Why is email still relevant?
The coming death of email has long been heralded. Since their emergence, IM services such as Slack have been steadily replacing email as the primary internal collaboration and communication tool. In the wake of COVID-19, this trend has become even more pronounced. Many companies are ‘considering replacing email’ entirely, relying more on real-time platforms and video-conferencing solutions to communicate with employees.
That being said, email is still king. Its universality is unmatched - according to estimates, there will be 3 billion email users in the world at the end of 2020 (although other sources put the number at almost 4 billion). The majority of this number check their inboxes daily, some multiple times a day. Email is widely used across age ranges: older people have always emailed, but 80% of teenagers also have email accounts, since an address is required for online transactions and social media accounts.
Email is still the primary means by which companies communicate with people. Consumers prefer to be targeted over email (it beats apps, text messages or social media), and companies that understand how to use this channel well have the advantage. For Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the engagement rate is close to 1%. In comparison, almost a quarter of all emails get opened and the average click-through rate reaches 4% - proving email the tool of choice for reaching external audiences.
Why you need email analytics to make the most of email
Although email is still alive and well, its use has always suffered from inefficiencies. These include being overloaded by a barrage of irrelevant email, pressure to check the inbox constantly both during working hours and after, a lack of internal transparency, and potential for misinterpretation.
How can a company keep using email, but fix these issues? To get started, it is necessary to find out more about how they communicate via email. On the Time is Limited platform, we use G Suite email analytics and Office 365 email analytics to make email communication more productive. We focus on five topics in particular - overload, irrelevant email, endless threads, responsiveness, and overtime.
Let’s delve into each issue:
This problem is related to the sheer volume of email that needs to be processed every day, amounting to substantial time. Some sources put this at 500 hours per person annually, others at more than a quarter of each work day. Email is so pervasive that some employees mistake processing email for working, even though this activity can actually detract from company performance.
We capture this overload on the Time is Limited platform by tracking how many emails are received and how many employees send, from the company level to individual teams. In the example below, we see that while some departments receive a low number of emails, others such as Marketing are positively swamped. The problem isn’t getting better. Drilling down deeper and looking at Marketing specifically, a clearer picture emerges: while last year the source of emails was split between internal and external, in 2020 external emails constitute the majority of those received.
One step employees can take to improve their email intake is to unsubscribe from mailing lists. Sometimes, however, these external emails come from clients and partners. The view below is especially useful for teams that deal with external parties: it shows if there is a difference between how often they are in touch with the party and how often the team communicates with them, or if the relationship is even. Combined with an assessment of the value of these external parties to the company, we can immediately see if the engagement from the team side should be reduced or if they need to connect more.
This issue is exacerbated by the practice of adding multiple recipients to emails, and copying in more people than necessary. If someone then hits the dreaded reply-all button after receiving such an email, the contents of everyone’s inboxes expand unnecessarily. In the below example it is clear that in-department communication typically only involves the sender, the direct recipient and one additional person on copy. However, the number of recipients of cross-department emails has been growing and when it comes to external emails, more than two other people are informed.
How to fix this? We recommend sticking to one addressee in the To field so that it is clear who needs to react to the email, and keeping the number of people in copy to a minimum (ideally zero!).
Email is far from the best tool for quick, real-time discussions involving multiple people - IM platforms such as Slack serve the purpose much better. The charts below illustrate this point well: if the average time span of email threads hovered around 5 for the majority of departments in March 2020, and it took more than 5 exchanges on average to end the thread, there was hardly any rapid exchange of ideas (although in the subsequent months, there was a major improvement in how long it took to discuss issues). However, email threads still play a vital role when a written chain of communication is needed or a decision needs to be made. Long explanations are too easily lost in Slack, but emails offer a verifiable history of the discussion.
One of the biggest email sins is overchecking. According to HBR, people check their email every 37 minutes, 15 times per day. The impact of checking email constantly is that it ruins focus - the same source suggests that it can take people 23 minutes to refocus on a task after being interrupted. On the Time is Limited platform, we deal with responsiveness in two different manners - focusing on whether email that is replied to comes from within the company, or from the outside.
Maximizing productivity is key. For internal communication, we recommend that internal emails should be answered no sooner than 90 minutes after receiving them, but no later than 4 hours. Our alert view below breaks departments into different groups based on their responsiveness to internal email, and shows where action might be needed. Employees may need to increase their responsiveness to colleagues in other departments, or instead place more emphasis on their work. In the latter case, they should not have to check emails all the time, but instead batch their replies and respond when it is convenient for them.
External communication, however, is a different problem - customers expect availability and promptness. Effective responsiveness signals that the company cares about its clients and is trustworthy. The business results are clear: companies that respond to emails within an hour are 7x more successful than those that need two hours, and they are 60x more successful than companies that take a day or longer to respond. For this reason, we take external responsiveness into account, and alert those business units that take too long to respond to customers and partners.
Research shows that checking email after working hours can be detrimental to employee health, increasing stress and anxiety not only in employees, but also in their close ones. Employees do not even need to be working overtime to experience these effects - the expectation that they should be available itself is harmful, and puts them under pressure. Emails sent after working hours are also at risk of being miswritten or misinterpreted by each of the parties, and might lead to unsubscribes.
Some companies and countries have tried to fight this trend by introducing “the right to disconnect” laws. In France, for example, every contract must specify how connected employees must be outside of office hours. German companies such as Volkswagen even started to implement measures to stop email from being routed to employees when they are off work. That being said, sending emails after working hours might still be warranted. Managers often lead teams over multiple time zones, some employees actually prefer to read and respond to emails during the evenings or over weekends, sometimes it is clearly communicated that an immediate response is not necessary. In fact, email can be a less intrusive channel of communication than a text or Slack message in these cases.
Email analytics can help you uncover where the problems related to email lie, but the data is useless if no action is taken. These 5 email issues are easily conquerable. You can drive your email productivity by implementing clear guidelines, employing best practices, and setting the right expectations - and especially by defining how email coexists with other tools. Don’t forget that the email behavior of senior leadership and managers sets the tone for their teams. If they use these platforms correctly, the message is spread that email communication can and should be efficient.
At Time is Ltd., we measure digital collaboration and productivity, without ever sacrificing employee privacy. We provide an advanced analytical SaaS platform that delivers a holistic view of an organization collaboration patterns. We measure your team’s digital footprint to improve communication, productivity as well as save precious time. Our approach only aggregates meta-data from a variety of data sources, to show how your teams work with your collaboration tools so you can get them more productive and motivated.