I am from the email generation. I came of age and joined the workforce in the late 90s right around the time that email became the standard-issue, de facto communication standard. When I attended college, students were issued email addresses. When I got my first professional job, it came with an email address. Folks a few years older than me didn’t have that experience. I was right on the edge of it.
Faxing and inter-office memos were on their way out. Texting wasn’t a major medium yet. It was called paging back then. Instant Messaging (IM) was common in the consumer world, but not yet in the business world. Social media wouldn’t be invented for many years to come.
Email is going away
I pay attention to the younger generation’s attitude and use of email. For them, it’s necessary, but not preferred. They use it because they must. The world we’ve designed for them still requires it, but mostly for backward compatibility. It’s hard to fully participate in the digital world without an email address, but one day, that will change.
In some ways, joining a company and getting an email address probably feels to them, like getting assigned a fax number feels to me.
Technologies, generations, company culture, how things get done, how leaders lead: These are intertwined. These are inextricable. As a technology leader, I need to stay on my toes and pay attention to what’s going on. I need to be introspective to recognize my behaviors and habits.
Corporate IM has been around for a very long time, but I believe it crossed over to a primary communication medium around 2020. Corporate solutions like Teams and Slack became feature-rich, remote work forced many employees to adopt newer ways of communicating, and persistent chat became the new standard for many.
The tech leader’s job
At a minimum, I expect tech leaders to be well-versed power users of all the current communication technologies. Regardless of our generation, we aren’t allowed to be laggards. It’s inherent in the job title “tech leader.” If you can’t live up to that expectation, stop calling yourself one.
But wait, there’s more. I’ve started to challenge myself to take this even further. I’m putting this down in writing to challenge all of you too, and to hold myself accountable.
I believe it’s time for all of us to use email less. Let’s shift it out of our primary go-to communication medium. I’ve been working on it myself, and I want you all to join me.
Email less, communicate more
We all get more emails than we wish we did. When we come back from vacation, it often takes us days to dig out of the backlog. So, what if we all did our part and sent fewer emails? If everyone did that, we’d all have less in our inboxes, right? Here’s how I think about it:
The first thing for me to control is my initiation of a new email. That “New Email” button is so fun, I just love to click it. If you are like me, you use an auto-signature in your new messages. I’ve altered my auto-signature to include this text above my signature block:
“Are you sure this needs to be an email?”
Assuming, I’m still convinced that email is the best medium, I’ll delete that line before I send it off. It sure would be embarrassing if I forgot to delete it before sending it. That hasn’t happened yet.
This prompt interrupts my pre-programmed behavior pattern that has been so well-worn for 25 years.
The answer to that question is often “no.” Then, I minimize Outlook, maximize Teams, and send the message that way. I’m always happy I did. I rarely regret that decision.
Replies and forwards
The more difficult thing to avoid is responding to someone else’s email to me. Usually, I just perpetuate the email thread and keep the continuity. That’s fine, but it falls short of the goal I am challenging myself to achieve.
I’ve recently experimented with a new Outlook to Teams integration that may prove useful here. When viewing an email, there’s a “Share to Teams” button available in the desktop version. It’s not in the mobile version as of this writing.
This is the most graceful way to move a conversation out of email and into persistent chat without losing the context.
For most informal business communication, persistent chat is far superior to email. But even if you disagree with that assessment, it may not matter. Tech leaders need to adapt and embrace new technologies and new ways of working to stay relevant and effective, even if those new ways aren’t yet fully better than the old ways.
I like to remind myself that email is the new fax because the analogy elicits an emotional response for me. Fax is the epitome of outdated communications technology as far as I am concerned. It’s not dead, but it should be. The only reason it still exists is for backward compatibility. Email isn’t in that category yet, but it’s heading there fast. By analogizing email to fax, it gets me emotionally prepared to let it go.
Who’s with me?
So, is it time to start weening ourselves off email, or am I getting ahead of myself? I’d love to know what you think in the comments section. If you’ve found this article challenging and want to hold yourself accountable, do us both a favor and share it with your colleagues. If we all take a step, we’ll all have fewer emails waiting in our inboxes when we return from our next vacation.