The workplace is increasingly digital. Employees work from home, in the office, on the road, and at conferences. While the digital work force has been built on the back of email, everybody hates it. Well, most people do. We still have it on our phones, tablets and computers. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like I constantly hear people bemoan the plight of email upon the world.
Why is this? What is so inherently broken about email that we have a love/hate relationship with it?
1. Email is impersonal
I know you love your fonts and background, but that’s hardly personality. The blank screen, with text and space cannot fully capture the humanity of communication. Hand written letters capture the humanity of a hand with pen and ink – regardless of color. Email is sterile, removed from human expressiveness. It’s also risky to overly personalize email to mimic personality. What if you’re one of those brilliant people that I would otherwise like, but you’ve chosen Papyrus font? Sorry, I can’t help but assume you didn’t finish 8th grade.
2. Email ubiquitously easy
We’ve all done this – pull up an email window, punch out something quickly and then. just. as. it’s. sending. question our decision. That’s because email requires so little effort. It’s too easy. We either embark ourselves, or send emails about things that we could easily solve without an email. For example, I had a technical issue recently, and got frustrated trying to solve it in the 5 seconds of effort that had transpired. I pulled up my email window, and start jamming a question to somebody on our team (in this case, the illustrative Paul – the Boss Man). But, by the gods of the internet, I pulled back, thought for a second, and within an additional 90 seconds of effort, I solved the problem. Imagine if I hadn’t been protected by St. Isidore of Seville (the patron saint of computers), and had followed through with my shortsighted question? I would have cluttered up Paul’s inbox, causing him innumerable frustrations (e.g. Did he graduate 8th grade? Why is he emailing me about this? Why did I hire him? When can I fire him?). Email is ubiquitously easy, which is one of its main problems. It doesn’t require us to think.
3. Email is not focused
One of the most humorous parts of Pixar’s “Up” was how every dog with a voice box would suddenly jump and ask “Squirrel?!” Email is like that. It’s not focused. It’s inherently built to distract you. When you open up your client or window, it’s just an absolute mess, with no prioritization or order. When you check your snail mail, while there are lots of topics each item contains, it’s a bit of an ordered mess. Judy’s writing. The local politician’s add. Bills. Bills. Magazine. An email inbox is like somebody gave a 3-year-old a bag of gummy bears, a few sodas and subject magnets on a fridge. Everything. is. just. everywhere. In this environment, we immediately feel overwhelmed. What emails do I read? Which one is more important? How do we triage this mess? It can contribute to a massive amount of decision fatigue. Because email inherently has no focus, it’s a bane upon the well-organized mind and work day.
4. Email is not secure
Let’s just pretend that you haven’t heard anything about the 2016 presidential race. Did you know that email servers can be hacked?! Who knew?! Most people may not realize this, but email is not secure. It’s fairly easy to hack. That’s why Office 365’s authentication, and Proton Mail’s security measures are so helpful. But apart from these technical aspects, there’s another factor of security: trust. Emails are easily forwarded. As in, 2 seconds and key strokes later, it’s gone. And there’s very little you can do about it once the email has been forwarded. Sure, put a footer on your email. But to date, there’s been no successfully prosecuted case where emails with “please don’t send this” footers have had any teeth. I’m not saying everybody forwards emails melodiously. But we’ve all done it. e.g. “Hey Mike, can you give me your thoughts on this conversation?” But this feature inherently undermines the trust we engender in the recipients of our emails. Not because of them, but because of the system itself. In the design of email itself, it is not secure.
5. Email confuses work and play
Generally, most people have multiple email accounts. Hopefully you don’t use your “bicepsman250@…” for your work account. If you do, please call me. I can help you. But while we have multiple accounts, most professionals will have them integrated into the same email client or app. Maybe this is just me though. While this is incredibly convenient, it undermines our ability to segregate our personal life out from our work life. Here I am, just checking my email to see if the BBQ is at 4 or 5 on Saturday, and there in my inbox is a question, task item, etc. related to work. Even if you conveniently have the same email for work and play, the problem still presents itself. Email doesn’t allow you to easily distinguish private and professional life. It’s incredibly unhealthy.
6. Email is easily misunderstood
It’s happened to everybody. A joke is misunderstood. Tone is misread. Fonts tell people we’re stupid. Email is communication in a vacuum. There is absolutely no context to any email. The most you have is the subject line and whatever relational connotations your name evokes in another person’s inbox. For this reason alone, email is a horrible plague upon humanity. And yet, it’s a necessary evil (-or is it? More on that at the end.) Because emails are sent in a context vacuum, we’re left to make assumptions about the author. It happened to me just this past week. A friend had sent me an email with a need, and I didn’t reply. They then sent me a follow up email a week later asking if their need had offended me. The reality was, I hadn’t gotten or seen or remembered the email. If I had seen it, it was probably at a point when the extent of their need didn’t register because SQUIRREL I’d had something else come up. Thankfully we easily cleared it up – but over the phone. With email’s lack of communication context, email is easily misunderstood.
Thank you, internet, for the reminder that there are worse things than death. Spam. It’s constantly coming at us. And it comes in various forms. Thankfully I no longer get chain emails. But I do get TONS of promotional emails. I receive them either because my address has somehow been sold, or because I gave it away for yet another free ebook. Regardless, it’s a major pain. Can we all just agree: Spam is of the devil.
8. Email invites the demise of language and grammar
In conjunction to email being ubiquitous, it also allows us to display how ignorant we are of English grammar. I distinctly remember sending emails out that I thought were coherent, only to look back on an email chain and think, “Great Zeus! This person is a translation saint. In no way does my email resemble educated English!” Because email is fast and easy, we punch emails out like we’re schmoozing at the water cooler. But what we’re really doing is subtly communicating to the other person, “You aren’t worth the effort of displaying an educated understanding of grammar and syntax.” Because email is easy, with every sloppy email, we’re slowly putting grammar to death.
9. Email is a disaster of folders
I remember a friend once showing me his solution to email folders: 10,000+ unread emails in his Gmail inbox. My heart seizes thinking about it. But what are we supposed to do? Do we delete? File away? Now, which folder did I put these types of emails in again? Maybe you’re intuitively a folder structure protégé, but I dare say we all struggle with this. Personally, my solution has been to put everything in my Archive folder and trust my handy Search option to find what I need. It’s worked out with 95% accuracy. But because emails are sitting there, what do we do? The conversation stopped, but what do we do with this conversation from here? Just leave it to revisit? File it away? But I don’t want to forget about it! The very structure of email is inherently flawed. Email is a disaster of folders.
Be honest now: Do you really enjoy sitting in 20+ deep group emails? The reply-all feature is the source of many a friends turning into frenemies. We all know why we do this – to create consensus from a group on a given topic. But questions get asked, things get clarified, and voila! – an email chain the length of the Constitution. Every reply descends the soul into a new level of Dante’s Inferno. The only thing that makes this worse is group emails with attachments. Now you have an increasing amount of space being doubled, tripled, etc. taking up increasingly amounts of space. This also combines with the miscommunication observation above. People know each other at varying levels. But given the context, some will make jokes or sarcastic comments that others in the thread are left to scratch their heads in hearing without offense. Reply-all emails make email a horrible, horrible experience.
With the above said, digital communication for companies is not lost! In my next post, I’ll give a matching 10 reasons for new and better alternatives to email for your company. Stay tuned!