Why Email Is Terrible When Working Remotely

Email is the worst form of communication in common usage today. The only redeeming characteristic of email is to create proof that at some point in time, you tried to inform someone of something. In this way, it is very similar to its direct ancestor: paper mail delivered by the postal service, and it is just as obsolete. Unfortunately, as remote work has become an immediate necessity for millions of people worldwide, email has become a primary form of communication.

To understand why email is such a weak form of communication, you much first appreciate the difference between information and communication:

  • Information – Knowledge that is available for review.
  • Communication – Your thoughts described to other people.

To share your thoughts with other people over email, you must first be a good writer, which is a skill far beyond spelling and grammar. Writing is an art form for which some people have a gift, and others have no business doing. Ask yourself this: if you had something vitally important to communicate to people you cared about, are you confident enough in your writing ability only to send them a letter? 

What if you won the lottery, and you wanted to inform your friends and family of your good fortune. Ask yourself: are you confident that you could write a competent email to communicate your enthusiasm, apprehension, and burgeoning feelings of generosity and philanthropy? Are you so comfortable with writing that you would need no follow-up conversation to answer questions or provide clarification? Could you confidently hit “Send” and know that your audience would correctly understand the totality of what you wished to communicate?

The fact is few people are good writers, yet we give everyone an email account and demand they send electronic letters to each other. We don’t think of email as something that a century ago would be hand written and physically delivered, yet from a functional standpoint, paper letters and email are identical. Emails have even kept salutations and signatures as an archaic holdover from when we penned ink onto paper, and never give a thought as to why we demand that professional emails must have them. Indeed, the entire cult of email has become an unsettling parody of a bygone era when we sent letters to people as the only way to share our thoughts over long distances. Today we have other options. Today, we should use other options.

“But what of email’s utility for transmitting information? Surely this is its critical and undeniably irreplaceable function?” Poppycock says I. We have a vastly superior medium for transmitting information that – ironically – emails do their very best to emulate: webpages. Everything an email can do a webpage can do better, but the humble yet powerful webpage lacks the single killer-feature of email: the smug satisfaction of declaring, “Well, you should know this information because I sent it to you.” Is this not why we transmit information over email? For organizations with intrawebs that have group-level assess controls, why do people still send emails? So that when someone uses the excuse of, “Well, I didn’t know that,” you can retort, “Check your email.” 

“What of organizations that do not have intrawebs? Is not then email a critical tool for sharing information?” Indeed, it is – as it is for companies that lack text messaging, chat rooms, phones, and video conferences. If your company has not invested in more effective means of communication, then you must use less effective means. If all your company used was smoke signals, morse code, and tin cans connected by a string, email would be a thing of science fiction. The reality is that it is not the 1990s, and email is no longer the state-of-the-art high-tech cyber-gee-wiz wunderkind of electronic communication it once was. It is a defunct, decrepit, and yet bafflingly not a deceased relic of internet folklore.

Sadly, organizations fight change, as change brings risk, and risk is to be feared and avoided. Prudent managers know “if it ain’t broke, don’t’ fix it,” and “if you can’t measure it, it ain’t real,” and they never measure if email is broke. Besides, how would an organization even communicate that it was no longer using email? By sending an email – a paradox that would tear a hole in the fabric of reality and cause time to fold back upon itself until we were affixing stamps to our monitors. To avoid this unpleasant disruption in time-and-space, organizations continue to mandate email as the primary medium of professional communication. There can be no other plausible explanation.

When we work remotely, we can’t stand in front of each other and converse. It is undeniable that humans in close physical proximity offer the broadest toolkit of communication, and when working remotely, this toolkit is greatly diminished. While working remotely, you cannot pick up infinitely nuanced non-verbal cues that the human brain has learned to identify over the last hundred thousand years. 

Even with videoconferencing, you cannot see the entire body, and every part of the human form offers critical clues as to what someone is – or is not – communicating verbally. Even if you could get someone to show their entire body over the video, the majority of humans are uncomfortable making eye contact with a camera, and eye contact is an essential aspect of non-verbal communication. While working remotely, without body language and direct eye contact, communication is inferior, and collaboration is impossible – or so the narrative goes. After all, it would be like attempting to collaborate with a blind person, which, as we all know, is entirely impossible. 

Well, there’s a thought – how would we collaborate with a blind person? What if we were also blind? If we were both blind, would any attempt to collaborate be futile? If we could, by some miracle, find a solution, would that not also be a solution to communicating remotely? “Neil, you naive fool,” you say, “Blind people can’t communicate effectively with one another, and therefore people cannot communicate effectively while working remotely.” Perhaps you are right. Perhaps sight is such a critical aspect of communicating thoughts, that when it is taken away – or replaced with a poor facsimile such as video conferencing – blind people must part ways having never known what the other was thinking. 

But what if sight was not our most effective tool of communication, what if it was sound? What if – by using only our voices – we could communicate our thoughts over long distances. Granted, we would need to speak much louder the more distance there was between us, but if you shouted as loud as you could, perhaps we could use speaking as an effective means of communicating when we can’t primarily rely upon sight. Maybe we could invent a device – an evolution of cans with a string between them perhaps – that would allow us to talk over long distances without shouting?

Unfortunately, such a miraculous contraption pulled from the pages of Jules Verne as it would have to be, certainly would not be so ubiquitous that everyone would have one. If they did have one, it wouldn’t be so convenient that they would have it on their person at all times, day or night. Still, perchance to dream – a device that would allow people who couldn’t see each other to speak to one another, and through speech, carry out effective communication while working remotely. 

“You fool,” you say, “you are describing nothing more but the modern phone we keep in our waistcoats!” “Then why,” I say, “do you insist on using email when we have internal web pages to share information and our phones for communication? Is the requirement of being able to declare that you sent information to someone, so they cannot blame you for not being aware of said information that important to you?” 

The vast majority of email users are not gifted writers, and will typically have to fall-back to verbal communication to adequately convey their thoughts, as with the infamous email follow-up conference call. Information sent in emails will always be better organized, delivered, formatted, crosslinked, organized, and archived via an internal web page. Oh, and one more thing – we wouldn’t spend half our workday reading and replying to emails instead of being productive. 

When we work remotely, communicating effectively is of paramount importance, as is maximizing productivity. Email cripples communication and robs our productivity, yet we still use it. We should stop. We should learn how to speak to one another like human beings over the phone, which is a skill unto itself. Alarmingly, an ability that should come naturally has atrophied due to our abuse of email, text messaging, and chat rooms. We must rediscover how to talk to one another, as this is how we can communicate effectively while working remotely.

3 thoughts on “Why Email Is Terrible When Working Remotely

  1. Just to be clear: are you asserting that personally directed, written asynchronous communication has no place in the modern software development workplace?
    I definitely agree with keeping core documentation on internal web-pages and using phones/messaging apps when instant response from the other party is necessary, but I’d argue that emails still have their place when they’re not relied on as the *only* means of communicating information.

    As for email replacing snail mail, I’d assert that’s because of the comparative speed, reliability and ease of replication of the electronic format compared to the physical form. If we ever enter a cyber-punk age were there is a method of direct brain transfer of messages, I’m sure that email would be replaced by that method. But the purpose wouldn’t change – only the transfer mechanism.
    And salutations and signatures are kept on as a presumed matter of ‘professionalism’ – it depends a lot on the culture of each organization how formally they are enforced.

  2. “Just to be clear: are you asserting that personally directed, written asynchronous communication has no place in the modern software development workplace?”

    No, only that among our choices, email is the worst.

    “I’d argue that emails still have their place when they’re not relied on as the *only* means of communicating information.”

    Note that I separate the terms “Communication” and “Information” such that the term “Communicating Information” is confusing in the context of this article. Nonetheless, if you’re saying, “I can think of a valid use for email,” I think that is fair, but I can find a valid use for Morse code and smoke signals. My question would be, “A valid use under what circumstances and for what purpose where email is the superior choice among alternatives?”

    “If we ever enter a cyber-punk age were there is a method of direct brain transfer of messages, I’m sure that email would be replaced by that method. But the purpose wouldn’t change – only the transfer mechanism.”

    As an avid fan of “Ghost in the Shell,” (which some consider one of the more realistic manifestations of cyber punk) I have yet to see a single instance where Major Kusanagi begins any communication – professional or otherwise – with a formal salutation or end it with signature. In fact, the method of communication is roughly identical to a phone call – without having to dial a number. Fiction is not always an accurate predictor of the future, but it stands to reason that whatever technological innovation comes to pass, the gold standard will still involve the human voice.

  3. Hmm, I tend to use email when I know that the other party is likely to currently be too busy to respond to a direct question by phone, their response is likely to be too long to write in a messaging app, I’d like a written record of the matter being discussed without having to hope I took sufficient notes of whatever phone call I might have made instead and/or I don’t want the matter under discussion to be publicly accessible on a team website because the details could be sensitive.

    I suppose that if I were familiar with an internal team work management system that could allow such messages to be sent privately, I’d completely abandon email in that instance since that would be exactly the case where I would no longer need email for the purpose(s) above.

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