Chances are, regardless of the sector, industry or size of business that you work within, email is probably your most prevalent communication tool. Since it burst into widespread use in the late 1990s it has transformed the way most organisations communicate. And, with that, it has brought both benefits and pitfalls.

There’s a lot to like about email. It’s quick. It’s cheap. It’s accessible by (almost) all. And it provides a handy record of communications which have taken place. All in all, it’s easy to understand its popularity.

Not a cure all solution

For most of us, we will never have been taught how to use email. The logic presumably goes that it’s so simple, anyone can work out what to do. And to an extent, that’s true. Most of us are capable of opening up a new message, typing, and sending it to a recipient with very little input or support. Do we really need training on how to use email?

And therein lies the problem. Because email is so straightforward and so convenient to use, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s a cure all solution. Gradually, over time, our face to face interactions and phone conversations have diminished, to such an extent that it is now perfectly possible to spend an entire day without speaking to anyone else at all. While the introverts amongst us might be delighted at such a prospect! – the fact is that such reliance on electronic communications can do more harm than good.

It’s just a tool

Email is an incredible tool… but it is just that. A tool, one of many to be used in our armoury of business communications. It has a number of strengths, but it also has some undeniable weaknesses. We’ve all been on either the receiving or the sending end of an email which has been very much not interpreted as its sender intended. Email, for all its technological advancement, is still not able to replicate human inferences and emotions. There is a real danger we can create problems rather than solutions if we’re not careful with its use.

It is also no substitution for a face to face conversation. Gradually, as our reliance on email and other electronic forms of communication have grown, so some of our human relationships have diminished. We have all seen examples of people working less than a metre away from each other emailing to ask what their lunch plans are rather than initiating a real life conversation. Over time, these start to add up.

An erosion of our organisational culture

When it comes to efficiencies, email can both create and remove these. There is no denying it is more efficient to send one group email than to call every person on that distribution list individually. On the flip side, we have all had days where we’ve suffered ‘death by email’ – when the Reply All button is used repeatedly until our inboxes become one endless sea of responses which make picking through them to find the information we need to action almost impossible.

And, if not managed correctly, there is a danger that it also erodes our organisational culture. Email can create hard records and audit records, but it can also create paper trails which suspicious minds within your business will exploit to pass blame and point fingers. In the absence of those human, face to face conversations, there is a risk that such a culture can prevail if not kept in check.

Driving value

Email can drive huge value within our businesses, but it can also drain time, impact our culture and create rather than resolve inefficiencies. When you look at the effectiveness of communications in your workplace, consider whether email is helping, or hindering. Don’t then be afraid to step in and instigate change in order to drive better results. Email is a tool, but it’s not the catch all solution. Great communications depend on so much more than that.