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The Future of Work

Point-Counterpoint: Will Email Ever Disappear From The Workplace?

We asked two leaders at the front lines of enterprise communication tech if email will ever die. Here's what they said.

Point-Counterpoint: Will Email Ever Disappear From The Workplace?
[Photo: geralt via Pixabay]

Gmail announced last month that it now has over a billion monthly active users, a benchmark it passed while the rest of us have been busy debating the likelihood of email’s impending demise.

That isn’t to say the tool that so many of us rely on, tend religiously, and supposedly still don’t use properly is guaranteed to persist forever in the workplace.

In fact, messaging apps like Slack and a slew of others are working hard to make sure it doesn’t. Speaking to Co.Design last year, the platform’s design director Brandon Velestuk mused on a future time when "I could talk to my kids about it and say, ‘Well, there was this thing called email back in the day. I used it quite a lot . . . ’"

For now, though, even workers who use apps like Slack still use email a good deal, too. So Fast Company asked two leaders at the front lines of enterprise communication technology to weigh in on email’s future in the workplace. Here’s what they said.

If, When, And Whom

"People have been forecasting the death of email for the last 25 years," says John Rae-Grant, lead product manager for Gmail, yet "there’s no sign that email usage is abating. It’s certainly changing, but in the working world, email is still the baseline glue that pretty much carries everything."

Manoj Chaudhary, CTO and VP of engineering at Loggly, a cloud-based log management platform, disagrees. "Email is for all practical purposes going to start diminishing at a very high rate in the next five to seven years," he says. "It’ll still live in the financial world and whatnot, but all the early adopters and the tech-savvy companies," in his view, are already beginning to embrace alternatives.

At issue, among other things, is who email best serves—or even whether it serves some workers or industries better than others. In Chaudhary’s view, it’s a no-brainer for employees and teams for whom group messaging is just more efficient. "If you go a little bit up the chain," he continues, where "the executives are involved and the turnaround time is okay to be later [and] they need to think about it and reply," then that’s where email may hold out a while longer.

Rae-Grant, on the other hand, partly attributes email’s longevity to its being democratic: One platform may work better for one person or team than another, but email itself is just about as universal as a digital technology can get. "Anybody can set up an email service, and anybody can send email using another service," he says, and they all work with one another pretty seamlessly.

"These SMTP protocols that were designed a long time ago [Gmail has] built on top of and strengthened . . . and really as a whole industry moved that thing forward—but," he’s quick to emphasize, "on the huge basis of widely adopted standards."

So in order to topple email, Rae-Grant believes any newcomer would need to do one better than that entire system, instead of just disrupting one vendor or product. "Remember there was a time that AOL and Instant Messenger was supposed to be the thing . . . [yet] the thing that has endured and grown is email, because it isn’t controlled by anyone."

Solving People Problems

Chaudhary believes that’s already being done—less by virtue of any one company’s strategy than through the shifting needs and behaviors of ordinary workers. Loggly adopted HipChat, the group messaging app that Atlassian debuted several years before Slack launched, around a year and a half ago. Since then, Chaudhary says, the platform has simply proved the more natural fit for much of the daily work that Loggly does.

"Our production systems are getting managed through HipChat, [including] our whole engineering, ticketing, and bug-tracking systems," Chaudhary says. Email, he believes, can’t match HipChat’s efficiency when it comes to the type of quick group problem-solving Loggly’s engineers need to do.

But Chaudary, who previously worked at the team messaging platform Jive, says the social dimension is also an asset: "I like to have a conversation where I can see how people are feeling" through ‘like’ and other reaction buttons. Plus, he says, "I can see how many people have truly read the content, whereas in email I can’t tell" (unless you turn on those obnoxious read receipts). According to Chaudhary, even stand-up meetings at Loggly have migrated to HipChat.

For some, all this connectedness and immediacy represents a huge drawback. The first signs of a "Slacklash" arrived earlier this year, with tech leaders calling out group messaging apps for trading old distractions with new ones.

"Email is non-disruptive," Rae-Grant points out, by way of contrast. "It’s asynchronous. If you want to just inform someone about something, you send them an email with the expectation that they’ll get to it, just not necessarily right away." Obsessive email checking, he believes, is a problem that has less to do with the technology than with the people who use it.

"I would say there is more noise in email," counters Chaudhary, "because there’s so much you have to monitor sitting in front of it, whereas the things like Jive or Yammer, you just choose the content you want to look at." Instead of email’s fragmentary deluge of one-on-one messages, CCs, and reply-alls, messaging apps start from the reverse premise—of open, centralized communication—and let you whittle down from there.

What Is And Isn't Changing

What this would suggest is that the race between email and its newer rivals isn’t a winner-take-all contest—at least not yet. Sometimes a new technology arrives and almost instantly obliterates its predecessor, like what the iPhone did to the digital camera. Other times, it doesn’t. When e-books first came on the scene, many fretted that the days of paper-based reading were numbered. Instead (and while there’s no telling how long it will last), there's been a division of use: Today, you’re more likely to read "suburban cyborg alien-invasion romance" on your Kindle and Padma Lakshmi’s new memoir in hardcover.

Email and team messaging may likewise divvy up work communication according to use case. In the meantime, email itself is evolving, both to tackle familiar annoyances and to line up with the changing ways people work—which includes the shift toward group chat. Google launched Inbox in October 2014, replete with features for filing away and "snoozing" messages. Google had long known "there were people who were successful at managing their email," says Rae-Grant. "We called them ‘clean inboxers.’ They power through everything, they would use labels and stars and set up filters . . . These are people who eat their vegetables every day—and then there’s the rest of us."

Inbox features like Smart Reply, which suggests automatic responses to common messages, are aimed, Rae-Grant says, at "taking the menial mental labor out of the hands of the user and putting it in machines, where it’s plentiful."

But if Google wants its email solutions to free up users’ attention, it also wants to free up their time. And so does Slack. If one of email’s virtues is its being "asynchronous," then Smart Reply at least makes synchronicity more of an option. As Rae-Grant puts it, "the scarce resource is somebody’s attention." Whatever email’s particular fate, that’s a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Related: 2 Useless Phrases You Need To Eliminate From Your Emails

Update: An earlier version of this article misquoted John Rae-Grant when he referred to "SMTP," or "simple mail transfer protocols," the standard for email communication, not "SMPP," the "short message peer-to-peer" protocol used as a standard by the telecommunications industry.

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