Forget "inbox zero"

The best way to organize your business communications is not to organize them at all

April 2, 2014
April 2, 2014

Slack, a chat app from former game studio Tiny Speck, has become extremely popular in the short time since its release in February, particularly among web developers and in media. Early adopters include teams at Adobe, Medium, and Rdio.

Slack is often touted as an email killer, promising to provide a more efficient way for teams to communicate internally. And there’s no doubt that email can be a plague upon our workplaces, eating up hours with unnecessary messages and turning simple questions into endless threads full of clarifications. Slack cuts through that partly by initiating any messages as chats before converting them into emails when someone isn’t available.

But the truly interesting thing about Slack is that it puts the whole fragmented list of ways we communicate beyond email, chats, messages, documents, and reports into one stream and makes it searchable. It promises to end the need to constantly categorize and sort everything we do. When everything’s already in one place, you don’t need to spend time creating folders to sort things into and trying to keep track of where the information you need is. You just search for it as needed.

“We think of Slack as a search product that has a messaging app built in,” Tiny Speck CEO and Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield told Quartz.

Gmail’s launch, a decade ago yesterday, was a watershed moment on this front for email.

“I think one of the under-recognized benefits of switching to Gmail was that the cost of processing email went through the floor,” Butterfield says. “It just got so much easier. When I used Yahoo and Outlook I had to to decide what folder I wanted for every message and, which ones I deleted. The Gmail approach was to throw everything in a pile and not worry about it, because you’re able to search.”

Many people have elaborate systems for filing their email and chasing “inbox zero.” But they’re not putting their time to good use according to a 2011 study from IBM Research. It found that people who do no email organization and rely on search are actually faster at finding emails than those who file them in folders.

Meanwhile, internal communication has gotten more overwhelming over the years as the number of different platforms has increased, real-time feedback has become more common, and the volume of information people are expected to absorb has increased. Microsoft is no longer a unifying platform for all of the applications that workers use to store data and messages. And the number of disparate services that the average company’s employees might use for communication and business data has multiplied.

“In the last 16 years with cloud-based business services, there are a dozen vendors competing in every product category and that’s the good ones,” Butterfield says. “There’s probably literally hundreds, and new categories are getting invented all the time.”

Given the volume of information flow, Butterfield predicts most workplaces will move within the decade to a system that centralizes all of their communications and makes them searchable across the different systems.

Filing may make things seem neat and feel ultra-productive. But, as messy as a big pile of information seems, search is its own kind of organization, and one that’s much less time consuming.

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