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In praise of the inbox

Dennis Fois, CEO of Copper, explains why the future of work lies in the inbox

Twenty years ago, productivity apps ruled the roost; Word, Excel, Access, Oracle and SAP were the cornerstones of the business world. Microsoft Windows was the supreme ruler of the technological stack.

Fast forward ten years, and Apple and Google, via Android, started taking big chunks of market share from Microsoft. More importantly, the market itself had changed. In 2014, Microsoft – under the guidance of Satya Nadella – pronounced that the world, and therefore Microsoft, was now all about how cloud and mobile were reinventing productivity.

Today, Apple, Google and Microsoft are still the power players, but there’s more competition within the apps arena. Thus, Microsoft, with its new Teams positioning, seems ready to take on Slack and act as the main productivity hub, tieing email, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations together under the guise of collaboration.

This change seems to mirror the changing face of work: it’s not about waterfall development anymore; it’s not about the PRINCE 2 project management methodology; it’s about scrum masters and agile; it’s about enabling workforces and collaboration.

Putting humans first As easy as it is to get carried away by all the hype, it’s important to be pragmatic.

A Recommended CRM for G Suite, Copper is the only CRM that works from your inbox with a seamless integration with G Suite. Copper arms its users with collaboration tools and provides a user-friendly experience to help teams and businesses build long-lasting relationships. Used across teams, from finance to sales and marketing, it automates tasks and statuses for digital-first employees in small to medium sized companies. Copper has more than 12,000 paying customers in more than 100 countries and was recently ranked 115th on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the US.

Collaboration apps like Slack can be extremely helpful, but in large, complex organisations, it is easy to drown in a plethora of channels and notifications that, without careful management, can all too easily take over one’s work and personal life.

This raises an important point; people are human. They have personal lives, preferred working patterns and, unless you’re a high performing developer with a caffeine drip, a need for downtime. People need to get things done, but they can’t be ‘on’ all the time.

That’s why it’s important that the tools at our disposal reflect how we work, something the professional world doesn’t always do well. According to the University of San Diego, being a ‘morning person’ or a ‘night owl’ isn’t just a figure of speech; some people genuinely are more productive early in the day or late at night, and their needs aren’t met by a conventional nine to five working day.

Today, many employers do offer flexible working schedules, but this often means working from somewhere else, rather than sometime else. Employees who need to collect/drop off children at school/nursery are frequently expected to be ‘on call’ throughout the day and night to make up for lost time, rather than being able to truly flex their working schedule.

Not surprisingly, the most successful innovations are those that really do make life easier – smartphones, contactless payments and email, for example.

Smart Technology of the Future

This principle explains why it is important to optimise how we use email as our primary productivity tool, for example by using smart systems to automatically draw content from email into other systems, such as databases or contract signing and tracking systems.

Much of the content in databases has to be rekeyed manually, either from the phone, email or physical meetings, and if any of this information can be harvested automatically, staff productivity will rise.

Email is useful in this context because it provides tags, such as subject lines, that help systems understand the context, whereas collaboration systems like Slack and Teams are often messy and chaotic. Even with threads, topics can jump around a lot, which runs the risk of data being mis-classified.

It is also easy to dig out and forward an email; but reposting a collaboration thread or link to an app isn’t so easy for non-Teams or Slack users. To be effective, collaboration must accommodate the lowest common denominator. In the words of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘Humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the slowest’.

As office workers are asked to perform ever more complex jobs with increasing numbers of stakeholders and processes, it’s vital for AI and machine learning to start taking over some of the simpler, time-consuming admin tasks, so that users can maintain workflow and increase productivity.

What’s next?

Today, it’s almost fashionable to disparage email, but the simple truth is that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; and, while it’s true that many people are overwhelmed by the amount of email they receive, there are emerging tools and fixes that can help us manage our inboxes.

The biggest gains will come from leveraging the information stored within email systems to take the pressure off other areas of employees’ working lives, associating other apps with the informational hub of email, rather than trying to radically change user behaviour patterns.

Simple changes can make the difference between a stressed, unproductive workplace and one where technology supports and augments natural human workflows. For today’s busy working environments, that’s a real win.

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