INSIGHT

Will video kill the email star?

For those of us reading this article to distract from the guilt of a heaving inbox, we bring good news.

Email, that perennial (if tarnished) star of the digital world, is about to find itself on the wane. In the next few years, we may finally reach peak email at work – a study by Glasgow University found as much as 80 per cent of workplace emailing was a waste of time.

Not credible? Well, it’s just not reached you yet. Myriad applications are reducing email proliferation aggressively. Slack claims to reduce internal email by up to 48.6 per cent among its base of approximately 3m daily users. And from Trello to WhatsApp, an embarrassment of email-killers are out of beta and on the prowl.

And billions of users are already using them. Millions of us in the workplace.

But it’s not just context-specific apps that are threatening to tip email from its pedestal. Or the demands of your band of digitally-native Millennials.

Remember all that dewy-eyed puffery about how video conferencing would help workers collaborate while saving time and travel costs for our increasingly dispersed workforces? Well, there might be something in it. Ovum recently reported that market’s revenue has grown exponentially in the past four years, at a compound annual rate of 5.79 per cent.

Katherine Timmons, Business Psychology Consultant at Nicholson McBride, isn’t surprised. She says: “As collaborative tech for the workplace improves, attitudes to email are changing. Many firms are finding email achieves very little. The sender composes whatever they want to say, hits send, and feels the issue is off their chest. However, just because they’ve sent an email doesn’t mean things are sorted. What they’ve probably done is zap their colleagues’ time by giving them something to read and process, when really the responsibility for the task remains theirs alone.”

Which is perhaps why many firms now encourage staff to switch off email at certain times, or under certain conditions. Liverpool City Council, for instance, doesn’t permit emails between people in the same building. Virgin Management has a weekly Digital Detox for a couple of hours.

In contrast, Wainhouse Research reports that 94 per cent of businesses using video conferencing say it increases productivity.

Katherine says: “Increasingly companies are operating email or internet freezes. On away days this means colleagues interact more because they aren’t being distracted. If they’re in the office, they get more work done.”

So what is video conferencing now starting to meet its hyped-up potential from a decade ago?

A big plus is that the technology, by and large, now actually works. With ultrafast broadband now democratised (we sell it for around £35 per month, although we are admittedly ahead of that curve) there’s enough bandwidth for everyone to jump on.

And the underlying apps are also more reliable and user-friendly than during the previous hype cycle.

Together, this has created great interest again. Just last month US video conferencing market leader Polycom was snapped up for $2bn by Siris Capital. Where unicorns tread, there’s perceived buoyancy and optimism.

And so finally the sector is delivering on its promise...

Communicating with someone you can actually see is the most efficient and collaborative way of working. And now, that’s accessible to almost everyone.

 
 

Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, Cary Cooper explains: “Face-to-face is always going to be the ideal way to communicate. So much meaning is shared non-verbally, such as eye contact, voice, posture, facial expression and non-verbal language that can’t be replicated in text. Most tech loses these subtleties, which often results in misunderstandings. Communicating via computers is no substitute for the creative magic that sparks when you put people together in a room.”

It all comes down to how we’re wired as human beings. Experiments have shown that babies whose mothers keep a straight face regardless of what their child is doing become distressed. From childhood, neurotransmitters in our brains – the chemicals which relay information between nerves – expand according to what is happening in the real world.

Emojis give us the most basic emotional content, going some way to address the shortcomings of text-based communications. But the feelings they convey are hardly subtle. And they’re still shunned in the professional arena.

The bottom line is that workplace texting or conference calls, just don’t fire grey matter in the same way. No wonder the comedy video A Conference Call in Real Life has over 14m hits and counting - it perfectly encapsulates the frustration and time-inefficient boredom of it all.

Professor Cooper notes a low bandwidth platform, emotionally-speaking, invariably means a poorly-engaged employee.

“Applications allowing visual contact are the ideal way for workers to collaborate,” he says. “The French company Atos set up a Skype platform where employees can see each other and talk about shared documents. You can’t type within the interface, so everything has to be discussed. It’s an efficient way to get work done when getting together in person isn’t possible.”

And if you’re looking to take advantage, a number of providers have credible platforms for the simplest - to the most complex – of needs. And it’s part of Virgin Media Business’s job to curate them.

Unified Communications Product Manager, Tim Patchett, says: “We offer vendor agnostic UC consultancy and encourage a range of different communication methods – whoever is most suitable for the situation. And that, naturally, includes video conferencing.

“Virgin Media Business never champions new technologies for the sake of tech. But when we spot something that can make our customers stronger, we’ll move into the area strongly.”

So, don’t write the obituary for email. It isn’t quite dead yet. You probably do need to assuage your guilt and get back to that heaving inbox. But that monolithic time-sapper is set to be eclipsed and will soon find it has a much-reduced role in our over-committed lives.

And, in the meantime video’s star will continue to rise

For all the aforementioned reasons, we think that’s for the best.

Happy video conferencing.

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