In the end, email might actually kill off Slack

Always-on culture is slowly invading the intimacy of your inbox with cloud technology

email symbols over a man's hands

There is something inherently ignorable about an email. Ray Tomlinson sent the first one (to himself) in 1971 but he can’t remember what the subject was.  

Email is not particularly cool either; it’s a Gen-X invention that Millennials and Gen-Zs are consistently trying to move away from with platforms like Slack, which is hellbent on killing it off

Slack doesn’t make any attempt to hide this contempt for email, either. Recently it added a feature to send messages beyond the walls of a company and connect organisations into shared channels. Unfortunately for email, most businesses want these instant cloud-based communications. Not some legacy tech where you can accidentally ‘cc’ in all your contacts.

Yet for some time there has been a growing community of individuals, entrepreneurs and startups that still see value in email in the golden age of cloud computing. They see an opportunity to feed that cloud-based innovation into your inbox and breathe new life into this founding pillar of the Digital Age. Simply put, the innovations that Slack has built to kill email off have, ironically, inspired others to improve it. 

The inbox revolution

In the middle of 2019, a New York Times article drew attention to a startup that promised to revolutionise emails with machine learning-based shortcuts. It was a Gmail plugin called Superhuman that reportedly had an ever expanding waiting list of potential clients, all keen to pay a $30 (£22.8) a month premium for email.  

The company borrows Gmail creator Paul Buchheit’s rule of “every interaction should be faster than 100ms”. It has developed features that it says will “make you feel superhuman”, such as an AI-based email triage (which is actually just a suped up filter), an undo send capability, message scheduling and a few more that sound like very mundane superpowers.

Productivity expert, author and founder of career advice site The Muse, Alexandra Cavoulacos points out that Superhuman is the newest in a long line of startups that claim to improve email. She gave its plugin a go, along with a rival service called Hey (you may have seen it battling Apple in the news). 

“Few have been successful in the long-term, but many have had early user growth and interest,” Cavoulacos explains. “What that indicates to me is that there is a real demand for an improved product. We spend so much time in email that something that has a better user experience or saves you time can be very valuable. 

“We are very used to our existing tools, so the new options have to be that much better to be worth switching – even more so for paid products. Superhuman has focused on speed and shortcuts, quite successfully – when I tested them out I definitely saw better speeds and enjoyed a number of their features. Hey seems to be focusing more on being a better filter – keeping just anyone from taking up your time, mental energy and inbox real estate.”

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While apps like Slack have a lot of upsides, Cavoulacos still believes that email has an important role in the modern age and she suggests that instant message platforms have facilitated a move to an immediate response model. And, while there is certainly work that is best done via platforms that focus on real-time collaboration and instant messaging, the more private affair of email still has its place in 2020 and beyond. 

“Email is still the best tool for thoughtful asynchronous communication, which is critical for allowing individuals to control when and how they do their work,” Cavoulacos says. “It is already challenging enough to keep your inbox from becoming your to-do list, with every email becoming a new task for you to do. Add in Slack or other app notifications, and professionals find themselves busy all day, but not productive.” 

Collaboration loops

Like Superhuman and Hey, Boštjan Bregar, the CEO and co-founder of Loop, believes that innovations in cloud-based communications and instant collaboration tools can be imported to your inbox. Bregar has been in the collaboration space for many years but didn't start with email. In 2016, angel investor and long-term collaborator Ben White suggested he should stop thinking about new, alternative email platforms and instead look at adding collaboration into something already in use. Whereas Slack and Microsoft Teams talk about killing off email, White and Bregar decided to go against the grain to try and modernise it.

“There are about three or four players that are really trying to sort of reinvented email - Dropbox just entered the market a few weeks ago with their solution,” Bregar explains. “So there are quite a few people now figuring out that maybe the solution is not bringing people out of email, but actually bringing all the new stuff into it.”

Loop connects to your existing email structure, whoever the provider may be, and floods it with various shortcuts and efficiency add-ons. It works as an individual performance boost or as a company-wide collaboration tool similar to Slack and Microsoft Teams. For example, when an email comes through that is perhaps more relevant to someone else in your team, rather than cc them in another message, you can @ them, or @ your whole team, and find the right person. From there, documents, resources and anything else required can be pulled in for more instant collaboration between you, your team and also the sender. 

However, as seamless as that sounds, it adds to the concerns raised by Cavoulacos about “always-on” culture where the lines between work and life can blur – something that may have been exacerbated for home workers by the pandemic. So, letting the rest of your team, or the world, know you’re currently reading emails may take away that intimacy. 

Bregar doesn’t see it that way, however. In fact, quite the opposite. “It is such an individual tool,” he says. “You're on your own when you're in your inbox, you don't feel there's anybody else in there. If you use Slack, you feel there are other people there. Any tool you take today that has been put onto the market in the last 10 years, you have this feeling that you're sort of together. Whereas within the inbox, it's yours.

“The challenge is how to preserve this ability to be on your own and be effective in doing your stuff while feeling that you have your team there to help you because otherwise, you have to switch between platforms.”

For now, at least, email seems here to stay as it still remains one of the most effective ways to communicate outside your organisation. With add-ons for easier collaboration that imitate what instant messaging-focused platforms offer, maybe it really will be email that triumphs after all.

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