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Can we live in an email-free world?

While electronic mails remain a tool for formal interactions, some professionals are embracing social media platforms to avoid ‘inbox stress’

A recent survey by Deloitte found that 46% of Gen Zers, or those born who haven’t seen a world without the Net, reported feeling stressed most of the time last year
A recent survey by Deloitte found that 46% of Gen Zers, or those born who haven’t seen a world without the Net, reported feeling stressed most of the time last year (Unsplash)

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Email was never the primary communication mode at Samrata Salwan-Diwan’s publishing company, Family Fables. Specialising in personal and institutional histories, the team’s work involves extensive research and interviews. While pre-pandemic travel was frequent for in-person interviews, March 2020 caused the shift to remote working. The team already used Google Docs to store, edit and comment in real-time on manuscripts, and WhatsApp groups with clients for quick coordination, adding daily Zoom calls for ideating sessions and to interview people. Seventeen months later, the Family Fables workers rarely use email as a mode of communication.

“Email is used to initiate a project or to share proposals and contracts, but beyond that we rarely use it. We instead use a variety of other tools used for internal and external communication,” says Shivpuri-based Salwan-Diwan.

Also read: Do we even want to return to the office?

Family Fables is not the only company that’s decreasing its dependence on the once-technological wonder. While it’s true that email remains an important communication tool for formal interactions, there are some organisations that are slowly and steadily paying less attention to it and embracing platforms like WhatsApp, Google Duo and Slack. The reason for the switch is largely the same: “inbox stress”, in other words, how checking and responding to mails has become more of a chore to ensure job security.

A recent survey by consulting firm Deloitte found that 46% of Gen Zers, or those born who haven’t seen a world without the Net, reported feeling stressed most of the time last year and 35% admitted to taking a break from work owing to work stress and anxiety.

The other factors for skipping emails and using social platforms is that they allow for quicker responses, easier collaboration and facilitate more casual interactions that remind us of the days when in-person interactions were always an option.

Internal versus external

The pandemic-induced work from home has tremendously increased our internal office communication. We are constantly exchanging messages with our supervisors and colleagues to keep them updated about our to-do lists and deadlines. Kolkata-based Kshitij Mirania started noticing this as soon as the pandemic started last year. “Being in the retail and service industry, 95% of our working day is spent in communicating internally with employees and externally with clients,” says Mirania, who’s a partner at Mirania Luxury Living, a furniture trading and manufacturing company. “Email and WhatsApp are used with clients, while internal communication is through Telegram, Microsoft Teams and, of course, WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp is a big favourite in the pandemic era. Once considered a casual space, the app has found more fans in the workplace world, with many considering it apt for task delegation, quick updates, approvals from colleagues, even communication with clients. “WhatsApp is the No.1 medium where I connect and converse with most of my clients. A lot of my work is visual so it helps to get quick approvals by sending image and video files over WhatsApp,” says Delhi’s communications consultant Deeksha Jhalani, 30. Like most, she prefers email for important documents. But an increasing number of her clients are comfortable with non-email communication. She’s also a big user of Google Drive. “Drive is where the action has shifted, according to me, because it helps in collaborative work, with real-time edits, automatic saving and keeping organised.”

Email does offer the comfort of having things on record but the constant inbox ping-pong can often be frustrating, especially if you are stuck inside four walls. Plus, the ever-consuming guilt of not responding to emails faster.

Though Mumbai’s travel consultant Alisha Fernandes prefers emails, for these offer “safety and structure”, they can be a waste of time. “I prefer it when something is assigned to me, but alternate platforms reduce the amount of coordination that’s required on email,” says the 24-year-old.

Cloud storage drives like Onedrive, she says, make it easier to discuss document-related communication. “Earlier, a separate email would have to be sent each time a document was edited or created and then extra time back and forth for the changes,” says Fernandes.

The attraction of platforms like Slack and Teams is also the degree of personalisation they offer, something that lacks in email. “The digital connection has allowed anyone to connect from anywhere. The world has truly become our playground.” says Delhi-based Surbhi Bhalla, 35, online facilitator for an international university. “The coolest app I discovered is Google Duo. I use it to send very cool handwritten text.”

That doesn’t mean she’s completely said no to emails. She, however, does limit her responses to work hours, switching off after 7pm, to avoid getting distracted by the inbox pileup. “I find this entire issue ridiculous about people getting crushed under the weight of immediately answering emails continuously through the day,” says Shamsher Singh Mann, 42, a hospitality asset management professional in Delhi. “It’s a mode of communication, not a beast which is traumatizing you. Handle it well,” recommends Mann, who suggests checking email only a few times a day, and replying immediately only when urgent and spending time on responses that require deliberation.

While this is sensible advice, not everyone is as disciplined or able to disengage from the constant stream of communication.

In his recent book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work In An Age of Communication Overload, author Cal Newport writes extensively about the toll of email culture on our mental and physical health. He says email can affect our productivity, distracting us from deep thinking and claiming most of our workday.

It also pushes people to do more focused work beyond office hours, like after children go to bed or earlier in the morning, he adds.

Not just about age

The preference is not just based on age, but is more nuanced than that.

Social development professional Jocelyn Jose, 34, for instance, has always preferred written communication, text messages, over speaking, choosing audio calls only for urgent responses. “I work with a mix of over and under 30-year-olds. I have not noticed a generational divide, but one between introverts and extroverts,” says Jose. “It is clear who likes talking and physical meetings and those who prefer texts to avoid talking and meeting as much as possible.”

Mann has observed a divide in interest as well in his many years of work experience. “I find the divide is between people who are inquisitive and eager and those who are not. Older colleagues may not use every fancy app, but if it helps improve efficiency, they adopt it.” Salwan-Diwan agrees, finding many of the people she interviews over the age of 60 being comfortable with video calls and sending voice notes.

There is, however, an issue with using social apps instead of emails: you never switch off. “Having too many trainings and discussions on a video call, when it could have easily been an email, is draining,” says Fernandes. “With emails, many choose not to check or reply after 7pm. But with WhatsApp you often don’t have a choice, but to respond.”

The smart choice in such a scenario is to have clarity in communication. As Calport explains in his book, important communication should be streamlined so that chat channels and emails are not the main platforms where work happens. The author also recommends investing in support to reduce the load of administrative tasks, and allowing workers to focus on fewer things so they do them better.

Any tool used excessively will cause fatigue, be it email, WhatsApp or Slack. But in a world where we are still physically distanced, there’s something more comforting about typing a text than an email.

Also read: When covid-19 forced Gen Y to deal with parents' assets



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