Commentary - Everyone knows email drives communication in business, but everyone doesn’t know how to make it a productivity tool. In fact, a study released earlier this year by Fonality and research firm Webtorials stated that workers spend more than half their day on email. This time is often spent doing necessary, yet unproductive tasks like scheduling meetings or updating teams on project tasks. There has to be different approaches to make email work for us instead of the other way around.
While it's easy to suggest people spend less time on email, it’s hard to practice since email is central to the way we communicate. The better alternative is to make email more productive — if workers spent more time in email, but that time was strategic or more useful, that would be ideal. So how do businesses turn email from just a communications tool into a productivity tool — one that can be used as the central dashboard to manage and complete work each day? The answer is approaching an inbox using three strategies: information management, contact management and work & project management.
Inboxes can be an abyss, especially if you’re using it as a repository for files and information you might find handy later. To avoid this pitfall, workers need to manage their information and prioritize it, but this doesn’t mean using folders, tasks lists or flags. There are companies currently on the market that offer information management platforms that sit on top of email or other communication tools like instant messenger, address books and calendars. These platforms help connect general information, potential customers, partners, vendors, decision makers or outside experts. They can also provide searchers on keyword, skills, companies and decision makers. Many of these platforms include email functionality that also prioritizes inboxes, which helps deliver relevant and timely emails to users in a streamlined fashion.
Likewise, there are tools that help users manage important emails so they aren’t constantly checking their inboxes for critical messages. These tools work by monitoring an email account for important messages then notifies the user via their preferred communication platform (SMS, Twitter direct message, instant messenger) that a key email has arrived. Users set up filters so their tool of choice knows what’s a priority message for them.
Obviously email is about your contacts and managing their information effortlessly. No one wants to spend time manually entering contacts into an address book. Luckily there are services to eliminate this time-intensive process. Tools currently on the market work with multiple email clients and provide more context than just contact information. For example, some of these tools create contact profiles, while also automatically creating and updating the user’s address book. These add-ons have other benefits as well; they can enhance search functions, let you know when you last contacted someone and show relevant information about that person, such as their latest tweet or LinkedIn update.
Many people use their inbox as to-do lists and there’s nothing wrong with this approach, except there are alternatives to directly transform email into work execution. New functionality in Clarizen online project management software , allows users to update tasks, contribute to projects, report issues and generally tie together related communications using any email client. With this innovation, users simply send an email to their projects within the software and the updates are made without having to log in. This makes work & project management and execution easier, and users spend less time providing updates via email since everything is already laid out in the project management software.
Aside from work execution software, workers should consider strategies and behaviors to overcome a flooded and unproductive inbox. Simple changes like closing your email client so you’re not interrupted by email notifications when you’re working on a big project is a good place to start. Another strategy is scheduling specific times to check email throughout the day. This focuses work and eliminates the time workers spend getting back into a project.
Ultimately, email is not going away even though other communication tools have risen up. Just as television didn’t replace newspapers and magazines, social collaboration tools, data repositories and project management software won’t replace email. Instead, workers need to utilize current tools and strategies to better manage their time, while companies need to innovate their products so email is integrated and we don’t continue creating silos of communication and information.
Avinoam Nowogrodski is co-founder and CEO of Clarizen, the SaaS-based work execution software company.