Is The Future of Work Less E-mail?

This week, Skype and GigaomPro released The Future of Workplaces, a study on the changing nature of work.  The report focused on the increase in remote working and the way that changes in technology use are impacting that trend.  In conjunction with the report, Skype launched a series of video interviews on the subject of remote work and the changing workplace; one of the featured speakers is Basex’ chief analyst Jonathan Spira.

The overall conclusions of the study that remote work is on the upswing, due to the capabilities of new technologies that have begun to enter into the business world from the consumer market, should come as no surprise to most knowledge workers.  Effective collaboration technologies have been sorely needed to address the complications of working across disparate time zones, between ad hoc teams, and across large enterprise environments that may not have effective knowledge sharing and collaboration tools in place.  The rise of effective desktop video tools, VoIP calling, and increasingly powerful mobile devices supports a move away from what Spira calls the “Dilbertian” work environments.

The study also contains some interesting statistics about Information Overload and communications tools, which bear some discussion in light of our own ongoing research in these areas.

According to the report, 42% of those surveyed felt that the workplace is increasingly suffering from Information Overload.  This correlates with our own survey data, which shows that over 50% of knowledge workers feel that the amount of information they are presented with on a daily basis is detrimental to getting their work done, and that 94% at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.

Interestingly, the Gigaom study also stated that 35% of respondents felt that e-mail was the number one contributor to Information Overload.  E-mail is clearly a large contributor, but when conceptualizing Information Overload, one must also consider non-technology sources, such as interruptions, meetings, and the impact of multitasking.

The narrative of late in the media is that e-mail is in decline, and data shows that although it is still a major business communications tool, there are signs that its prominence is slipping.  The Future of Workplaces study states that e-mail (as well as the office landline) is likely to decline in use.  Only 35% said that they would use e-mail more in the future than they do presently, compared to 40% who said they now use e-mail more compared to last year.  Although the concept of expected use is problematic and should be taken with a grain of salt, this shows a decline in the expected use of the tool; conversely, almost all the other technologies studied showed higher rates of expected future use than present use.  Expected use of video conferencing and calling, VoIP calling, instant messaging, texting, and mobile phones all showed increases.  Interestingly, the numbers for social networking tools were essentially level; 29% said they were likely to use the tools more in the future, and 30% said they were using more compared to last year.

This may be a good sign, as a reduction in e-mail portends positive benefits for the knowledge worker.  However, caution is warranted here, because the likelihood is that knowledge workers will simply transfer something that was sent via e-mail to another communications medium.  In some cases, such as an IM conversation about what to have for lunch, that is a good thing.  In other cases, such as a poorly filtered activity feed full of irrelevant information that must be sorted through, more Information Overload may actually be introduced through a move away from e-mail.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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