Has the world reached communication overload?


Whether it’s work or personal messages we’re viewing on our computers, smartphones or tablets, there’s no doubt communication overload is a global epidemic. Whether it be through email, social media sites or messaging platforms, we are always contactable, reachable and ‘on’.

One communication tool has taken the brunt of the blame for this overload of communication; email. New kids on the block like messaging services and social media sites have been quick to cash in on the idea that email is dying a death and we need to look for other ways to communicate online, and fast. And this is just wrong.

Email is the single biggest open network in the world, it holds the most IP of any network today, much of what we cherish and value in our business and family lives is held on one of the billion email accounts currently registered across the globe. It is certainly not dead as a communication medium. In fact, it’s still growing.

In 2015, 205 billion emails were sent and received worldwide every single day according to research by Radicati.com. The company also estimated 2.6 BILLION people globally now use email, a figure expected to rise to one third of the world’s population (2.9bn) by 2020.

Even if you’re one of the growing number of people replacing some of their email use with the likes of Slack, Yammer, WhatsApp or other messaging systems, there’s no doubt you still use email. By setting up one of these other channels, all you’re doing is opening another channel of communication to monitor. You aren’t solving the problem at your fingertips, you’re just adding to it.

My company, 4th Office, firmly believes that the solution is not in creating more lines of communication. Rather we should be looking to the incredibly stable and personal communication tool we all use already and reevaluate and reform how we are using it. We firmly believe that reinventing email is the future of communication.

March 2016 saw the death of Ray Tomlinson, the man widely-credited as being the inventor of email around 45 years ago. He was lauded with tributes including from Gmail’s official Twitter account.

Like the creators of the Internet itself, Tomlinson would never have been able to predict just how much of a cornerstone to our lives email would become. In many countries it has sounded the death-knoll for the traditional postal system and saved countless number of trees in the process.

But for all its positives, such as speed of delivery and breaking down of borders, the way we now use email and other communication channels needs to be addressed. The always-on culture is leading to an increase in stress plus a decrease in productivity in the workplace.

The term ‘Inbox Zero’ is frequently quoted as a dream achievement in our lives, but it’s a goal that ends in failure for the vast majority of us. A McKinsey study in 2012 showed even back then 28% of workers’ time was spent managing emails, that was equated to 650 hours per individual per year.

The need for a digital detox has been fueled by the increasing stranglehold email and other communication media have over our lives and the incessant desire to continually check our messages. This obsession was the first in a now long line of digital addictions.

Psychologists spoke of it in January saying push notifications, where you are alerted to incoming messages, are a “toxic source of stress“. And back in 2013, scientists at Loughborough University found a direct link between email and stress with an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels when reading and sending messages.

At work we send messages to people who sit next to us or are based just a few steps across the office. At home we neglect telephone calls in favour of sending messages to friends and family. And we are also forced to use email to deal with companies and brands. This leaves us trapped in a spiral of waiting for an answer, a total contradiction to the quick and easy response email was designed to generate.

So how do we track back from the overload? To start we need to understand that just by adding communications channels with more noise will not help. It is only when we start organising and clearing the noise that we can find some clarity. And given it is not going away, email has the necessary ingredients to become smarter and evolve to better accommodate our new communication intensive realm.

4th Office have been investing in Artificial Intelligence to improve how our users organize their daily communications. Our view is that if technology got us into this mess, it should get us out of it. Our solution is a virtual communication assistant, ‘Scarlett’. She learns how someone uses and interacts with their email accounts so that over time the artificial intelligence can take the strain; flagging up the most important emails, automatically deleting spam and suggesting the most immediate email that needs our attention. Scarlett sorts email by person not by content – completely challenging the way we use email. More importantly she takes care you do not forget to respond to your VIP’s and nudges you to follow-up when people have not responded to your inquiries.

So instead of finding a way to replace email we believe it needs to evolve and reinvent itself. It needs to organize itself around people and teams, become more efficient at working through actions, make it easier to identify what’s important and ensure you stay on top of what’s left on your to-do list. By helping us stay organized within this overwhelmed and always connected world it will continue to fulfill its primary promise of simple and effective communications.