Back in 1998, email was interesting enough to be the plot device of the Hollywood film You've Got Mail - yet even in that film there were hints at the anxiety that waiting for an email could cause. By 2006, the Psychology Today magazine in America was already reporting on the dangers of email addiction - compounded by its seeming exponential growth and ubiquity.
Now in 2012, our dependency on email is impacting our working lives, even causing us to question whether we have lost the art of effective communication. Yet at the same time, we see a new generation of employees thriving through their mastery of the more modern world of social networks - where communication is everything.
So, can social networking and new technologies make email a thing of the past? And could you live without it? Well, I think we all can and here's why.
Drowning in Data
At Atos, the IT and business services company where I work, we've come to understand the volume of email we send and receive internally is unsustainable for our business. Incredibly, we estimate that the company as a whole, some 74,000 employees worldwide, send or receive as much as 1billion emails a year. All of which have to be read, replied to, stored and actioned.
Surveys suggest that more than half our employees spend over two hours a day managing email and the interruption it causes really disrupts productivity and efficiency. Furthermore, only around 10% of it is actually necessary to do our job. Surely there's a better way to communicate?
Zero email - Less is definitely more!
Technology and innovation should be able to make life easier for employees, by allowing them to look up from their inboxes so they can rediscover the joy of working together in real time. After all, how sustainable can it be to teach the Facebook generation coming into work today how to use email as a work tool when they already live and work happily without it?
My job is to help eliminate the need for internal email in my company by the end of 2013. As a result we've been described in the media as either 'bold' or 'brave' - two characteristics that could be applied to any pioneer, whatever their field.
We call our campaign Zero email™. By this we mean that by 2014 we want to transform ourselves into a new kind of organisation, one which operates without the need to use email internally - recognising of course that we will still need email externally as long as our customers and suppliers continue to use it.
We want our employees to have a much more rewarding time and our customers to benefit from the commitment and innovation that will inevitably follow. We know from employees who have already begun to change their email behaviour that they are now enjoying a much more rewarding work life because they have more real-time conversations and incorporate more time for reflection into their working day.
We are also introducing new technologies such as Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) software, which will bring social networking into the workplace and provide a Facebook-like work environment - allowing employees to work together and collaborate more effectively than they ever could with email, and often across time-zones and geographic boundaries.
Exploring the Pole
Almost exactly 100 years ago it was Amundsen and then Scott who first reached the South Pole - and up until that point it hadn't been done before. They were true pioneers who made huge contributions to science and technology, and are still celebrated today.
To some extent, I currently see Atos pioneering another unchartered course - not this time to Zero degrees south, but towards our target: Zero email. My job is to ensure that we not only reach our goal safely, but that we are as best-prepared as we can be.
And as with any new idea there is always resistance to change. We will clearly not convince everyone overnight but people are now talking much more about the issues and challenges. Even Forbes, while not 100% agreeing with us, has acknowledged that an 'email diet' would be a good thing!
Of course I would also be delighted to share my experiences and lessons learned with other organizations who, although they may not themselves be aiming for the same target, would certainly want to ensure they are well-equipped for and benefit from a new social business landscape.
Want to Know More?
For those interested in lessons learned from the kind of approach we are following, I would recommend a book called "The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of your Customers and Employees" by Anthony J. Bradley and Mark P. McDonald. Further information about Zero email at Atos can also be found here.