Finding the right balance between email and other productivity tools

The shift to communication tools more effective than email has been a slow process, especially given how ubiquitous email is. It’s hard to replace something that has become an essential part of business operations and communications, with team managers and project managers continuing to depend heavily on email for documentation, scheduling, and management. The drive for increased efficiency has led to organizational tasks gradually being migrated to newer, more efficient productivity tools, but the question on everyone’s minds is, “Is ditching email really the way forward?”

You’ll be surprised to find that even the most ardent advocates for alternatives to email are loathing to completely give up on the beloved “dinosaur of communication.” Email still reigns supreme even as names like Slack, Yammer, Zoho, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and more continue to encroach upon and usurp its dominion over communicative and collaborative processes. If you’re looking for better ways to manage your workspaces and projects, replacing email all at once may not be the brightest idea in the book. The last thing you want is for your team to deal with culture shock and confusion as they try to figure out how to navigate the newer tools. In addition, many of these tools have been developed for specialized purposes and therefore lack some of the most useful features of email. Upgrading your team’s productivity and efficiency is not an overnight process, and you need to be well-versed with your tools of choice before you implement them.

Why not stick to just email?

email productivity

Before you consider alternatives to email, you need to be sold on the idea that your team needs an upgrade. Email wasn’t really built for project management, bug tracking, or even collaboration. Just as email replaced the telegraph and text messaging has largely replaced the informal functions of email, many other tools have emerged to replace the business operations functions that were thrust upon email. Email is often derided by employees for being time-consuming, inefficient, impersonal, and even distracting. Developers, especially, need something more agile, a better way to manage their projects and tasks, facilitate teamwork, and track bugs and issues.

Why, then, keep email around?

Despite its clunkiness, email offers a simple way for you to delegate tasks, keep your team updated on project deadlines and guidelines, schedule meetings, and maintain a permanent log of communications and updates. Certain productivity-enhancing tools lack the ability to filter and organize messages by type, and email allows you to access a complete timeline of communications without much hassle. Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of email is essential when transitioning to other tools of communication, collaboration, and management.

What are the alternatives?

Tools with video chat and VoIP features

Perhaps the biggest void that email has been unable to fill is its lack of support for video chat and VoIP features. Nothing says “efficiency” more than real-time communication and collaboration. Being able to instantaneously discuss issues and bugs, productivity targets, project guidelines, and tasks to be completed saves hours spent on typing out long emails and waiting for responses.

Google Hangouts is a great way to transition from unending email chains to a single face-to-face video call communicating sudden changes in project requirements or discussing the progress on a task. Accessible from a variety of devices and with free calls for up to 10 people, Hangouts is a cost-efficient way to minimize unnecessary back-and-forth communication.

Skype allows you to create a virtual conference room that brings together team members from different locations and in different time zones for free. The screen sharing feature permits you to make presentations and demonstrations without needing a physical room and a projector, speeding up training and onboarding processes. Its file sharing capabilities can be utilized to send across important documents and files in real time as and when requested, making collaboration easier.

email productivityPerhaps the biggest drawback of these tools is that it isn’t feasible to record every single call to keep track of discussions and decisions. Sifting through recordings to search for important information can be time-consuming and, at times, fruitless. Writing follow-up emails that summarize audio or video chats saves time and gives you a concise log of communications to refer to. Even if you do away with complicated email chains, you still have a simple email or set of emails that summarize the most relevant information in your inbox to peruse at your convenience.

Tools with instant messaging features

Emails have evolved into a formal means of communication, and etiquette demands that you employ a string of formalities, including addressing the recipient, asking them how their week has been and signing off with a few pleasantries. The impersonal nature of email facilitates the formation of silos within an organization and makes for a rather bureaucratic environment where tasks constantly get deferred and delegated. Employees don’t have to talk face-to-face to the colleagues they’re handing the short end of the stick to, and this emboldens some rather inefficient behavior.

Slack is quickly becoming as ubiquitous as email in organizations. It’s easy to ignore an email, but it’s hard to ignore a Slack notification, especially one that seems so personally addressed to you. Not that it’s intrusive; it merely warrants a much quicker response than an email usually does. Channels help streamline conversations and send more targeted messages to employees and team members so that everyone is on the same page without having to deal with a cluttered inbox. Transparency and accountability are a lot easier to maintain on Slack, and files shared on channels can be commented on, making the process of giving feedback much more instantaneous. It’s also much, much easier to search for conversations and files on Slack, though permanent logs can sometimes be hard to maintain given how easy it is to delete messages from the application.

WhatsApp is an incredibly useful alternative to email that many managers overlook because of its association with personal and informal communication. However, WhatsApp offers exceptional video and voice calling features as well as instant file sharing. Its ease of use sets it apart from most other instant messaging applications, and it does away with the whole “I didn’t see your email” excuse by providing proof of delivery of a message through the much blighted “blue ticks,” even on group chats. And the best part about WhatsApp is that mistakes aren’t set in stone as it allows you to delete messages after the person you’ve sent them to has received them and even read them, up to 7 minutes after you hit “Send.” Its use of end-to-end encryption also provides users a secure communication channel. Yammer, Hangouts, and Skype also offer instant messaging options, even if these applications aren’t exclusively designed to be used as messaging tools.

The drawbacks of instant messaging tools like Slack and WhatsApp are in the lack of permanent logs of information. Messages can be easily deleted or lost if not backed up properly. Asking employees to “put it in an email” is still the way to go if you want a permanent and formal record of important communication that neither party can tamper with once it has been sent.

Tools with project management features

Let’s face it, managing teams and projects through emails is a Sisyphean task. Managers have to wade through mountains of emails every day and organize them only to return to work the next day with another mountain of emails to tackle. This leaves them with barely any time and energy to actually devote to their project. When they’re lost in a swamp of emails, their team members are also confused and directionless, and issues and errors and delays pile up until the manager is overwhelmed or forced to settle for less than they set out to achieve.

Basecamp has been revolutionary in its simple approach to a hitherto arduous task by creating a single dashboard through which an entire project can be managed and monitored. Collaborators can be invited to contribute to to-do lists, add important files and updates, offer their feedback on proposals, and address important queries. You can easily track the progress of your projects and also show your team the bigger picture they’re working toward. All the information a manager needs is neatly organized and easily accessible, and all this is achieved without a stack of emails each containing a tidbit of information about the project’s progress. Trello offers many of the same functions as Basecamp and is a great tool for collaboration and contextual communication across teams.

Jira is a wonderful tool that allows you to track and manage software development projects by letting you implement a workflow that best suits the project you are executing. It offers developers an agile work environment by creating a single space where issues and stories can be created, sprints can be planned, and tasks can be assigned, prioritized, and tracked to completion. Since Jira constantly provides real-time data reports on project status, bugs, productivity, and progress made, you can save time spent on sending out emails requesting project status reports, resolving issues, and outlining workflows. All the information you need is at your fingertips, and your team members, too, can track and plan their tasks by taking a quick look at the dashboard.

Workflowy is for the team members or managers who want a single place to store and organize all their information for their own perusal. It sells itself as an “infinite document” that contains all the documents you could possibly need, an infinite repository of information if you will. You can categorize your to-do lists, task parameters, half-completed projects, and literally anything worth documenting on Workflowy in a way that YOU can easily access. You don’t have to worry about scanning your emails for hours when you can just click a few bullet points on Workflowy and find exactly what you need, whenever you need it.

BlogIn functions as a sort of encyclopedia for a company, integrating all the details about its workflows and processes, its policies and updates, and the history of company procedures. Instead of appending another email to a list of emails containing information about past procedures or addendums to company knowledge, you can merely update a single post containing all this information to reflect new procedures and new knowledge. Other teams who seek to collaborate with yours can glance through a single post or two to understand the context your team operates in. New additions to a team can also go through the company’s BlogIn posts to get a better idea of their role and function, speeding up training and onboarding processes.

Not all functions of email can be migrated to these project management tools, however. Scheduling meetings, communicating with individual team members, tackling more nuanced problems, and keeping a permanent record of a detailed history of updates, discussions, or decisions are tasks often best left to email.

Adding tools and boosting email productivity

While these purpose-driven tools offer many benefits that email lacks, they are still lacking in departments that only email can fill. The best approach does not seem to be to gradually phase out email and phase another productivity tool in, but rather to gradually integrate and incorporate one or more tools in your workflow and processes to reduce the sheer quantity of emails that you and your team deal with on a daily basis. Find ways to reduce inefficiency and improve collaboration that your team is comfortable with, and avoid going overboard, too. Don’t introduce too many new tools and platforms to supplement email, lest you risk cluttering the workspace and setting back your goal of keeping operations well-oiled and moving slickly. The key is to constantly field feedback from your team members about how well the productivity tools are working for them until you find the right balance that maximizes efficiency and productivity.

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