The race to replace email

ALSO: MIT Future of Work report // '30% of office time going away'

In last week’s newsletter I posed the question of whether email was the problem with work (and therefore causing issues creating great workplace cultures). We hire someone, give them a computer and then give them an In Tray that just keeps rattling with new missives. It’s no surprise that we quickly decide that staying on top of that is a vital part of our job - with a clear metric of how we’re getting on (unread messages).

I asked readers what their own experience was with email, and what they were using instead of it. A received a lot of responses, with a lot of people saying how life changed when they decided what their work processes were and used systems like Basecamp and Trello to support them.

An anonymous soul in London shared his experience:

The organisation I was in at the start of the pandemic was awful for remote work. I had a boss (and boss' boss) who would send an email and then, before I'd even had the chance to read and digest it, would message me on Teams to ask if I was 'on it'. I hadn't had desktop email notifications on for a decade before working there. I felt I had to, or else I'd be a marked man. I left. At my new org, we use Basecamp to manage work and it's a revelation. Inter-team comms are - by and large  - asynchronous allowing time and space before needing to reply. Makes the world of difference. Yes, I still have an hour or so on Zoom/Teams a day, but the ability to get things done is greatly enhanced. 

This is from Maarten who also uses a workflow tool:

We are a graphics company in Belgium who produce flexographic printing plates. A big part of this includes using software to prepare images, before the printing plates are produced. When the pandemic started, we transitioned from having paper job folders moving from desk to desk, to using Trello for managing job flows. This allowed our prepress operators to work from home, and has been a big success. We now operate with a skeleton crew of in-office workers, who we need in the building to prepare (reduced) physical job folders for our production department.

It makes a noticeable contrast to those locked into an email only world. Someone who shall remain nameless describes his local government job:

“I work in… something of a complex, hierarchical and bureaucratic environment. As you say, email is trying to do everything at the moment - giving direction, sharing random thoughts that would previously have been a chance encounter in a hallway, dictating important deadlines, sharing files, scheduling meetings... With almost every email comes a whole set of implicit, untested, un-agreed assumptions - you should be doing this by this date, you need to find the capacity to deal with this regardless of your workload, I have communicated this to you and the responsibility now lies with you, you must respond within X period… [I] basically need to spend all day every day just answering emails and responding to other people's demands”.

Business strategist David Somerville wrote to me:

“I’m currently helping a large organisation with their digital transformation and one interesting thing I’ve encountered is that they do use planning systems (Trello and Jira), however this is not done consistently by everyone in the same teams. As a result, there is much less structure to the work that happens around projects and campaigns, the use of email for those not using Trello is in cases out of control, and as a result this is leading to massive inefficiencies and employee dissatisfaction. Overall, our agency uses Trello with many clients (some clients have their own versions) and this does seem to have reduced email communication BUT it does need to be managed well and used consistently by everyone”.

Athena Clements runs a project management team at The Story Lab (part of advertising group Dentsu), she’s also encouraged her team and other teams in the company to use Trello:

We’ve had great success with it, using it with clients or media partners. It saves our inbox from being bombarded with messages, stops us from losing minor bits of detail in email threads and helps to manage multiple stakeholders at the same time. The only times we don’t use it is if the client or media partner have asked not to out of preference

There were a few people who mentioned that even on a like-for-like if you don’t switch to project management software then Slack and Teams are better than email. Largely because Slack = more frequent usage but less total time. A few other people said that while Slack/Teams might seem superficially like email - because it’s something you need to check all of the time - the fact that it is split into channels means you often avoid the huge burden of time spent on it (even though it does invite constant attention).

I’ve written before (and I’ve heard a lot since) that a number of Teams find that Teams has allowed all forms of communication to flow more effectively.

Always keen to hear if you’ve got any experience of these things to share - just reply to this email.

MIT The Future of Work Report

MIT released a report into the Future of Work that had a few interesting nuggets in it. If you don’t want to read 80 odd pages this New York Times article summarises it.

  • technology will continue to transform work, about 63 percent of jobs performed in 2018 did not exist in 1940

  • the benefits of progress over the last few years have been very unevenly distributed (the rich have got a LOT richer)

  • based on current trends Artificial Intelligence won’t replace humans anytime soon - total jobs will go up over the next 20 years

  • worker training/education needs to evolve - for a sign of what’s to come, the Google IT support certificate is the most popular course on Coursera (on the way to half a million students)

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"I walked up and down Tottenham Court Road looking for a lorry to throw myself under"

Chris Hayward was one of the most respected leaders in the media industry. A maverick Scouse intellectual voted the ‘best buyer in media’ by industry bible, Campaign. But a couple of years ago a freak injury left him physically incapacitated and left him spiralling towards suicide. In this intimate chat he shares what it felt to contemplate ending things and how he’s been shown coping techniques that have saved his life. This one goes deep. Spotify / Apple / website [TRIGGER WARNING: the podcast talks extensively about suicide]

Here’s a thread telling Chris’s story:

Support if you feel affected by similar issues.


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Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about my book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat websiteYou might want to catch up on my recent talk at RSA. Get in touch if you want me to talk at your event (by hitting reply).