Recently I have been reading speculation that e-mail is fading as the primary business communications medium. Earlier this month Thierry Breton, the CEO of Atos, a large European IT company, announced a “zero e-mail” policy, saying that “e-mail is no longer the appropriate communication tool” in business. The argument is that e-mail is too interruptive, particularly since studies show that after every interruption a typical person needs 15 minutes to regain concentration on the task at hand.
The argument is that many business e-mails are unnecessary. Breton advocates a return to face-to-face and telephone conversations, presuming apparently that people will only make the greater effort required to communicate verbally when they have something important to say. Others have suggested that e-mail is being superseded as a business communications tool by social media, presumably meaning Twitter and Facebook.
The issue here is that e-mail, properly used, is much less interruptive than any of these other communications technologies, although all of them have a place in a complete business communications strategy. When the phone rings, and especially when someone walks into your office, you pretty much have to stop what you are doing. And the conversations that ensue are often rambling. That may lead to meaningful discussion of important issues, but it equally is likely to include subjects ranging from sports to dress styles that have nothing to do with business and merely distract both participants from getting work done.
E-mail, in contrast, is store-forward. You send your e-mails when you are free to do so and then go back to other projects. Your recipients can check their e-mail boxes and respond when they are free to do so, for instance after that sales meeting or between tasks. And because writing and reading are harder work than talking and listening, written communications is more likely to stay on point. That is the way e-mail is supposed to work.
The problem is not that e-mail is inherently interruptive but that some people cannot resist checking each e-mail as soon as it comes in, and some of those in charge have unrealistic expectations that the recipienets of their e-mail will will drop everything to respond immediately. These people need to turn the buzzers on their cell phones off and focus on the project at hand until it is complete, or at least until they reach a break point. And their bosses and customers should expect that and see it as a sign that they are being more productive, not less responsive.
Of course some things do demand a drop-what-you're-doing response. That is what the phone is for. E-mail has cut telephone use drastically since the 1980s, but in fact today people are more reachable by phone than they were then, thanks to pervasive cell phones. But one reason that works is that people don't call you every 10 minutes with trivialities – they send those by e-mail instead.
Face-to-face meetings are of course even more interruptive. They are also often very impractical in today's global business world where everybody does not work in the same building. I wonder how often the VP for AsiaPac walks into Mr. Breton's office. It would be a long walk.
Internal social media certainly can replace some e-mail, particularly all-company or all-building type announcements, company newsletters, etc. But this is essentially public communications, and many important e-mails are probably not things that the senders and recipients would want to share with the entire company. And public social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are of course even more public. Not the medium to choose to discuss contract negotiations, for instance. And as for Twitter as a business communications replacement, anybody who thinks that e-mail is interruptive should try to keep up with the flow of Tweets generated by the average list of Twitter contracts and see how much work they can get done.
Of course these do have their place in business communications, but that place is as part of the company PR strategy, delivering the public face of the company and public news and announcements. And yes, there is a more private way to communicate, even on Facebook. It's called “e-mail”.
Action Item: Some employees have problems concentrating on work at hand rather than checking e-mail compulsively. Companies need clear policies that set expectations for e-mail response balancing productivity against responsiveness. Employees who have problems focusing should receive counseling to deal with this issue.