Inbox zero and other productivity myths

A new survey of 17,000 knowledge workers worldwide finds email lacking when it comes to effective workplace communication

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The first of a two-part series exploring the evolution of workplace communication. The data and findings are drawn from our recent in-depth survey, The State of Work, and other research. 

Three takeaways from this report

  • More email, more problems. Employees who receive the most email—more than 50 emails a day—are paying a steep price for their willingness to go head-to-head with their inbox. These “hyper-connectors” are more likely than moderate email users to say they struggle with essential workplace tasks, such as finding information needed to complete projects, meeting performance goals, and aligning with other teams. 
  • Managing messages vs. getting work done. Workers are stymied just trying to manage an avalanche of messages. Meanwhile, their actual to-do lists get longer and longer: 82% of hyper-connectors say they have three or more active projects each day and 58% attend three or more meetings each day. 
  • Same inbox, vastly different workplace. No one would argue that the workplace of today looks or feels the same as it did in 1971. Yet that’s the year an engineer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fired off the first email. So it pays to ask: Are we equipping ourselves with the right tools for modern work? 

Inbox zero or zero inboxes?

The email inbox is at the center of most work; it’s the default for workplace communications and information. But for a lot of people, checking email can feel like staring into an abyss. There are time-sensitive directives all tangled up with non-essential notifications. Your carefully curated to-do items get buried under someone else’s unfortunate misuse of reply-all. 

Perhaps that’s due in part to the era in which email was born. In 1971, its invention was credited to the late computer engineer Ray Tomlinson. He sent the world’s first electronic communication. To this day, emails are dispatched similarly to the way traditional mail arrives at mailboxes—it’s a letter sent to an address—except with email your messages are delivered in order of recency. Beyond that, the actual mechanism that brokers our communication with the outside world, the inbox, hasn’t changed all that much.

While email is effective for some tasks, it often falls short as a collaboration tool for teams. In fact, our survey data shows, more email often correlates to more challenging workplace experiences. 

It’s staggering how much time people spend trying to make email more efficient. According to experts, that’s because email:

  1. Prioritizes one-to-one communication vs. one-to-many (see: the reply-all nightmare
  2. Creates information silos because the inbox can’t offer visibility into conversations taking place or documents shared across other teams
  3. Slows down conversations, and therefore decision-making, with a lack of real-time functionality—you send and wait 
  4. Doesn’t foster the more informal relationship-building communication that makes for a happy, productive workforce

It’s no wonder, then, that in the nearly five decades since the inbox’s inception, workplace experts have logged umpteen hours trying to figure out how to make it a more productive space. How do we make sense of all those incoming messages? Do we apply the Marie Kondo approach to our email to reach maximum productivity? Or is spending valuable work time cleaning up our inbox actually counterproductive? 

We’ve been considering these questions and more ever since releasing our State of Work report last month with research firm GlobalWebIndex. It is our most in-depth survey to date on the attitudes and experiences of knowledge workers worldwide, with representation across dozens of industries and job categories, and reflections from C-level executives to craftspeople. 

Making sense of the inbox: how email stacks up to our daily work

Overall, we learned that workers accept email as a fact of life. And for some, email means a lot of email. Again, that hyper-connectors group reported receiving 51 to more than 100 emails per workday. Their daily work centers around the flow and exchange of information. And more here doesn’t equate to more productivity. This group struggles more than their cousins, the moderate and minimal email users, across a range of factors. They are:

  • More likely to find effective use of tech/IT a challenge
  • More likely to say that teams at their companies were “not working toward a shared vision”
  • More likely to say it’s hard to communicate with coworkers in different teams, departments or offices. (This at a time when 70% of the global workforce works remotely at least one day per week.)

It isn’t all negative. Heavy email users aren’t checking out. In our survey, they (and all workers) expressed an eagerness to engage even more deeply with their work. 

What that engagement looks like, according to our survey: more interaction with company leadership, access to useful tools and technology, a solid understanding of performance goals, and strong relationships with peers and partners.

Heavy email users (aka “hyper-connectors”) receive more than 50–100 emails per day, moderate email users receive 11–50 emails per day, and minimal email users receive 0–10 emails per day.

These responses also opened the door to more questions, such as:

  • How does email help knowledge workers do their work, and how does it hold them back?
  • Is “inbox zero” a relevant measure of workplace productivity? 
  • As the number of apps and software we use in the workplace continues to grow, how do we assess whether we’re using the best tools for the job?  

We can’t claim to know all the answers, but we’d like to jump-start a critical conversation.  

Meet the hyper-connectors: the always-in-the-know employees

We were eager to learn more about hyper-connectors, who made up 19% of our survey respondents. Hyper-connectors strive to keep their fingers on the pulse of their organizations’ initiatives and goals. These workers tend to accept the amount of emails they receive as being a part of their job. Nearly half of hyper-connectors report that they prefer to be included in “as many communications as possible” so they know what’s going on. This desire is shared almost equally by moderate email users (48%) and minimal email users (42%).

But it’s the hyper-connectors who are also the most likely to say they work for innovator companies—organizations they describe as those that embrace new tools and software. These findings suggest that hyper-connectors are motivated, engaged employees with favorable opinions of their organizations.

We homed in on the hyper-connectors because their experiences illuminate common pain points that workers face as our workplaces become more and more tech-centric and knowledge-based. 

While hyper-connectors value staying in the know, receiving upward of 50 missives each day can result in cognitive overload and increase the risk of missing urgent messages. Indeed, hyper-connectors are twice as likely as minimal email users to strongly agree that it’s challenging to find and access the information they need to do their job. 

What’s actually happening in the hyper-connector’s inbox? We found that it’s the work of work: that’s to say, tasks like sending project updates, scheduling meetings, sharing brainstorm notes and answering project-related questions. Hyper-connectors also use email to figure out which queries require a response and who needs to be looped in and when. 

All this “work of work” takes up bandwidth—both cognitively and inbox-wise. These limitations present an opportunity to rethink the way we share information, collaborate and communicate at work. 

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More than messaging: reimagining the work of work

What we know so far about hyper-connectors is that their jobs involve a lot more than just communication. Knowledge workers are also responsible for finding and disseminating information, generating alignment between teams and leaders, and meeting their goals. Our data uncovered that hyper-connectors often struggle to accomplish these fundamental tasks. Here’s a closer look at the top five workplace challenges our global survey identified.

The top five essential tasks email users struggle with in the workplace.

 

1. Finding information

Nearly half of all knowledge workers report that “it’s challenging for me to find/access the latest information and data I need to do my job.” This number  jumps to over half (53%) for hyper-connectors, who feel the strain more acutely than moderate (48%) and minimal (42%) email users.  

What does this suggest? Considering that email was designed primarily for one-to-one communication, it adds up that many knowledge workers don’t find this an adequate means for finding or sharing information in the workplace. Which leads to the next point…   

2. Getting visibility into other teams’ work

Fifty-seven percent of hyper-connectors say they “find it challenging to communicate with coworkers in different teams, departments or offices.” Forty-eight percent of moderate email users and 43% of minimal email users feel the same.


3. Meeting performance goals

Too many emails can also impact performance; hyper-connectors were the most likely to cite “hitting sales/revenue targets” as a business challenge.

4. Effective use of IT/technology

Hyper-connectors were the most likely to cite “effective use of IT/technology” as a challenge. This insight suggests that the tools made to boost productivity might actually be blockers. 

5. Alignment between teams

Thirty percent of hyper-connectors said that “alignment between teams” was a business challenge. Hyper-connectors were also the most likely to say that teams at their companies were “not working toward a shared vision.” Moderate email users, however, were more apt to believe their teams were aligned. 

This disparity in alignment suggests that more communication doesn’t necessarily lead to more engaged workers. And the findings in our State of Work study support this idea. In the study, survey participants said that email was the least effective way to share companywide announcements and strategy updates. Collaboration tools were considered the most effective: 81% of respondents whose company uses collaboration tools to share updates told us they understood their company’s strategy.

Taken together, these five workplace challenges point to areas in which the inbox hinders employees’ ability to work effectively across teams. That’s why business and IT leaders ought to consider these challenges when exploring new tools and solutions. It’s about time that high-performing, mostly satisfied workers are liberated from the daily clutter of their inbox.

A world where email is not the default

Companies don’t have to build their communications on email. At Slack, of course, we use Slack for internal communication and collaboration and shared channels to connect with our partners in their Slack workspaces. Automattic, the open-source publishing software company behind WordPress, relies on its own internal collaboration system rather than email to connect its distributed workers across time zones and continents.

Likewise, DevaCurl, the Lizzo-endorsed brand for curly hair, recently told us that it’s moved most of its internal communication from email into Slack. This tells us that myriad enterprising employees are already searching for a better way to work, one that may very well reside outside their inbox. 

Saadia Zahidi, the managing director and head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society at the World Economic Forum, says the only constant for workers today is change.

The core tasks needed to perform most jobs will change by 42% over the next three years, her organization’s research has found. In other words, nearly half of the average worker’s day-to-day duties will look profoundly different by 2022. Work is changing quickly; email is not.

Looking beyond inbox zero and toward the future of work

Email isn’t dead. For most companies, it’s not even on life support. But as the workplace continues to evolve, it’s less and less likely that a tool born of the ’70s, designed for one-to-one communication, will continue to keep pace.

Even Merlin Mann, the writer, speaker and technologist who coined the ever-vaunted “inbox zero” concept in 2007, says the idea was never about literally reaching zero unread emails. Rather, his strategy referred to a system for triaging email communications, reclaiming mental bandwidth and logging fewer hours in the inbox.

Fortunately, there are legions of other applications for work that are worth considering, ones that don’t require workers to spend valuable time trying to optimize a suboptimal system. Modern tools need to be user-driven, interoperable and frictionless; they should connect workers rather than isolate them. Above all, our communication tools ought to empower, rather than limit, all employees, especially those who are most engaged.

Survey methodology and sources

Slack partnered with market research firm GlobalWebIndex to survey 17,000 knowledge workers across 10 countries in the first quarter of 2019. All respondents were identified as internet users (someone who uses the internet from any device and any location) and knowledge workers (employed individuals who hold an office position and/or “work with data, analyze information or think creatively” in a typical workweek). The surveyed population spanned an age range of 16 to 64, more than 40 industries, and all career levels, from office staff to executives.

Routing methods were applied to ensure that all respondents answered questions relevant to them. Participants completed the survey in their local language, and questions were localized to each country to ensure relevancy. GlobalWebIndex vetted all responses across a series of metrics, ranging from survey completion time to patterned answers, to ensure high-quality, representative data.

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