Breaking the email addiction

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal, Jan. 8, 2016

That little badge next to the email icon is a constant reminder of failure, metaphorically blasting raspberries at us as the unread count ticks up. For small businesses and nonprofits, the email problem is multi-faceted, encompassing productivity losses and security risks.

While there is no perfect email application that will tame this problem, there are a number of collaborative tools that offer new ways to work. Slack, Trello, Asana, Basecamp and Evernote, are a few of the top titles among a crowded field of collaboration platforms that can help break the stranglehold of email.

Some, like Basecamp and Asana, layer in project management features like task assignment and management, calendaring and tracking. Some are more visual, like Trello, which will appeal to linear thinkers who like to visualize progress. All are mobile with feature-full apps that maximize the capabilities of smartphones and tablets. Slack has a slick user interface and offers a lot of application integrations so users can start a Google Hangout directly from Slack simply by typing /hangout. Or similarly start a conference call with Uber Conference.

With no single player offering the whole enchilada, it may be, as many bloggers have suggested, that the perfect world is to combine a communication platform and a project management platform to cover all your bases.

But these platforms must be expensive, right? Nope. In fact, for small businesses, there’s a great opportunity to use big-company tools at small- or startup-prices. Each has a free level. In some cases, you get all the options and features but a limited number of users or projects. In others, you can a slimmed down feature set but unlimited usage. Slack, for instance, is free for 10,000 messages a month. You can have as many users or channels as you want up to that point. Sounds like a lot, but you could hit it sooner than you think.

Facilitating Change

Few barriers to entry, configurable, integrated with other tools, and features real time communications and archiving to get you out of email. With all that, why isn’t every business jumping in. Well, many have. But there is a hurdle to overcome and that’s adaptation.

I’ve been involved in several implementations of this type and tested dozens of platforms with clients and collaborators. People may hate email, but it is hard to pry them away from the application they have used the longest and, they think, understand the best. Many times, once the transition is theoretically completed, staff start to fall off and go back to using the old tools (if they still exist). And since no one is suggesting you’ll never need to use email again, that’s a real risk. If you are thinking that this doesn’t happen in your business, check out the last new system, service or software you implemented to see how many staffers have fallen back on old processes.

Getting people to adapt to something new has nothing to do with what the business wants - increased productivity, quicker results, more time on task, etc. It has to do primarily with what the user wants to do and how much confidence they have in themselves and their bosses. Tools we feel comfortable with contribute to a feeling of competence on the job. Change a tool, rock my world.

Even for a small business, start with a pilot program. Remember, a pilot’s purpose is to identify the problems with a new system and develop solutions. So it is important the pilot team be representative of your staff (i.e. they aren’t all the geeks or under 30s).

Talk about the project, including (maybe especially) things that are presenting challenges. It’s important that staff can see that you understand that there may be bumps in the road. All implementations have them. Accept it, work through them, move forward.

But also highlight the good things. Your pilot team members need to be both problem solvers and ambassadors. Get them to talk about how much time they saved. How they are extricating themselves from the grip of email. Across the company, talk up the successes.

Analytics can help you quantify improvements. How much email was the pilot team wading through before the test vs how much after? Find ways to make improvements tangible. A standard metric is that a meeting of more than 2 people takes 5-7 email exchanges between the entire group to schedule. That can be dramatically improved in a real time communication environment. Potentially, using an integration client, the meeting could happen immediately. That’s real time that’s been saved and possibly days gained on project completion.

Moving technology forward in your business isn’t a matter of finding the right tool. There are many out there. But a lot more effort should go into making sure your efforts aren’t doomed before they even start.