Missouri Division of Tourism]

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181 Comments

  • Mitchkiff

    Email is coming back, my friends and I use it to communicate all the time.  Its just so fast and convenient 

  • Dragos

    File servers were invented for people to use and avoid sending files by email.

    Implement a file server of your personal taste and half of the upper issues are solved.

  • Jake3392

    I have to disagree with the survey data presented and argue
    that it isn’t really valid for the argument of time consumption. 12-17 year
    olds don’t have a need to email, they communicate with friends by Twitter, Instagram,
    Texts (Source: my 16 yr old step sister). Next is the college aged users. They
    rely on Facebook and text messaging to communicate with friends, and for
    communicating with their college professors they likely use Blackboard.

    As for the rest; given the current economic situation, I don’t
    think the 25-34 reflects the job statuses of those surveyed. Everyone else is likely
    a working professional. And with the job layoffs happening nationwide, it’s no surprise
    that those aged 45-54 have an increase in activity since they likely hold a
    managerial role and are taking on more as a result of having a smaller team
    with more work.

    This survey only creates a veil to cover up the fact that
    the other methods of communication aren’t taking up time. Email is one method
    of communication, and yes I agree it’s out dated, but changing the platform won’t
    necessarily improve efficiency by a great degree. I do think Group text
    messaging will be first to be adopted. It’s easy and you always have access to
    a text. It’s basically an email, just not a fancy one (I rarely see  formal memos anymore). I’ll be surprised if
    anyone is still carrying a laptop in 5 years instead of a smartphone or tablet
    (with the exception of those who need a supercomputer), and both of those have
    group texting available.

    Fancy technology aside, the time it takes to converse
    depends on the person, not the medium. The next new thing will be better, but
    the time it takes to communicate will barely have changed. Decisions will still
    have to be finalized by a higher up, and there still be that one person who
    hasn’t responded to the group text yet. If social media actually improved efficiency,
    than my step sister would have an A in chemistry. Instead she, like all other
    high school students, is struggling to juggle her social and academic life,
    even with the advancements of Twitter and Instagram ;).

  • Steve

    I recently left a large corporate. I had great pleasure in deleting my inbox --- 6000 unread emails in 20 months! Half of these were cc's. About 6 months ago I set up a rule to send all cc's to a directory I pretty much never checked, as far as I can tell there were no adverse consequences to this strategy.

  • Mike Spandern

    Technology is not good or bad. 
    A Knife can feed or kill people.
    A car expands the horizon but limits your life.
    The Telephone connects but also isolates.
    Email is a tool for exchanging information. It is not a tool for communication.
    Social media are tools to make social media providers rich. They have no value for the rest of us. They do not feed anyone or solve anything.
    We need to look forward to anything that makes face to face communication easier.
    We need to use the kind of technology that drives our civilization forward and allows us to waste our time with good things like dance, art, music, hiking....

  • Geo George

    email is personal , its official and is respected - it will take another 10 years + for Social media or any other digital format to replace even 25% of this communications strictly official in nature- for areas like notifications brand campaign messages and light topics the article holds valid  

  • Kristi Hartwell

    Email is easy to keep under control with a Zero Inbox philosophy.  Look at each email once and decide immediately what to do with it: delete, address now, file with similar emails for addressing later, etc.  I'm rarely at Zero, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times my Inbox exceeds the one-page view.  Scroll through hundreds of messages in the Inbox?  I don't think so!

    That said, sharing a document in a central location rather than emailing it around is a much better idea.

  • Mike Egan

    It is about how you use the tools available and yes some way to better timeline e-mails would be great but one look at the mess and rubish in facebook and twitter tells me that is not the way to go.
    Training and discipline in the use of whatever tool is adapted is essential but, like Atos, the model adopted and the tools used has to be driven from the top down. While great ideas migh orininate anywhere in an organisation and should be adapted, real business innovation must be driven by the business leaders.

  • dlavenda

    The idea that email is going away is just silly. I agree that additional communication modalities will join email, but this manifesto that emails days are numbered just don't jive with the facts. In fact, email is still growing, certainly in business, not shrinking. Even Facebook added email as a way to connect with people. I am a user of Hootsuite and actually like the product, but this article is an advertisement, not a serious representation of reality.

  • Ryan

    Yes, let's do away with a universal platform that allows us to communicate with just about anyone in the world at lightning speed in favor of the walled gardens of Facebook or Twitter. Besides the telephone, email is about THE most open platform in existence. When was the last time you could quickly send a message from Facebook to a friend that's on Twitter? Compare that to the last time you could quickly send an email from Gmail to a friend that's on Outlook. Browser, desktop, mobile; email can be done anywhere.

    And I won't even mention privacy concerns with SNS. Whoops, just did.

  • Bernd Jendrissek

    Almost this entire article reads like a misdirected criticism against Outlook and other email software that doesn't do threading and quoting properly. Threading and >-quoting with bottom-posted replies address half of the issues Ryan mentions.

    Ditto for .DOC and .XLS attachments; these formats (and the apps using them) are actively hostile to proper version control. There's a valid point here: emailing "latest version" files to all and sundry is the way to madness. The solution to that, however, is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to use a more appropriate tool for collaborative document editing.

  • Dave

    Exploring social media tools is a great start to taming the email monster, but time is something every living person on the planet has in common--the calendar really needs to rule, not necessarily as a rigid disciplinary device, but as a journal, diary, chronicle, center of collaboration. Time, and how it's used (or not), really needs to come front and center in tool-use. I use my calendar as a rolling journal and notes collector, not just as a scheduler.

  • Rebecca K.

    When I'm organizing a group of people, I now gravitate towards private blogs and shared calendars (usually Google calendar). 

    About a year ago, I found that in the community action projects I'd been doing, keeping up with email was exhausting. When I started a new project, I decided to make a change. Posting regularly to a blog and a calendar, inviting people to share their own two cents, and requiring them to be active (it was their job to keep on top of the events scheduled on the blog and the calendar, although I sent out one weekly reminder) made a much more successful and less stressful experience for me. Blogs are also easily searchable if you want to see past posts, and you can pick how often you get notices of updates on most platforms (immediate, daily, weekly)--so you can limit the interruptions to your workday.I also am a recent convert to Mail Chimp. The eye-catching format means it's more likely to be read.

  • Whspecialist

    This is about the dumbest thing I've ever read.  Call it email, call it whatever, electronic communication of information isn't going away, especially for business.  Revamping how people use email to make it more effective and more efficient makes sense.  Pretending to kill email by replacing it with another form of electronic communication is just stupid, and the biased author with a personal agenda is fully aware of this fact.