Remote & Async Work 5 min

Email is not the right communications solution for remote teams

September 25, 2020
Preston Wickersham


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Email isn’t dead, but it’s not the king of communication it once was. As more companies go remote-first, the importance of documentation (especially for asynchronous work) highlights the shortcomings of email and points teams toward better solutions.

This evolution has been a long time coming. In 2016, Inc. pushed the idea that email could be dead or dying by the end of 2020. While email still exists, savvy remote teams have moved on from email reliance and embraced a more effective suite of communications tools.

Private documentation isn’t documentation

Conversations in emails are by nature private and disorganized. You can spend all the time you want arranging bullet points, but the moment you start relying on email chains to store information, you lock others out of insights they may need.

At Remote, we use a host of helpful tools to keep information public, updated, and accessible. Notion, for example, houses things like meeting notes and our documentation on all the countries we cover as we grow.

Many of us still send emails to people outside the company. As much as remote teams depend on other tools, email continues to serve as an important and effective method of communication, especially for messages between different organizations. However, we rarely send emails internally. Those communications happen in Slack or on Notion.

Slack can be private too, though. If you are not careful, you could end up creating information silos within Slack based on which conversations you have with which people.

To use an instant communications tool like Slack effectively, don’t treat it like an instant messaging system for individuals. Rely heavily on public channels instead.

If I want to ask someone on our global operations team a question, for example, I write the question in the global operations channel and tag that person there. This lets us continue the conversation publicly in a thread under the comment, where others can see. For conversations that some people need to see, but not others — for example, conversations among executives about potential partnerships or investments — use private Slack channels.

Email cannot serve as a single source of truth

Everyone at Remote prioritizes the sanctity of the single source of truth, or SSOT. For engineering, the SSOT is GitLab. Anything not documented within the GitLab epics and issues does not exist. For global operations, sales, marketing, and other departments, our respective Notion pages act as the SSOT.

Respect for the SSOT is essential for remote-first organizations. Different people have different work and communications styles, which naturally creates fragmentation. That fragmentation not only leads to information being stored in multiple places, but also information in one place conflicting with information in another. With email as a primary communications tool, this becomes inevitable.

Companies must proactively prevent fragmentation by specifying where information should live and actively promoting a culture that respects the documentation process. Simply declaring a Notion page or project management tool as the SSOT is not enough. People have to buy into the tool and use it regularly. Otherwise, information begins to leak into other places, like email, where it lives hidden away from people who may need it later.

Email hurts productivity more than it helps

Focus is real, and it’s a limited resource. The more someone has to consider before starting work on a project, the less mental energy they have left to dedicate to the work.

Research shows that it takes about 23 minutes to recover from a distraction. Unnecessary pings, emails, Zoom meetings -- anything that qualifies as a distraction means the person being distracted needs 23 minutes to return to productivity.

In a survey of workers in the UK, people named being copied on emails not relevant to them as their biggest productivity hurdle at work. Digging through emails takes time and mental energy that remote teams can’t afford to spare. Communication in remote-first organizations is a deliberate act, and when people spend their limited energy using communications tools that wear them down, they don’t have energy left to dedicate to their work or to the communications tools that provide more meaningful engagement.

Keep control over your time and knowledge

Email is a good tool, just an overused one. To move on from emails, organizations should not only add new tools but adjust their work practices to match.

Make notifications management a regular part of your day. Before you start working on a new project, turn off pings from Slack and other tools, email included, and encourage your team members to do the same. Few things are more annoying than hitting your flow state only to be interrupted by an email that doesn’t involve you or a Slack message that could wait until later.

Look at your email inbox as it stands now and think about all the knowledge stored there. Doesn’t some of that information belong in public channels? How often do you find yourself reading an email, only to forward that email to someone else as an FYI? How many times per week do you go searching through your inbox to find an update on a project?

It’s time to let go. Email didn’t die in 2020, but we have more than enough helpful tools to replace it. Remote teams thrive on effective communication, so use your tools to the fullest and set an example for your team. As you move away from email and toward more useful, public methods of communication, you will wonder why you waited so long.

And, if “inbox zero” is your thing, you’ll find it much easier to achieve when you receive a fraction of the emails you used to.

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