Email is a suboptimal medium for collaborative work

Email is a suboptimal medium for collaborative work

The problems of an inbox are widely discussed. Switching attention because of your unread count leads to a context switch and loss of focus. One solution is to check your inbox only a few times a day or week (this is crazy dude, he!?). Cal Newport brought up the idea of writing longer emails to minimize back and forth messages. Others just stop using email completely as it distracts them too much in doing what they want or have to do. Those are ways to cope with your inbox.

Problems when using email for collaborative work

What I recognized over the last years is that people also use email as a way to work collaboratively. In my opinion this is the wrong approach to solve a problem. I see the following issues with it:

  • the whole thread of email messages is getting outdated and useless fast with every new message,
  • the current state of the conversation is not at the top of the thread which means you have to go through it all if you are not up to date,
  • if you invite another person to the thread (i.e., making the recipients list bigger) she has to read the whole thread, which might be largely outdated at the time of reading and is possibly not completely relevant to her,
  • you are always searching for this little piece of information in the whole thread (“I know that x wrote y somewhere in here...”),
  • email is not transparent, only the recipients know what is going on,
  • if a responder does not include the whole thread history you are screwed,
  • it is hard to find the information that is relevant for you.

These are only issues I saw in the last years of working in a professional environment that uses email too excessive.

Requirements for collaborative work

Email might be fine for certain kinds of asynchronous communication. But it is not if you have a group of people working on a topic together. This usually means that you have:

  • a status quo that everybody should be able to find quickly,
  • tasks that have to be worked on transparently by different people and
  • a conversation that builds up around the idea in general, the tasks, etc.

In my opinion, for all of this email is not the right tool and it reduced the efficiency of people and their motivation to communicate.

In a professional environment tools like Trello, Pivotal Tracker or Jira can help to solve these problems. Non of these is perfect and they do not fit every team but at least they:

  • give you the possibility to separate different aspects of a bigger topic,
  • make the status quo visible instantly if needed and
  • make the whole working process transparent for everybody in the organisation.

Privately friends and me started using Loomio quite some time ago as I got fed up with long email threads. This tool preserves the discussion behind making a decision and allows you to vote for proposals. It helped to reduce mass emails that were common in our circle of friends with a lot of back and forth. Additionally, as everybody signed up for it, you cannot forget somebody in your email recipient list.

What experiences did you make with email and working in a group? I would be highly interested in your opinions about the topic. Please, leave a comment below!

Post image taken by Dennis Skley published under CC BY-ND 2.0.