Twenty years ago, if someone told you email would come to be regarded as the poor sibling of instant chat apps in business, would you have believed it? And still, its days as the corporate communication tool of choice are numbered.
Email isn’t joining fax machines in the business technology graveyard just yet, but we’re all so used to committing unformed thoughts to cyberspace and developing ideas in real time, that longform emails just can’t keep up with our pace in the same way that instant messaging can.
We are wise to the fact that if we’re going to operate at peak productivity email has to work in sync with the rest of the apps we flit between – like instant chat apps, internal social media, video and conferencing tools – and across multiple devices. And all that content has to be searchable if it’s going to save business time.
Today’s workplace communications technology must do all it can to boost productivity by automating where possible and by supporting virtual workforces. The next ten years will be about developing technology that can free up human hours and creating virtual situations that closely mimic reality.
Here’s what the past, present and future of workplace communications look like in 2018.
The past: email
Emails have reigned supreme as the workplace communications tool for the better part of two decades but are still far from perfect.
Inboxes can quickly become cluttered and disorganised, spam still slips through the net. Moreover, emails are far from impervious to cyber criminals and lengthy threads must be trawled through to find information. There is room for improvement.
Google has just overhauled Gmail in a major update that tackles some of email’s most obvious flaws. New tools include prompts to remind users to respond to forgotten mail and a confidential feature lets users put an expiry date on sent emails so they will eventually disappear from a recipient’s inbox. The confidential feature also lets you add passwords to those emails containing particularly sensitive information.
That being said, there’s still a time and a place for emails. They’re still a mainstay for formal communication with clients or suppliers that requires a clear paper trail and they can be useful for a tactical delay as they don’t have to be answered right away. For the rest, messaging apps, company social media and video – all housed within a single digital workplace – are becoming preferable.
Because we’re at a point where many use email like instant chat anyway – without the formal preamble or the sign offline – email as we know it is slipping down the pecking order.
The present: social and instant gratification
By 2020, millennials and Gen Zers will dominate the workplace. They are used to communicating in a stream of consciousness, hopping between multiple social media platforms, to WhatsApp, FaceTime, iMessage and back again. They’ve grown up sharing and airing to friends, friends of friends and total strangers who respond instantly.
Businesses are finding social tools beneficial for employee happiness and engagement. Unfiltered internal social media (ISM) and instant chat are transforming workplace culture, making project collaborations vastly easier and strengthening the bonds of friendship between colleagues.
A 2016 APCO study found a positive correlation between employee confidence and effective use of internal social media. The potential to socialise workplace communications is huge. Back in 2013, a Gartner study claimed social and collaborative software for communication in the workplace would be as impactful as the emergence of email and the telephone and its current popularity certainly suggests it will stay the course.
A 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study found that ISM and group portals for communication can create databases for documents and knowledge that can reduce the time spent looking for information by up to 35% and reduce the time spent reading, replying and answering email by 25%.
Remote and flexible working is becoming more and more common. According to a 2016 Gallup study, 43% of US workers work away from their team at least some of the time – up 4% from 2012.
These remote workers need more attention and tools to feel properly engaged with corporate culture and not alienated from the rest of their peers. And this is where the future for communications in the workplace is headed.
The future: avatars in virtual reality
At the recent Oculus 5 conference, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech was followed by a segment on the potential for virtual reality in the workplace.
Vice president of AR and VR at Facebook Andrew Bosworth took to the stage and said: “We are in the early stages of a tremendous platform shift, bigger than the shift from web to mobile. Not just a shift in the computing platform but a shift in how humans will connect.”
He observed the history of mankind is an ever-expanding attempt to connect with more people and more places by building roads, trains, planes and phones. But he added: “There is simply no substitute yet for being there. Physical distance becomes emotional distance. And what we’ve come to understand is that distance isn’t always measured in miles – sometimes it’s measured in missed moments.”
It’s a problem that resonates with remote workers. A 2017 Harvard Business Review study found those who work virtually are more likely than in-office workers to feel shunned and left out.
Bosworth demonstrated mixed reality, where a VR headset incorporated elements of the real world into a virtual workspace. He could leave his seat and enter a virtual room through a doorway for a meeting with colleagues.
Bosworth continued: “Being able to connect with people both physically proximate to you and physically distant at the same time has the potential to tremendously broaden our capacity to connect with other people.”
VR is still at the stage where it offers the ultimate escapism from the real world. Today that’s mainly used by gamers but the real value for business lies in how well VR can replicate the physical working environment and human connection so people can be physically represented at work.
It might sound like a poor substitute for having a face to face conversation with a colleague, but the better virtual reality gets and the more human avatars become, the closer businesses will come to replicating office interactions that truly engage.
When the workforce is crying out for flexible arrangements, including virtual work days, and entirely remote workforces becoming more common, technology is going to have to offer such solutions.