What About E-mail

Chances are you use e-mail in your professional life. You might use it in your personal life.  But the tech industry hopes to disrupt the status quo, and we look at e-mail’s growing age, we ought to wonder: Is e-mail on the verge of becoming obsolete, or is it already there? And where should we be looking?

We’ve surveyed the past five years of Harvard Business Review to see what the temperature is on e-mail, and what art managers should be looking for in the future. Here’s what you need to know.

How Do We Use E-Mail?

Although ostensibly the purpose of e-mail is messaging and correspondence, that’s not how many managers are using it today. Most believe e-mail’s main utility is as a stand-in for a file storage system – it allows for the exchanging of important documents that can be archived and then later accessed through a search function. Here are the top five reported uses of e-mail in the workplace [2]:

  • Exchanging Documents - 76%
  • Sending Information to Groups - 69%
  • Improving Communication Across Time Zones - 61%
  • Accountability - 60%
  • Searching for Information - 59%

Any new software or apps won’t compete with e-mail unless it can also effectively handle these tasks.

Because of the misperception that e-mails are a tool for conversation, many people fear falling behind in their inbox and missing an important detail. However, only about 14% of received work e-mails concern critical information while a total of 42% contain actionable material. [2]

The image below breaks out the various categories an inbox contains.



Take Aways:

  1. We need to start thinking of e-mail as a tool, not for messaging, but for holistic communication that enables us to work with groups and important documents.
  2. Most e-mails are not critical or essential. There’s no pressure to “keep up” with the onslaught of e-mails received daily, but there is a need to organize to make sure that top 42% is viewed. 
  3. If your company or institution is using e-mail as an archiving tool, DON’T DELETE ANYTHING. If you want to keep things out of your primary inbox, use folders. Everything will still be searchable. And, of course, like all important data, be sure that you, if not the company, back it up.

E-mail Decreases Productivity


Businesses across all industries are struggling with how much time staff devotes to e-mail. In one survey [1] managers were asked how they would handle both a backlog of e-mails and an approaching deadline for a major personal project. Only 20% of respondents would archive everything but urgent questions until the deadline had passed. Most (30%) would spend a full two days dedicated only to answering the e-mails before focusing on their project. In a year, we are spending the equivalent of 111 workdays, on average, dealing with e-mail. Most of that time is not spent writing or reading e-mails, because it takes, on average, two minutes to locate a document in an inbox [2].

Take Aways:

A proliferation of e-mails ultimately costs companies a large proportion of actual time – and it’s a cultural problem, not an individual one.  As shown in one case, when top executives send fewer e-mails, employee e-mail output also decreases – even without explicit instruction or training [4]

As managers, you can set the bar for appropriate e-mail use.

The Future of E-mail (Or Is It Already Dead?)

Everyone agrees that e-mail, as it stands now, is unsustainable. The debate at hand: Is e-mail incapable of keeping up with modern business, or is our misapplication of e-mail slowing us down? [6] Niraj Rout, co-founder and CEO of Grexit, says “…these problems would manifest themselves in some form if we were to switch to another tool without changing our behavior.” Michael Stocksdale, a long-range planner for the Air Force, counters with, “There is the issue of keeping up with complex threads, which in e-mail easily and often take divergent pathways. Alternative collaboration tools – for example, online social networks – provide an easy method of discovery.” [3]

22% of professionals would like to see e-mail adopt a more social construction [2], so chances are we will see a rise in project management tools like Slack or Asana in the next five to ten years. For now, however, we are still stuck with 11,680 e-mails sent to the average worker per year [2].


Processing and reading everything that lands in your inbox within the hour (or even 24-hours) is not a realistic goal, and striving for it is getting in the way of real work [8]. Try to use e-mail, and other electronic communications, diligently. Use tools to limit what information you receive when, so you can get to those critical messages fast. Think about how you are organizing and archiving your e-mails, so you can find what you need quickly – then automate the system using filters, labels, and folders. Managers, establish e-mail protocols for your team that provides frameworks for employees with respect to expectations, protocols, and archiving practices.


Thrive Away

Alexandra Samuel



Slack (and read AMT-Lab's review here)




[1] 2017. "HBR SURVEY." Harvard Business Review 95, no. 5: 17. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).

[2] Gil, Barry. 2013. "E-Mail: Not Dead, Evolving." Harvard Business Review 91, no. 6: 32-33. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).

[3] Gill, Barry, Niraj Ranjan Rout, Paul McTurk, and Michael Stocksdale. 2013. "E-Mail: Not Dead, Evolving: Interaction." Harvard Business Review 91, no. 9: 21. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).

[4] Brown, Chris, Andrew Killick, and Karen Renaud. 2013. "To Reduce E-mail, Start at the Top." Harvard Business Review 91, no. 9: 26. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).

[5] 2015. "It’s 11 PM. Are You Still Checking Your In-Box?." Harvard Business Review 93, no. 7/8: 16. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).

[6] ROSEN, LARRY, and ALEXANDRA SAMUEL. "Conquering Digital Distraction." Harvard Business Review 93, no. 6 (June 2015): 110-113. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).

[7] Huffington, Arianna. 2017. "How to Keep Email from Ruining Your Vacation." Harvard Business Review Digital Articles 2-4. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).

[8] Samuel, Alexandra. 2016. "7 Email Problems, Solved." Harvard Business Review Digital Articles 2-5. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 17, 2017).