Chat vs. Email Is the Wrong Question


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PHOTO:
Raquel Martínez | unsplash

Will chat replace email? We get asked this question a lot. The good news? Email usage is going down. The bad news? Chat is going up.

Email usage lessened as adoption of Microsoft Teams increased. This was one of the insights from SWOOP Analytics’ 2021 Microsoft Teams Benchmarking study. Plenty of evidence suggested any reduction in email was likely due to an increase in one-on-one chat, which increased prodigiously once staff were forced to work from home (WFH) last year. Those benchmarking participants who reported a drop in email usage were universally pleased with this trend. After all, who likes email? They were less concerned about the rise in chat levels. Calling the increased chat levels “bad news” is all me. And here’s why.

Chat Is Killing the Art of Conversation

We have had decades to fine-tune our email etiquette. We know the damage a hastily crafted email can do. We have learned to take our time when writing a potentially sensitive email message. This isn’t the case with chat. According to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” chat and texting (and email) are robbing us of the ability to develop the art of conversation. Worryingly, she fears the current generation of children will never learn how to converse effectively.

Most of us enjoy participating in conversations face-to-face. However, increasingly these conversations are taking place online. Tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack and Workplace by Facebook support two types of asynchronous interactions: chat and threaded discussions. The chat functions are akin to texting on our phones. They ‘demand’ an instant response and are the closest means we have to a telephone call, without forcing instant attention. Threaded discussions are designed along conversational lines. They leave room for reflection between interactions, not unlike email. But they have the added advantage of organizing the conversation into threads that can be easily assimilated by others, who choose to join the conversation.

In our recent Microsoft Teams benchmarking study we found we sent on average 28 chat messages for every threaded discussion message. By replacing email with chat, and under-utilizing its natural replacement in threaded discussions, are we actually killing off conversations within our organizations?

Related Article: Can Asynchronous Collaboration Survive Our Always-On Workplaces?

What Are the Implications When Moving Into a Hybrid Working World?

As we move into a more permanent state of hybrid work, the competition for our digital attention will only become more intense. Early research studies have shown that to sustain pre-COVID-19 levels of productivity, we will likely need to work longer hours, though potentially less intense ones. If we allocate too much of our attention to synchronous (same time) technologies like meetings, calls and chat, we run the risk of collaboration burnout. If we spend too much time in email and discussion threads, we may become frustrated by a slower progression of our work. We now have a whole portfolio of digital tools at our disposal. If we get the balance wrong, hybrid work could prove a disaster, both personally and organizationally.

Related Article: Is Your Company Ready for Hybrid Work?

It’s Not About Replacing One Tool With Another

Will chat replace email? No, not really. Email still plays a dominant role in inter-organizational communication. Email is accepted as transactional and legally binding, meaning it won’t be replaced anytime soon. Intra-organizational communication should see email replaced by friendlier modes. We would argue, however, the replacement should predominantly be threaded discussions, which sustains a similar cadence to email, while providing a friendlier way for sharing knowledge and information more effectively.

Looking beyond email, chat and threads, we need to be able to balance our whole portfolio of digital tool usage. To do this we must first know how much time we actually spend using different digital modes. Microsoft’s MyAnalytics makes a start in this direction by estimating how much time you spend in meetings, calls, chat and email by estimating how much time people spend on average dealing with an email or chat messages.

We have recently undertaken a more comprehensive analysis across several organizations and several thousand staff. We added the additional areas where digital time is spent — namely threaded discussions in Teams Channels and Yammer, SharePoint shared files and Intranet and OneDrive file usage — to provide a picture of what a Microsoft 365 Tool portfolio of time spent might look like.

M365 Usage

The above graphic was drawn from our out-of-the-box Microsoft 365 Reporting Functions. Some of the reported activity needed to be translated to time spent, using averages from our research. As such, it is only as accurate as how average you are! That said, for a portfolio, the relative differences are what’s important. It only needs to indicate a potential imbalance. Of course, many of you also spend time outside of Microsoft 365, so you would also have to factor in time spent on these tools. Our early insights showed the portfolio patterns for individuals, departments and whole enterprises can differ significantly, suggesting common practices have yet to be developed. It therefore presents a good opportunity to influence digital behaviors for the better.

For those wanting a more precise measure of where you spend your digital time, there is technology for that as well. For example, have a look at Sapience.

Related Article: Microsoft May Hold the Productivity Crown, But Productivity Reporting Is Ripe for Disruption

How to Optimize Your Digital Tool Portfolio

Once you can visualize the usage of your digital tool portfolio, you can start to assess areas of potential over- and under-utilization. I have previously written about emerging “bad digital interaction habits.” In the table below I pose some questions to ask yourself about your digital tool usage portfolio:

Digital Time Spent

Doing Too Much

Not Doing Enough

Email Reads

Are you being distracted by less important emails?

Are you missing knowledge broadening opportunities?

Email Sent

Prioritising quantity over quality? Sending too many internal emails?

Are you being insufficiently pro-active? Not engaging externally enough?

Audio Calls

Are you being respectful of your calling partners’ time? Are all your ‘same-time’ interactions essential?

Not appreciating the socialisation/engagement aspects of calls?

Video Calls (subset of audio calls)

As above

The only argument I found for turning cameras off was to reduce carbon emissions. Well, maybe there are some others, but the balance by far was for turning it on.

Chat

Think carefully before chatting. Is this message only relevant to one person and will not be missed if it disappears tomorrow?

A good use of chat is for a quick attention grab, that would be appreciated by the receiver.

Channel Conversations

Hard to do too much of this, other than to look at other areas that may be missing out.

Participating in conversations broadens the mind and makes your contributions more valued.

Screen Sharing

Think about the audience. Are they all benefiting equally from the screen shares?

Sharing your screen can enrichen the conversation. ‘Here is what I am seeing’.

OneDrive Files

This is true solo work. Perfection is not always required before sharing.

Are you over-sharing? Sharing too early?

SharePoint Files

Are you burying yourself in content creation? Don’t forget to balance with your people connections.

Are you devoting enough time to creating content assets for others to benefit from?

SharePoint Intranet Reads

It’s good to be abreast of what is happening internally. But there can be too much of a good thing.

Are you ignoring what else is going on around you? Running the risk of misaligning your own work?

Yammer Reads

Aim to focus reading in areas where you can best learn from others.

Yammer is where enterprise level knowledge is being shared. Are you missing out?

Yammer Posts & Replies

Hard to do too much of this. But aim not to dominate Yammer conversations. Aim to leave space for others’ contributions.

This is the opportunity for you to build an enterprise reputation by sharing your knowledge.

Yammer Likes

Also hard to do too much of this. Be sure they are authentic.

Will be appreciated by the receiver, especially if you are a senior executive.

So the question of will chat replace email? It’s the wrong question to ask. 

Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.





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