Facebook's Workplace won't kill email, but nothing else will either

Email is the indestructible cockroach of the electronic world: it will take more than a social network to stamp it out.

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Will Facebook Workplace encourage millennials to collaborate in the office?

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto


Facebook has unveiled Workplace, a version of the social network for businesses, which it promises can help companies be more productive by encouraging staff to collaborate and share information.

The social network giant is making much of its millennial credentials in promoting the new service, suggesting that by offering their workers a Facebook-flavoured collaboration tool, straight-laced companies can encourage hip young staff to engage more.

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At the launch of Workplace, Facebook's EMEA VP Nicola Mendelsohn said: "Young people are just so at ease with all different types of tools for communication. They expect it to be present in all aspects of their life, and that includes the workplace."

And she warned: "The trends that are really going to define the workplace in the future -- whether it be disruption, speed, the communications expectations -- they are just going to keep growing and they are going to keep consolidating, and workplaces really need to be on the right side of history."

As 1.7 billion people already have a Facebook account, the social media giant argues that most workers and even those without a PC will already know how it works, which means it can give employees -- particularly junior ones -- a way to engage with the broader business that they wouldn't otherwise have.

Facebook also highlights research it commissioned among 200 business executives, which found that only 15 percent were happy with the ways their teams communicate and collaborate. Three-quarters of the execs surveyed predicted a move away from email and a shift towards more sophisticated workplace tools that encourage feedback.

Julien Codorniou, Facebook's director of Workplace, said the service will replace internal emails, mailing lists, and intranets that nobody looks at, insisting that it is "not yet another productivity application", arguing that it can give everyone a voice, from the CEO to the newest intern.

"It's about building connections between people not org-charts," he said.

A gap in the market?

But is there really enough room for yet another wannabe email-killer in a market already crowded with products pursuing the same idea?

Saleforce has its Chatter enterprise social network, Microsoft has Yammer (and SharePoint), and there's current team messaging darling Slack out there, plus other companies like Huddle. And on top of this, plenty of existing software suites are building in social-style features too. None of these have managed to land a fatal blow on email, despite years of trying.

True, Facebook is coming in with what it describes as "disruptive and competitive pricing" -- as low as $1 per user per month, while its rivals charge at least five times as much. This may be enough to force prices down if Workplace starts making some headway.

But cost is rarely the biggest issue holding back the adoption of these tools.

Rollouts of enterprise productivity tools tend to be unsuccessful if there aren't enough of the right people using them from the start, or if the user interface is unfamiliar or complicated. In these cases, workers instead default back to older ways of communicating -- like email -- and leave the new system to gather dust. This means the ubiquity and familiarity of Facebook's look-and-feel is certainly a big plus when it comes to initial rollout.

But while Facebook has lots of experience in getting people to share, it's not so clear that it can make them share in way that's useful to business.

One of the biggest challenges that productivity packages face is that even if they do reach critical mass, staff can then spend too much time updating their status and reading posts by others -- and not doing their actual jobs.

And many employers are used to seeing Facebook as a digital time-suck, with bored staff scrolling through cat videos and posting baby photos when they should be working.

Facebook may be able to design tools that people want to use; what it needs to prove is that it can make them more productive by doing so.

All of this goes some way towards explaining why email has survived so many attempts on its life.

Email has proved to be the indestructible cockroach of the digital world. For all of its horrors -- the overflowing inbox, the reply-all nightmare, and the tedium of being cc'ed into conversations you don't care about -- it has remained essential.

Perhaps that's because improving productivity and communication isn't fundamentally a technology problem, but one of company culture. Most companies are still wedded to email because it reflects the way they behave, not because they need better software.

Facebook may be right in the long term, though: as companies become more distributed, and the over-sharing expected in the social networking world becomes a standard part of business behaviour, then new tools will be needed. But don't expect to give up your email address anytime soon.

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