While many of us appreciate the flexibility our mobile devices provide, we find ourselves reading and responding to messages from the office long after we have left it.
But what if our inboxes could help us reclaim work/life balance?
From software to mobile applications, new innovations are rolling out to change our experiences with email and help us create the boundaries and priorities we are struggling to set. Companies such as IBM, Microsoft, and Google are studying our behaviors to develop tools or improve features of email that will help us take back control.
As overwhelming as email can be, information technology chiefs consider it a critical business communications tool we will rely on for the foreseeable future, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
However, the evolution has begun with technology companies looking at how analytics or algorithms can sort our email and figure out what we should or shouldn’t be working on, explains Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst of Constellation Research in Toronto. The idea is for us to spend our time on the messages that have the most value to us.
Lepofsky said that email combined with tweets, Facebook messages, task lists, chats and calendars have electronic communication coming at us from all directions: “We can’t process what we need to do. We need tools to aggregate information and help us decide what we should be working on based on our own actions.”
Last week at its ConnectED event in Orlando, IBM discussed at length its new Verse, which it believes could re-imagine email and become the answer to the productivity woes that have made sifting through our inboxes a frustrating chore. Verse uses analytics to determine which of the users’ contacts are most important or relevant and to place them at the top for easier access. When clicking on the person's icon, users can view important information, appointments and email threads related to those contacts.
Along with prioritizing messages, Verse learns users’ behaviors to share files, search for contact information, and keep their top five high-priority actions in view. For now, the technology giant is offering users its IBM Verse for free.
“We are going to change the paradigm with email,” said Jeff Schick, general manager of IBM Enterprise Social Solutions during a November webinar. “We are going to do things and solve problems with email that have existed for over 30 years. We are bringing to forefront that which is most important to you and making it easier to find what you are looking for.”
Google has its own entry in the evolution of email. In late 2014, Google introduced Inbox by Gmail, an application that organizes your email into bundles around categories such as travel, assignments or forums. Google says its Inbox software is designed to bring to the forefront more relevant, timely messages. In addition, Google has recognized that our urge to check our email outside the office had become a huge temptation and has introduced Inbox Pause for Gmail. The tool works like you would imagine: If you don’t want your smartphone buzzing all through dinner or your workout, you click the pause button and your emails are put on hold until you’re ready to let the Inbox fill up again. You can also set up an auto-responder to notify everyone who emails you that your Inbox is paused.
Microsoft has moved into the email-management world, too, with the release of Microsoft Delve. The tool searches your emails, meetings, contacts, social networks, and corporate documents stored in Office 365, then uses “machine learning” artificial intelligence to show you the stuff you need to see. And then there is Facebook at work, which is taking workplace conversations outside our Inboxes and putting them onto a social media platform, where employees can share documents and data.
Lisa Sparks, CEO of Verity Content, a Miami digital marketing firm, says that while new technology may be helpful, she has learned to manage email using the simple tools already available: “I set up rules to send all client communications into one folder. Every morning, that’s the email folder I go through first. At end of my day, I plan out my next day by looking at email in that folder from the current day.” Sparks says she has designed an email system around the way she works and feels neither overwhelmed, nor stressed, by email. All incoming after-hours email triggers an automatic response, letting clients know she will get back to them in 24 hours: “What I try to do as much as possible is make email work for me instead of email working me and dictating my day.”
Some employers want to push their employees from communicating by email to collaborating on shared electronic work spaces and in social networks. At the same time, some business owners are turning completely to email to communicate. Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom in Seattle and author of Email Only: 10 Reasons Why Phone Calls Are a Waste of Time, says he does nearly all of his business by email. “All emails are work-related (nobody non-work related sends me email; they text me or call me). So when the workday is over, I simply pause my inbox, turn off my computer, and walk out of the office. It’s simple, easy and effective,” DeMers says.
Tech-savvy IT recruiter Alex Funkhouser says he gains control over his inbox by spending as little time clearing messages as possible. Rather than wasting time deleting, Funkhouser, CEO of SherlockTalent of South Florida, keeps all messages on the cloud and flags those that need a response. He tries to steer away from email for important conversations: “People often make business decisions through emotions, email is a poor communicator of emotion.”
Some businesses address email overload and work/life balance by encouraging employees to triage their inboxes more effectively or turn off after-hours email. But those remedies ignore the anxiety that makes people feel they must stay connected to protect their jobs or keep up with colleagues and competitors. Despite these new tools to manage our Inboxes, Lepofsky believes most professionals will still work 40- to 60-hour weeks: “I don’t think we’ll solve the issue of having too much to do. But if we’re working on the right things instead of the wrong things, it makes us more effective.”