Is email really our best tool for collaboration?
Email is quite an interesting piece of technology that we've all come to heavily depend on. We rely on it every day at work for getting answers to our questions, getting approvals from leadership, scheduling meetings, sharing files, getting updates from across the organization, and SO much more. Additionally, automated computer systems are emailing us daily to notify us about workflow updates, changes to the system, and so on.
Yes, there's nothing like coming back to work after a vacation only to spend your first day back sorting through dozens upon dozens of emails, trying to sort the noise from actual work. After spending the day trying to get caught up, I'm often left drained and ready for my next vacation.
What if I was to say that email is not the best tool for the majority of our daily communication? This video by VinJones Videos sums up some of my own thoughts, experience and frustrations with how we over-use email today.
Office 365 offers several (sometimes overlapping) ways that you can centralize your communication and collaboration. Apps like Teams, Planner and Yammer are built around centralizing collaboration for groups of people at any size, and even across organizations.
1. Collaborate with Comments Inside Office (and non-Office) Documents
With comments, all change requests and revisions are captured and live inside of the document.
@mentioned users will get a basic email notification with a link to the document. They can then reply directly to comments, resolve them and add their own.
Lastly, you can add comments to non-Office documents, such as images and PDFs from OneDrive for Business. However, note that the @mention feature is not available for non-Office docs.
By using comments, all requested changes, notes, and version history live inside of the document and is visible to all co-authors. If you're looking to cut down on the back-and-forth process of finalizing a document, then this is a very easy place to start.
2. Task Comments in Microsoft Planner
If you still use Excel to keep track of your project tasks and progress, I highly recommend you take a look at Microsoft Planner. It's a must friendly interface that is designed for team collaboration and transparency.
Each task in Planner has a very basic comment field at the bottom of the card. No fancy formatting options, no @mentions, you just get a simple text field.
Anyone can leave a note on a task which is then visible to the entire Team. My favorite part about this is that you can leave progress updates on those large, complicated tasks that take awhile to complete. Comments are sorted chronologically, so it's easy to get caught up on the progress of any task.
Using Task comments is but another way to centralize communication within the work itself. Updates and discussion about the status of work lives within the task and it's accessible to the entire team. Everyone can get on the same page with little to no email required.
3. Private Chat in Teams
Believe it or not, chatroom conversations count as centralized communication (at least in the context of this article). Private 1-on-1 and group chats in Microsoft Teams are a great place to reduce the bulk of your internal email conversations.
Group chats are particularly helpful when you work with a group of individuals that doesn't have it's own Team in place and may not require one (i.e.: a temporary committee). They're easy to start, easy to follow and easy to exit when you're no longer involved.
Have you every tried to exit a "reply-all" email thread? Good luck!
4. Team Conversations; like Email but Better
There are few reasons that I can think of that would justify using email over a Team conversation for internal communication. Mainly, if you needed to include a contractor or client who doesn't use Teams themselves, but there are workarounds for that too.
Every new Conversation in Teams is treated as an individual thread. This simply means that each conversation stays on topic, and doesn't get mixed up with other discussions happening within your Team.
Let's refer back to the scenario described in the VinJones video above. Getting input and mutual agreement from multiple parties via email can be a nuisance and sometimes a dead-end. In my own experience, these types of emails can even lead to breakdowns in communication that can only be resolved with a meeting to get everyone back on the same page.
Team conversations keep the conversation in context. Everyone can see the entire discussion in chronological order and who has engaged with it. If you're a latecomer to the conversation, it's quick and easy to get caught up.
Team Channels are also a great way to share important announcements across your department, teams and even the entire organization. You can change the format of a team conversation to an Announcement, which can help important updates and news stand out.
Being able to post meetings to a Team channel is a feature that I think doesn't get enough credit for just how handy it is. The key advantage is that members can openly discuss the meeting, get information, share relevant files (etc) in the conversation thread before and after the meeting.
For those of us always trying to reduce the number of meetings we attend each week, you could technically cover the entire agenda in the conversation thread, eliminating the need have the meeting. Everyone gets the information they need and time back in their day. It's a win-win.
Team conversations are designed to be transparent at the core. All members can follow and engage a conversation with ease, or they can choose to ignore it if it has nothing to do with them. All of this is maintained in conversation threads and therefore not clogging up your inbox.
5. Yammer for Open Discussion Across the Entire Organization
When it comes to reaching and engaging with broader audience across the organization, email is just okay. It's goof for sending a one-way message to all employees, 3rd party contractors, and our customers.
What if you want to encourage two-way communication? If you're looking for any kind of response from the audience, email can quickly become unruly for the poor administrator that will inevitably receive all of those responses and need to sort them out and respond.
Do you know what other online platform is proven to be an effective tool for sharing news information and managing user engagement? Social media.
Meet Yammer, your private social media network from Office 365:
Whether you love or hate social media (or specific players in the industry), it's hard to ignore just how powerful and effective it is as a medium for sharing information and creating discussion. With Yammer, you can share announcements, ask open questions, publish videos and files for users that is specifically designed for open user engagement.
Comparing this to using email, Yammer provides a more powerful method of reaching users across the organization and collecting feedback. Just like any other social media platform, the conversation is open and transparent for all users.
In Defense of Email
Despite this possibly reading like a hit-piece, let's be clear that I don't think email is a bad tool. The message here is that email isn't the best (or only) tool you have in your Office 365 arsenal for sharing information and getting a response.
A key strength with email is that you don't need special permission or configurations to message someone outside of your own tenant, it just works.
As new collaborative technologies reach a level of maturity that make them feel less niche and more mainstream, the biggest hurdle in front us is adopting a change-positive culture. Learning to openly accept and adopt new and innovative methods and tools for approaching old problems is the core of developing a modern workplace.
Thanks for reading!