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Inbox Zero: Can Employees Be Persuaded to Abandon Email?

The rise of Web 2.0 platforms and social media programs has the potential to enhance the way colleagues collaborate, but old work habits die hard.

Bottom Line: The rise of Web 2.0 platforms and social media programs has the potential to enhance the way colleagues collaborate, but old work habits die hard.

Since its widespread adoption by the business world in the mid-1990s, email has become by far the most popular method (pdf) of interoffice communication and knowledge sharing among work colleagues. After all, email is essentially an updated version of the memo, the bedrock of workplace communiqués for nearly a century.

But in surprisingly rapid fashion, Web 2.0 platforms — including internal blogs, wikis, content sharing sites, videoconferencing systems, and social networking programs — have moved from technological outliers into the corporate mainstream. In turn, some have suggested that these newer modes of communication could soon compete with, if not supplant, email as the primary way coworkers interact with one another. Indeed, for all the benefits of email (the written record of exchanges, the ability to send messages from pretty much anywhere), businesses have also long recognized its drawbacks.

To be sure, any employee with an overflowing inbox knows the pressure of information overload, and being inundated with messages coming into different folders has been shown to drive down employee performance. The lack of face-to-face interaction and the nature of individual or very small group communication can also decrease colleagues’ trust in one another and throw up barriers between people on different email chains. During a five-day experiment at a large scientific organization, for example, when email access was shut off, employees focused longer on their assignments and felt much less stress, as evidenced by their heart rates.

But using email in the workplace is a tough habit to break, according to a new study, and coworker collaboration via newer social platforms may not be the miracle cure it’s cracked up to be — at least, not yet. Managers must make a committed effort to champion Web 2.0 technologies as the pillar of interoffice communication and knowledge sharing — a way to distribute information and specific know-how that helps employees collaborate to solve problems, come up with new ideas, and create new internal procedures.

The study’s authors took advantage of a nascent trend developing in some IT-related firms: the deliberate elimination of email as a means of interacting with colleagues. They surveyed 120 employees (32 percent were managers and 68 percent were analysts or tech-support workers) at an international IT firm that operated in more than 40 countries. In 2011, the company’s CEO banned internal email as part of an initiative to build a new culture of knowledge sharing.

The company turned to a variety of alternatives: social media platforms; videoconferencing systems; electronic whiteboards that allowed employees to post and edit messages that anyone in the group could access; and document management programs that acted as shared repositories for project organization, client needs, and historical data. Unlike the one-on-one or small-group nature of email messaging, these Web 2.0 technologies allow a wide dissemination of employee-generated concepts and enable coworkers to connect with others whom they might never have interacted with otherwise. Further, generating social ties via technology has been shown to help spur innovative thinking and instill a more positive self-identity in employees.

Web 2.0 technologies allow a wider dissemination of employee-generated concepts and help coworkers connect.

The authors surveyed members of five different teams in August 2014, gauging (1) how compatible the social media tools were with employees’ tasks; (2) how easy and effective the employees perceived the new programs to be in comparison with email; and (3) how habitual employees’ use of email had been in the past.

Unsurprisingly, the authors discovered that employees who found the alternative platforms easier to use and considered them an improvement over email were more likely to make a habit of using them and, in turn, increase their knowledge-sharing activities. But the deeply entrenched nature of email use proved difficult to overcome for many employees — especially those who considered using email to be an essential practice in their work life. Indeed, this group of employees viewed the adoption of new communication methods as an inherent disruption. “In other words,” the authors write, “using social-collaboration tools is not necessarily synonymous [with] increased collaboration and knowledge sharing.”

Management plays a key role, the researchers suggest. Implementing modern collaborative tools requires changing employees’ old habits and triggering new ones, as quickly as possible. Pointing out the benefits of social media platforms is all well and good, but shaping employees’ habits seems to be more vital in creating a new culture of knowledge sharing. To break employees’ long-term habits, managers should inject a sense of urgency into their initiatives, the authors advise, and treat the process of change as an essential part of their company’s strategy and culture.

Supervisors could also consider incentivizing the development of new technological habits by letting it be known that they’re monitoring employees’ Web 2.0 use, garnering continual feedback from workers, and perhaps even publicly rewarding those who enthusiastically ditch the old email model and embrace the new platforms.

It won’t be easy. After all, the abandonment — or even discouragement — of email use represents a fundamental paradigm shift away from the time-honored memorandum model.

Then again, business is changing, and the increased presence of globally dispersed teams and work groups should invite new ways of thinking about collaboration. As the study’s authors write, “the very nature of social media, as a broadcast medium that emphasizes…public access of information as well as social connectedness, [calls into question] the use of recipient-targeted technologies such as email, especially in a context in which group coordination is more needed than ever.”

Source:Email-Free Collaboration: An Exploratory Study on the Formation of New Work Habits among Knowledge Workers,” by Jean-Charles Pillet (Grenoble Ecole de Management) and Kevin Daniel André Carillo (Toulouse University), International Journal of Information Management, Feb. 2016, vol. 36, no. 1

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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