Opinion: Working at home should finally bury email

Today's digital collaboration tools are built for precisely the moment in which we face ourselves now: isolated and hobbled by subpar WiFi speeds and personal laptops with limited memory and processing power. — APA/AFP

There’s nothing good about the coronavirus pandemic, but maybe there can be collateral benefits. For example, it’s already forcing people to use the technology that everybody should have embraced already.

With legacy systems like email now creaking under the strain of work-from-home edicts, the time has come to leap into the future. We abandoned the fax machine (mostly) and no longer print out emails to read them (I hope). We can all adopt modern office-collaboration technology, too, if senior managers would get on board with technologies they’ve avoided using for years.

It’s not as though digital collaboration tools are untested novelties. Slack has been around since 2014 and videoconferencing companies like Zoom (2011) and Skype (2003) have been around even longer. FaceTime has been available on iPhones for a decade. Google docs has been out of beta since 2009.

These tools, and others, are beloved by geographically distributed teams for good reason. They’re built for precisely the moment in which we face ourselves now: isolated and hobbled by subpar WiFi speeds and personal laptops with limited memory and processing power.

Virtual collaboration tools are no longer the domain of early adopters, but essentials that everyday workers in thousands of companies use without thinking twice. Google Drive has over a billion users, and Zoom has 13 million monthly active users. Slack is up to 12 million daily active users.

But for every enthusiastic user, there seem to be six workplace laggards who think it will be "too much work” to "add one more system” - by which they seem to mean "learn to use something other than email.”

Email is not up to this moment. It’s a tool that hasn’t moved at the pace of business in at least 10 years.

If, over the past week, you’ve found yourself reduced to begging employees to stop replying-all, or refrain from clogging in-boxes with messages such as "Thanks”, know that your pleas are doomed to fail. The medium shapes the message, and a chat program is a better way for now-virtual teams to communicate synchronously and transparently. Plus, it’s probably not a great time to advise employees to stop saying "thank you” – with everyone working feverishly to keep their companies afloat, tempers fraying from being cooped up with children and spouses, and fear about a deadly disease spreading, we should all be expressing more gratitude, not less. Find a medium that works for the messages people need to share, rather than demanding that people force their message to conform to the limits of the medium.

That’s not to say that old technologies can’t be useful, too. The telephone is a good way to touch base one-on-one and add a human element to solitary days. But the phone doesn’t scale. If your team is having trouble coordinating, phone calls probably aren’t going to help. Audio-only conference calls are unwieldy and hard to manage – you have to get the introverts to talk, the extraverts to stop filibustering, and everyone else to stop catching up on email.

Video calls make it much easier to pick up on the nonverbal cues, even if it’s something as small as seeing that someone else is trying to get a word in. And the comfort of seeing other human faces is welcome just now. Moreover, if your face is visible, you’re unlikely to have the alarming experience of hearing a colleague start to talk about you, having forgotten that you were on the call.

We are making progress. People who’ve resisted installing Slack are asking for help downloading it; those who never bothered with Zoom are posting photos of the snazzy backgrounds they’ve chosen for their video calls. Together, we’re learning to mute ourselves when we’re not talking, reducing the steady background cacophony of heavy breathing, weird echoes and VERY LOUD TYPING.

My social media feed is full of screenshots of people attending streaming church services, virtual yoga classes, video cocktail hours. Teams are slacking each other not just documents, questions and ideas, but photos of their makeshift workspaces, pets and children. We may be hunkered down, but these tools let us hunker down together.

Many people are facing a steep learning curve. Some have shared their screens only to reveal embarrassing open tabs (or folders called "DIVORCE”). But with a bit of practice we’ll get better. And by week three or 13 of this lockdown, we may wonder how we ever worked without them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast. – Bloomberg

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