Are mobile and email holding us back? I’m beginning to think so. In the department of What Happens Next In The World of Work, they’re what has to happen: We need to have seriously better ways of communicating both via mobile and via email. Both need to catch up to the way we want to work, which is more collaborative, interactive, agile, and fast.
Yes: mobile is a great big shiny new awesomeness. But it’s shiny and fast like a speedboat: not much room inside that racing machine. And no matter what we may have speculated, email is simply not going away. But mobile needs to be bigger, and email needs to be smarter. And they need to play better with each other too.
We’re Stalled In Mobile
In terms of mobile, we’re in a holding pattern. A Pew survey revealed that a third of mobile owners access the Internet mainly from the phone, and more than half of all emails are first opened via mobile. But then what? The functionality of mobile is nowhere near what we need it to be in terms of the tasks involved in conducting business. How about managing and sending large documents? And just try finding that one text in a long string that includes the actual details of a meeting (was it the longish balloon with the nine thumbs up emojis?). Or try rallying your team to craft a strategic, timely response to a breaking business development. You see it happening right before your eyes, but can you actually do anything about it? Tap swish tap, curse.
It’s been called the productivity gap, and that’s a good term for it. It’s the gap between all the content and information we can access on mobile, and the limits to what we can do with it. We can use mobile for consuming lots of content, but we can’t yet create much content on it.
So we detour. We hop from mobile to desktop, desktop to mobile to desktop again. We Facebook message that we are emailing a document we created on our laptop. And every time we detour, we lose out in productivity. Stepping from one platform to the other takes time. The advent of mobile (and social) means everything happens fast, but we don’t yet have the mobile tools to keep up.
Seems Like Old Times
What about email? We’ve certainly gotten way past those robo announcements of the 1990s. The emergence of the Cloud is taking care of those baffling log jams that plagued many an inter-office network — though I just got a phone call recently asking me to confirm that I’d gotten an email since the in-house email system tends to stall if nearing capacity. But size isn’t the only issue here: it’s how email can be processed, sorted, organized, read, responded to.
Apparently we waste a heap of time dealing with emails: managing email today consumes an estimated 28 percent of the average knowledge worker’s week. (In case that seems like a downswing, consider that a 2012 McKinsey Global survey found that workers spend more than a quarter of the day reading and answering emails.) Is it that workers are spending all this time on purpose? Probably not. I’d blame the messenger here.
We still have to manage emails one message at a time, most commonly according to the hierarchy of time, conversation, then people. Yes, time matters, but more in terms of here’s the latest. Yes, we need to have conversations, but it’s hard to bring more than one other person into the mix. And at least in the workplace, people are more often than not acting as part of a team. And partially because chronology is so critical, the etiquette of email hasn’t changed: we expect each other to answer each and every email as it comes in, or we get lost in the thread.
What we need is an email system that can allow us to collaborate not just mano a mano but as a team; a collaborative, a collection, a culture. In the future we will see more email systems with customized analytics: designed to ask the right questions in order to learn our habits. This will allow users to narrow the pipeline so we get the emails we need when we need them, and the ones we don’t need we can access later. A more fluid and agile reliance on the Cloud would help.
Innovations are coming our way, and they just may be able to transform the world of work in the coming year. No matter how brilliant our metrics or global our network, no matter how quick or adaptable our business strategies, if we can’t have equally agile conversations, we can’t hit our marks. So let’s see what happens. Hashtag cautious, but — optimistic.
A version of this was first posted on Forbes.