Email

Work Email is Dying. What’s Next?

By on September 24, 2015

work email

Work email is dying. Business leaders are realizing that team communication is about productivity, not inbox zero or using the best get things done app.

***

Ray Tomlinson can’t remember what he wrote when he sent himself the world’s first email back in 1971, but his colleague Jerry Burchfiel remembers what Ray said when he first showed him what he’d done:

“Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

The breakthrough occurred when they were working at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) on ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. But the breakthrough coupled with Ray’s worry didn’t spread the beast. Sasha Cavender of Forbes put it this way:

“That worry ended when Larry Roberts, a director of DARPA, the government agency that ran the Arpanet, jumped onto the system and began doing all his communication by electronic mail. That, in turn, forced researchers dependent on Roberts for their funding to get online, and the system quickly went from being a convenience to becoming an essential tool.”

And there it is. Good ol’ 1971. The year email began its journey to becoming the world’s premier workplace communication tool.

As it still is. Even as it approaches its 44th birthday this October.

And even as new tools have risen up and made many parts of it obsolete.

While email’s continued use may be shocking to many, including those of us who have replaced work email, this is how Ray Tomlinson rolls:

“I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned.”

He went on to say:

“In particular, it’s not strictly a work tool or strictly a personal thing. Everybody uses it in different ways, but they use it in a way they find works for them.”

Tomlinson is right. On a personal level, email has opened new channels of person-to-person communication that have allowed ideas to spread like never before. I’ve seen this happen in my own life.

I was shy as all get out when I was growing up. It seemed that I couldn’t put sentences together unless I was playing Nintendo (Double Dragon!) or on the basketball court. Ike… thanks for setting a pick, man. Next time roll off it and I’ll feed you the rock!

But then I’d be at the library or at a friend’s house, hear the 56k modem rev and then, eventually, those magic words:

“You’ve got mail.”

Whoa. Even if it was spam it felt good to hear that. But mostly it felt good to be able to express myself to friends (and girls!) that I’d have otherwise struggled to communicate with. It gave this introvert some space to think, breathe and collect thoughts before sharing them — and it did so at that crucial time when for me face-to-face communication felt too scary and too fast.

And on the work tool front, there’s no denying that email has changed the nature of work communication.

In his article for The Houston Chronicle titled, The Impact of Email in the Workplace, Neil Kokemuller concisely lays out the goodness of work email. He highlights how email has allowed us to have broader and more diverse work teams, and how it’s a great work tool for interacting with someone when there isn’t a sense of urgency.

Consider This: At the time of email’s creation, a letter (like… the kind on paper) served in this capacity, because a phone call carried the expectation of immediate interaction, and it wasn’t until 1979 that Gordon Matthews applied for a patent on voicemail.

But the article also highlights the drawbacks, such as less personal communication (where important nuances can get lost and miscommunication can fill the gap) and of course how:

“Email overload is a growing problem for many workers. Employees are sometimes so overwhelmed with catching up on email, they neglect other critical job duties. Managers who spend too much time reading and replying to emails with partners, suppliers, workers and customers have less time to coach, train and motivate….”

Despite this growing problem, work email is… hanging on. And many studies, such as Email Statistics Report, 2014-2018 (pdf here) from The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, prove it. Here’s the second point in their executive summary:

Email remains the most pervasive form of communication in the business world, while other technologies such as social networking, instant messaging (IM), mobile IM, and others are also taking hold, email remains the most ubiquitous form of business communication.

Pervasive. The word doesn’t typically have the most positive connotation these days. Corruption is often described as pervasive. As is drug use.

And perhaps the drug comparison is an accurate one?

“We found that Americans are practically addicted to email….”

That’s what Kristin Narragon wrote on Adobe’s blog in August 2015. They coupled that statement with this infographic:

On the email addiction Adobe found, Frederic Lardinois over at TechCrunch followed up with a great point:

“And when it comes to addiction, people are clearly aware of their bad habits because four out of ten respondents say they tried a ‘self-imposed email detox.’ Sadly, the [Adobe] study doesn’t tell us if that really worked for them, but 87 percent of those who tried said they managed to go without checking their mail for an average of five days.”

Taking this at surface value, some may conclude that our email addiction means we are plugged more into our work and are therefore improving our ability to get things done.

But surfaces often contain mirages…

Therefore the Master concerns himself
With the depths and not the surface

—Lao Tzu

So the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) went beyond the surface information (such as how many emails the average worker sends) and instead went in-depth about what such information means and how we can use it to improve the way we work. In their report titled, The social economy: unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, they found that the average interaction worker — which they define as high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals — spends an estimated 28% of their work week… managing email. And another 20% of their time sifting through internal communication or trying to track down a colleague who can help with a specific task.

With this in mind they determined that the average interaction worker could increase productivity by 20-25% if they fully embraced various social technologies to enhance “communication, knowledge sharing, and collaboration within and across social enterprises.”

Geoff Lewis and Michael Chui of MGI put a podcast together to unpack what they learned. Here it is, followed by the quote that most stuck with me:

 

“If you look at the information that exists within an organization, our observation is that a tremendous amount of this information is locked up, kind of like dark matter, within people’s email inboxes. And how much of that information that’s trapped within those inboxes would actually be valuable to the overall enterprise and could actually increase the efficiency?”

the end of email

Nope.

When articles speak of email’s demise, it persists.

Forbes, 2005: Beginning Of The End Of E-Mail

In the intervening years there were hundreds of similar articles, all talking about how email was nearing its end or how we were getting sick of it and would soon be going back to phone calls.

Then there was the article from Fast Company in 2010, The End of Email?, where they used this graph from Radicati to highlight the demise of business email:

business email

And since then there have been thousands of such articles. And most of them are becoming more predictive and gloomy.

Like this one from Inc. Magazine in 2015:

Why Email Will Be Obsolete by 2020 (featuring “stick a fork in your email”)

To which email basically responded:

But here’s the deal. Forrester, a highly informative independent technology and market research company, can tell email marketers that consumer “attitudes toward email have become increasingly positive.” And Ray Tomlinson, the NPR-dubbed Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen, can say that email is headed where he thought it would. But for the majority of us interaction workers, managing email (especially internal email) feels less like this…

 

…and a hell of a lot more like this….

This is especially true for those of us who have already replaced email and watched productivity go way up and the rates of our Jim Carrey teeth-gritting-face go way down. For some of us, this has meant going from email as 80% of our internal team communication to something less than 5%.

Couple this with how Google just made it far easier for brands to place native ads directly in your Gmail inbox, and it’s easy to see why articles like Fast Company‘s How Email Became The Most Reviled Communication Experience are on the upswing. In said article, renowned designer Don Norman told John Pavlus that:

“Email… creates a context where attention goes to die.”

For the record, when I was an underpaid adjunct professor, it actually crossed my mind to sell space on my classroom whiteboard. For about 60 seconds I thought I was brilliant.

To combat my disgust at the higher education system and of my potentially working full-time yet only making $16,000 per year, I would sell the left corner of my whiteboard to… Wells Fargo!

Maybe the right corner to GlaxoSmithKline?

The center? I’d make advertisers fight for it. Oh yeah, Pepsi, well Coca-Cola offered me this!

Even before the illegality factor kicked in I realized what an absurd distraction that would be to my students. They wouldn’t be able to focus on whatever lesson I wrote on the board if there were bright and catchy advertisements surrounding it.

Well, that’s essentially what’s becoming of your email inbox. If your inbox is a place you’ve learned to channel your focus toward, know that every inch of available space is being viewed by many marketers as an opportunity to grab your attention.

But there are other reasons why email is increasingly ineffective. First, let’s address the can of “meat” in the room:

To understand spam we must take it from the top and head back to ARPANET. Here’s a brief history of spam courtesy of Dan Fletcher back in 2009:

“Though it wasn’t called spam until the 1980s — the term comes from a Monty Python sketch set in a cafeteria, where a crowd of Vikings drowns out the rest of conversation by repeatedly singing the name of the unpopular processed meat — the first unsolicited messages came over the wires as early as 1864, when telegraph lines were used to send dubious investment offers to wealthy Americans. The first modern spam was sent on ARPANET, the military computer network that preceded the Internet. In 1978, a man named Gary Turk sent an e-mail solicitation to 400 people, advertising his line of new computers. (Turk later said his methods proved so unpopular that it would be more than a decade before anyone would try again.)”

For your viewing pleasure, the mad origins of spam:

Spam’s madness is still alive and well. We search Google thousands of times each month for “how to stop spam” and even “gmail spam,” all to little avail. The big news this year was that for the first time since 2003, less than half of all sent emails were spam.

And then there are stories like that from Joseph Pinciaro over at The Suffolk Times. An email user and spam fighter for 20 years, Joseph finally threw up his hands in defeat. His latest piece is titled, I tried to beat the spammers. I lost. Here’s the intro:

“The floodgates have recently opened on the spam folder in my email account and I have a depressing announcement to make, dear reader, for which I apologize in advance: The spam people have won.

“You win, Zagat. You win, Edible Arrangements. You win, Connecticut Landmarks, FC Bayern, Golden Door International Film Festival and Miss America Festival.

“You’ve all gotten an official mention from me. Now, for the love of everything that is holy: Please stop emailing me!”

Even if you aren’t sweating over spam, there’s everything it takes to formulate an email. Here are just a few of those steps:

(1) Which work colleagues to include in the email? Should you BCC or CC anyone?

(2) What are the best email subject lines? Hey Erika… or no because I’ll open with that so maybe just Good meeting today or…

(3) How to start an email? Dear, Hey, Hi, Hello… just the name? Ms? Mr? For this one there are countless articles to help, such as 10 Opening Phrases to Use In Your Next Email. But… ugh.

(4) Body! Expand? Keep it simple? How much should be addressed here?

(5) How to end an email? Sincerely, Thanks, Best… something catchy? We’re in luck! For that there are also infinite articles, such as this one from Forbes: 57 Ways to Sign Off On An Email.

Rest assured, there are also thousands of articles about general email tips! Like this one from Seton Hill which opens with a few sentences worth deconstructing:

“Email is different from text messaging. In a text message conversation, two parties expect to engage in multiple, rapid back-and-forth exchanges, asking for clarification and providing corrections when necessary. Generally, you are texting somebody you already know well, about a shared interest, and the subject of the conversation will change as your time together progresses.

“But email is part of most people’s work routine. Most professionals who get 20 or 50 or 200 emails a day do not want to engage in a leisurely back-and-forth; they want to clear out their inbox and move on to their next task.”

Hold up. This seems to be saying that email isn’t so much for communication as it is to get rid of communication (attain that coveted inbox zero and feel all the productivity endorphins that come with it) and move to the next “task.”

And wouldn’t work communication feel better if, instead of being stiff and formal, it had that leisurely back and forth feel?

For what it’s worth, this article was published in 2000 and has been continuously shared and tweaked. I’d love to see these article tweaks continue now that millions of workers around the world have either replaced email entirely or radically altered how they use it.

Seeing the light

It’s been exactly 6 weeks since I’ve moved away from email as a primary mode of work communication. Over the years I’ve even conducted entire writing classes via email for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. It wasn’t that I loved email. I was just too caught up in working on the next whatever to even realize there were alternatives.

Prior to the switch, I was a skeptic. Email had worked for me and I’d been fine. Sure, there were times when I had to dip my hands in ice water at the end of the day. But that was hardly a work hazard worth complaint.

Since the switch, however, I find myself typing less but saying more.

I’m also sitting at the computer less. Because I can see when someone is on and even when they are typing, I’m less compelled to wait in the digital darkness for a response.

I’m also able to better live my mindfulness practice of staying in the moment. I bang out the task at hand and the following day I’m not spending valuable time rummaging through yesterday’s threads.

So even if you’re a spam crusher, can bang out an email without working through the steps, and have a zen master’s focus when you enter your inbox… ask yourself this:

Is work email your habit or your productivity tool?

If “both” is your answer, ask yourself:

What tools have I tried?

If “none” is your answer, email is your habit.

If “a few” is your answer, the growing body of research and the modern business leaders below are mounting a case for you to try a few more.

And now for the finale.

To gather more insights I asked 15 modern business leaders if work email is coming to an end. Grab your preferred brew, kick back and enjoy the collective pulse of their thoughts:

“The average employee now checks email 36 times an hour, spending a full 13 hours a week reading, deleting, sending and sorting emails, and each time we’re distracted with an email, it takes an average of 16 minutes (yes, 16 minutes) to refocus on the task at hand. The reality is that our email inboxes, once-upon-a-time the private repository of important messages, have become a burden and a timesuck at work, and with the rise of messaging apps and other collaborative tools smart organizations are looking for better ways to streamline communications and increase collaboration.”

—Ryan Holmes, CEO and Founder of Hootsuite

“With more than 2 million users and 50 strategic and advertising partners, our business exists outside our office walls, yet we spent most of our time communicating with each other. About 2 years ago, when we looked at our aggressive growth plan, we knew something had to change. In order to scale, we needed to get more out of our team and we needed to give them better tools and processes to be successful. One of the first changes we made was a 100% ban on internal email. We moved all internal communication to productivity tools, team messaging apps, and project/product management services. We expected more productivity, and that happened. But an even more important outcome was how it shifted our communication. Instead of spending critical time crafting well-worded, grammatically perfect emails to each other, the team became externally focused and our conversations became more about our users and our partners. It helped us create better products and a user centric culture I know we’ll never lose.”

—Gina Moro Nebesar, Co-founder of Ovuline

“Our entire product, engineering, and design team is distributed across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, so we use a variety of tools — outside of email — to stay connected in real-time​. From social and project collaboration tools and private social networks, to discussion groups, video chat platforms, ​and repository hosting tools, we share progress as a team in a variety of ways. Internally, this means that we rarely communicate with each other via email; however, email has remained an important way for us to stay connected with partners, customers, and vendors outside of our organization because it is the industry standard.”

—Allie VanNest, Head of Communication at Parse.ly

“Emails arrive chronologically, an inefficient and ineffective organization method. Project management systems allow updates to be made in an organized manner, by project, and employees can review recent posts when they’re ready to work on that project, rather than when their inbox dings, interrupting other work.”

—Simon Slade, CEO of Affilorama, SaleHoo and Doubledot Media

“We’ve completely done away with internal email. We have a text based platform that’s replaced internal emails and our efficiency is way up across our 140 employees in 2 countries and 3 offices. I personally did away with emails to test this theory first and to be honest, it’s time-saving strategies like this that allowed us to rise up from the ashes and become the growing company we are today. Although a different strategy, we’ve also eliminated all bosses and managers, and that’s a work in progress, but at least we didn’t need to send out a company-wide email to tell everyone!”

—Jessica Mah, CEO of inDinero

“Undoubtedly email is changing but it’s unlikely to ever disappear. With the introduction of tools like team chat messaging apps, automatic notification systems, multiple-person video conferencing systems and other technology barriers dropping, it’s never been easier to lessen the grip of email. It’s unlikely to ever go away fully but the current ping-pong nature of email and inboxes will be very foreign to the next few generations.”

—Paul Armstrong, Owner of HERE/FORTH

“Emails don’t work, period. Things happen in startups quickly, so to keep everyone informed and not overwhelmed is a challenge. We’ve started using team chat communication tools because of its search functions, organization, and customization settings. The team can be alerted and notified of new action items or milestones, so it really keeps us updated quickly and moving fast.”

—Katie Fang, Founder and CEO of SchooLinks

“Our team rarely uses email for day to day communication. We use a few cloud based programs to communicate and transfer files often supported by text. It’s faster and easier to catalog based on topic.”

—Violette de Ayala, Founder and CEO at Femfessionals

“We have opted to use a messaging app as our primary means of electronic communication as opposed to email. While we still use email to a degree, the majority of our electronic communication has moved away from it. Messaging apps provide a level of collaboration that email cannot.”

—Slava Akhmechet, Co-founder and CEO of RethinkDB

“Email sucks because it’s too easy to miss them, and too difficult to remember to follow up if you don’t get a reply. During the working day, most business communication is best done over the phone, via team collaboration tools (which include instant messaging) or in person, and email makes it too easy to hide from these channels.”

—William Pearce, Co-founder of InboxVudu

“As a global company with 2 offices in the US and in Turkey, we need a fast, efficient, and effective way to communicate that will minimize miscommunication across time zones. We still use email, but we are quickly relying more and more on office messaging. I encourage our team to communicate, collaborate, and mainly use a team chat messaging app because it’s a faster way to get things done, and it’s also fun for us. Office messaging helps us in our business communication because our friendly chatting makes the culture a more casual, fun place to be.”

—Aytekin Tank, CEO and Founder of JotForm

“I have teams in multiple offices, and we have significantly cut down on email. With so many web-based chat and task management tools available, any company should be able to reduce internal emails by 50% or more.”

—Mark Tuchscherer, Co-founder and President of Geeks Chicago

“Inter-company email is quickly coming to an end. It just isn’t dynamic enough. Where email used to help companies win, it now slows them down. Inter-company chat tools now exist that store all files and create a searchable company database that anybody can search. Email is just too archaic for the specialized inter-company chat tools killing it off.”

—Will Mitchell, Co-founder of StartupBros

“Work email can’t die fast enough. As a millennial and CEO, I find that email is the online equivalent to voicemail: I hate it and prefer the instant immediacy of text messages and chats. Millennials are over battling our inboxes.”

—Kate Finley, CEO of Belle Communications

“Email is like a gremlin. It started off nice and sweet, got wet, and now it’s overwhelming everyone. Instead of trying to get to inbox zero, we’ve decided to get out of the inbox entirely.”

—Rasheen Carbin, CMO of nspHire

A glimpse into what’s next

First, it’s telling that those are only the responses I received within one hour (there were hundreds more). Second, despite the headlines trying to rope us in, email isn’t dying. But it’s clear to me that the current nature of work email is dying as teams move nearly 100% of their internal work email to other platforms. This is happening because modern business leaders are realizing that team communication is not about habit or reaching inbox zero or even using the best get things done app. It’s about productivity.

So if you’re still using email internally, here’s an idea:

(1) Choose and implement a team communication app within your company.

But, like attempts to quit smoking, try to wean off instead of going cold turkey. Do this by…

(2) Charging each employee $1 for each email sent after you announce use of the app. Cap it at $15 dollars for the week. After 30 days (the typical trial period for many team communication apps out there) donate the money to an agreed upon charity.

If it doesn’t work for your team, cool. Now you know and a charity wins. But there’s a good chance you’ll see otherwise.

Organizational psychology professor Cary Cooper titled his latest piece for The Guardian:

Work email is making us a generation of idiots.

There’s no better time than now to break the habit, or at least realize it exists and try to find an alternative. Your company’s success might depend upon it.

***

I want your thoughts on any and all of this. What tools do you use? Do you successfully use email for internal work communication? The comment section is open and I’ll respond as best I can.

Special thanks to HARO

—Photo: Mailbox Peak by Vineesh Devasia

—Photo: Is Email Dead? by Cambodia4KidsOrg

TAGS
  • Roberta Bennett

    This is a great article! You have really captured the top-down, stultifying, growth killing effect of internal email systems, and convinced me of the potential of team messaging apps that can allow for more fluid, creative, and timely responses in an organization. It really is an organic and more natural meta- mindfulness process – fully utilizing the resources of many minds in a moment to moment way to enhance creativity and skillful responsiveness. I will gladly subscribe.

    • Thank you, Roberta! “Stultifying” really hit home for me in your response. Even the sound of the word reminds of how internal work email makes me feel these days. Also, this was killer: “…many minds in a moment to moment way.” Can you check back in with a comment once you’ve given a team messaging app a proper trial? I’d be interested in hearing how it went from start through to (potential) adoption.

  • Brian Bowers

    Insightful article! Some of your observations make me think of my days of working in a very ‘lean and mean’ environment. My inbbox would fill so quickly and some emails seemed to slip right through the cracks. It even happens now, to be honest with you. Flaming, flagging, and emphatic titles were all key. I think this new mentality of moving to more collaborative platforms is one I wish many organizations would adopt, but depending on the nature of the space, adoption rates lag for certain niches and markets. While reading, I also started to think about my voicemail inbox…it was embarrassing how quickly it would fill as well. I think in general, part of effective team building is finding ways to be more collaborative and more efficient. While a company may have a collaborative culture, in order to really leverage and maximize the power of such an environment and make it sustainable, new tools and platforms must be brought in. This has me thinking, thanks!

    • And you have me thinking, Brian! Great comments here. I felt my stomach sink when you said voicemail. Ha! I don’t leave them anymore, and most that I receive could be considered spam. You also bring up a solid point about the adoption rates of collaborative platforms. Email is easy, people get it, and it seems this is where ingrained habit wins out against potential learning curve. Lastly, it’s telling that a “lean and mean” environment is where email bogged you down. It seems that’s precisely the environment where ultimate efficiency is most needed, right? Thanks!

  • Erik Smetana

    I think this piece speaks volumes in terms of how we work, collaborate, and share information – email is a tool in the toolbox, but nobody needs a Craftsman tool system full of hammers; face to face, informal and formal interactions, picking up a phone and actually talking into it, meetings (I know, I know), a simple hand written note… each have their time and place and are great depending on the circumstances. That said, I think the major difference between highly functional and dysfunctional teams is how well they communicate and share ideas and information and how they ingrain up/down/across knowledge sharing within the culture and makeup of the organization. Awesome stuff!

    • Thank you for your comments, Erik! What a brilliant way to put it: a “Craftsman tool system full of hammers.” And I enjoyed the comment on “up/down/across knowledge sharing.” What role does email play within your team’s culture, and has your use of it changed in recent years?

  • Kathryn DeHoyos

    WOW! This was so eye opening! I kept thinking “yes! Yes! YES!” As I was reading. Followed closely by, “what am I doing to my team!” After seeing the numbers laid out so clearly, I have to agree that email is killing productivity! I spend hours a day on email, which means my team does too…

    So much to think about here. Thank you, Cameron!

    • Thrilled to hear you enjoyed the read, Kathryn! And thanks for checking in to share what resonated. What do you think is the biggest obstacle your team faces in moving away from email?

      • Kathryn DeHoyos

        Habit mostly. Also, I don’t know that it has ever occurred to any of us that there are other options. We use Google for everything, we share docs through Google, email, chat…It’s how we’ve always done it and while it’s clearly not efficient, I’m sure it is a deeply ingrained habit.

  • Donovan Craig

    I think this article points to a larger issue which is the devolution of the credibility of read material to somewhere slightly above verbal small talk. Images are next. Thank you, Madison Avenue.

    • Hi Donovan, a good point indeed. My editors at various publications used to accept 3,000-word articles, it’s been hacked away over the years and now I’m encouraged to keep it around 800. Still, I’m noticing an uptick in the value of long form “read material” as it relates to journalism and storytelling. What role do you see this type of material having on internal work communication?

  • Dameyon Bonson

    Thanks for the connection Cameron. I’ve only been running my own consulting business for just over a year and one of the corporate hangovers I have been trying desperately trying to shake is the reliance of email. I have 836 unread emails sitting in my inbox. I simply do not have the time. My out of office response asks folks to use the ‘high priority’ function if an email/request requires my attention and/or a response. Suffice to say, 836 emails don’t. I’m also a phone person, in that I will pick up the phone and talk to someone. However, a follow up email to cover the points discussed almost always seems to have to follow. Project management and team communication software makes my life a lot easier and those 836 unread emails become a non-issue.

    • Dameyon — thanks for sharing your experience here. 838. Ugh. I too have tried the high-priority thing but ultimately found it impossible to take root. Everybody has to be on board with it, but even when they are it sort of defeats the purpose because then everything becomes high-priority. I’m glad to hear you’re working to dismantle the “corporate hangover.” What a great way to put it.

  • The depth and clarity of your analysis wakes us all up to better ways to do business. I have a small team. We do most of our best work (as we did this morning) walking together and talking. We think better, plan better, and enjoy it more when we can share our ideas with each other while we’re moving around town. Not for everyone, but more should try it. Always open to doing something that enhances life. You are always breaking old patterns and have done it again. Good work. Hope it catches on and we continue to learn from each other.

    • Ned – what a fantastic comment. I love this concept of work-related walking and talking. It’s how so many of our world’s greatest minds gathered their best thoughts, but I haven’t heard of a company actually using this strategy. Very cool.

      “You are always breaking old patterns and have done it again.” ← Thank you, Ned. That means the world to me and my team. I’ll keep that close enough to… make of it a pattern.

      Best to you and your team, Ned!

      • Thanks Cameron, Jed here, not Ned, This is certainly a time to change old ways and recognize that our present civilization is not sustainable as your Ganges article illustrates. This is the time when those with the vision are getting off the sinking ship of Civilization 1 and moving to Civ 2.

  • Gint Aras

    I work as a full-time community college English instructor, and so my “team” is essentially my department, although I serve on committees and occasionally on small task forces, like a search committee or a panel charged with disciplining a student. I’m also a member of a teachers union. Each of these groups uses e-mail differently.

    In English, we no longer have “discussions” via e-mail. We stopped that, interestingly, at a time that correlates with the graph you pulled from Fast Company. There used to be a lot of banter over e-mail that could have (or should have) been saved for actual meetings, or that frankly contributed nothing at all to any efficacy or project. And the wordy people in the English department—I must include myself—could spend hours each week deliberating some philosophical construct or semantic point of education.

    No one passed an edict or made a point to stop the banter. It just stopped, rather naturally, once a few structural changes were made in the way our department and overall college were organized. A new chair arrived, and the chair answered very particular questions to a dean or to an assessment committee, which changed what English was charged with doing, and so the e-mail culture changed as well.

    I delete about 70% of my messages without ever reading them. I know, just based on what department they’re coming from, that they are either telling me things that don’t affect my work, or that I will learn one way or another simply by talking to colleagues. Sometimes the subject says it all: Bookstore Sale. What details do I need? Will I buy a book? Probably not. Other times I know I’m being sold something. I categorically delete any message that comes from either an academic publisher or a testing agency, and these are increasing all the time.

    One interesting thing is that our union often communicates with members using private e-mail accounts that the college won’t be able to access. Those messages are often among the most important to read and respond to. They come rarely, and they are terse. Those, for obvious reasons, build the tightest team.

    • Hi Gint – thanks for your brilliant comments here! “It just stopped.” Wow. There was some kind of unspoken agreement that simply culminated in this. And, I’m with you on the 70% thing. I haven’t taught at a particular university for months but still get emails from them that I simply cannot unsubscribe from. There was a point when I was getting 9-10 a day from them, all junk that meant nothing to me or my students.

      What is with these academic publisher emails? Seems they’ll take anybody for a buck? I once held them in the highest publishing regard, but they seem to be going the way of the for-profit “non-profit” university system?

      Lastly, that is interesting about the separate private email channel you’ve created. It was your team’s way of cutting through the noise and staying on task. Did you all take that from elsewhere, or did it simply grow from necessity?

      • Gint Aras

        When it comes to union communication strategies and goals, I’m unfortunately not in a position into reveal any more 😉

        I want to repeal NCLB and, just prior to the law’s onset, short the stock of academic publishers and testing companies. Then I’d use that money to start a scholarship foundation for brilliant young people who test horribly.

      • Yes, please! Count me in as you move forward on this: “…a scholarship foundation for brilliant young people who test horribly.”

  • Wilhelm Cortez

    I annoy myself regularly with poor email habits. The volume of email from work, as well as social media, consumes a massive amount of time. I work remotely, 12-14 hours difference from most of my colleagues, so I have a long “Dark Zone” of waiting for email response, hoping it doesn’t get lost in the chaos of their inbox, wondering when to send the reminder, and all the while stressing out a little bit more. Not only is email consuming time, it is also requiring an increasing amount of stress management.

    I find myself chuckling as I enter my email address here to receive regular updates.

    Death to email, what is next?

    • Wilhelm! What a great response. I too did the work remotely (with a 12-14 time difference) thing, so what you wrote here rang deep in my bones. Email sure is the social tool for signups, logins, etc. And even if we connect with thousands on social media, email is still regarded as the gold straight line path to directly connect in this web world. Your comment also reminded me of Paul Armstrong’s quote above: “…the current ping-pong nature of email and inboxes will be very foreign to the next few generations.” Thanks again for your insights!

  • Michael J. Sliwa

    My name is is Mike Sliwa and I am an email addict. I felt like this was my email story. Check it often and check it again because hell, I might miss something. I do find apps are more efficient and less addictive personally. I’m not concerned so much with my productivity but rather my mindfulness. Thanks for the alternatives Cameron!

    • Hi Mike! The program works if you work it! I’m with you on the mindfulness component. However, as someone who works at a computer all day, and then pursues writing as a side hobby (equals more time at a computer), I find there’s a deep intersection between productivity and mindfulness. If an app allows me to communicate better at work, and accomplish something in 30 minutes that email would have made 60… I’ll take it. And yeah, email was leading the FOMO charge long before the advent of smartphones! Thanks for your honest comment here!

  • Charlie Bondhus

    I think those of us who are in in higher education are just as email-obsessed as people in the business world. I agree that we (read: “I”) spend too much time in our inboxes, and that may be to the detriment of our Millennial students, who are much more likely to use texting and social media as their preferred means of communication. Perhaps it’s time I explored other ways of communicating with my students.

    • Thanks for your comment here, Charlie. I agree with you on that. I’ve yet to meet with (or be part of) an institution of higher education that is even looking for alternatives to email. I could see each academic department using a team communication app to help them better designate and accomplish tasks, communicate more quickly about the details, and cut down on academic meetings (I imagine you’ve been to enough of those to know why this is important). Have you tried any alternatives to, say, interdepartmental email? If not, what do you think it would take for you to do so?

  • Roy Cane

    This a very interesting and provocative article. Interesting because I have not considered e-mail as a work team tool since 2001 and the picture your draw bears little resemblance to the status of e-mail in the last century. Provocative because it throws the importance of ruthlessly efficient team communication front and center. Shakespeare posited that there is nothing good or bad but “thinking” makes it so, substitute “focused attention” for “thinking” and the studies and evaluations of work e-mail’s as a team work tool discussed herein tend to cast work e-mail as bad. If I chose to waste time seeking more positive comments on e-mail I could probably offer up an alternative conclusion, even though it may be lacking in polish or quality citations. What is the point of this digression? To offer a slightly different focus for this discussion, what I see as the real issue and it is not simply e-mail. E-mail is merely one of, if not the earliest form of electronic communication given mass exposure in the early days of the IT evolution. In the last 2 decades of the 1900’s e-mail offered a huge advance over existing snail mail and unsophisticated personal communication devices, hence its enthusiastic adoption. With the development of the world wide web in all its good and bad aspects, electronic communication was subsumed as an advertising platform with an amazing and rapidly growing reach and audience. E-mail spam became the new telemarketing tool and the inevitable result was the stultifying, unproductive load of bumf that buries one’s PC, inbox, etc.
    Jump ahead to the early years of this century, consider the evolution of technology for personal communication and it becomes pretty obvious that e-mail is now an outdated method for electronic communication and probably should be mothballed in the cloud equivalent of The Technology Museum. The crux of an efficient team has always been access to and sharing of relevant data within the team. And the key qualifier has to be highly efficient methods of communication. Thus, I think the question of the future role of e-mail in the work place is redundant. The REAL question is what is the most efficient way, both in terms of time and clarity, for a given work team to be able to keep all members on the same page and in the appropriate discussion of the moment. Personal chat apps probably are the most likely current contender for this role. But I will sound a caveat, switch the focus off e-mail to chat technology and within the amazingly short technology evolution times, chat spam will put verbal diarrhea front and center in a future article hopefully to be published by the respected and forward thinking group, The Modern Team, which hopefully will always include an individual tasked with identifying and evaluating the next communication technology prior to it’s implementation.

    • Grateful for your comments here, Roy. And you know I enjoy the way you pulled Shakespeare into this! I think your shift is an important one — rather than painting email with dark colors, paint the new messaging apps with bright colors. I dig that. In many ways this piece was meant to put a stake in the ground, to chart where we are and where we seem to be heading. As I mentioned to Nannette, I think this is an issue of telling vs. showing. Work email can still be great, and still has its purpose. But I’ve had the privilege of being shown a different way, and I’ve found that work email’s evolved alternative (messaging apps, task management apps, etc.) felt more natural, made work both more productive and more fun, and generally allowed me to better connect with my teammates as we all worked towards our common goal together. As you noted, there are flaws to this that are certainly worth addressing in a future article. But, in my mind, these are rather inconsequential compared to the flaws we enter into (and maybe are blinded to) because of habit. Thank you for your comments on this. I will keep mulling them over as I work on the next piece!

  • Nannette Ricaforte

    For someone like me who uses email as my primary source of communication I’ve struggled with the obvious shift away from email. More often than not I’ve received similar responses from my younger friends, “I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your emial. I don’t do email anymore, Text me next time.”

    I work for a healthcare corporation who still uses email to communicate but I don’t doubt that banning it would increase our productivity as well as improve communication amongst us. I don’t foresee my team (or my company) letting go of email in the near future. Instant messaging became more of a distraction than an efficient tool to complete our job duties. However, that’s not to say that my company is set in its ways. If they were provided with a tool (or tools) that would effectively improve communication in our organization I’m sure they would be open to it.

    This article sheds light on communication isues that I’m certain organizations/teams haven’t thought of or experienced. But what if they were shown a better, more efficient way of managing our time during our work day? Who wouldn’t embrace that?

    • Hi Nannette! Thank you for sharing your thoughts here! “I don’t do email anymore.” Ha! The shift is certainly happening, eh? I think you nailed it when you said, “…what if they were shown a better, more efficient way.” That’s just it. As much as this article can tell of the ways, I think it really comes down to being shown how and why a team messaging app (not necessary text messaging) can make them better at what they do, and be happier as they do it. Might you or your team be up for an attempt from me to show? And thanks again for your insights on this!

  • Phaik Yeong

    Great article Cameron. I think i am going to start an “emailolics anonymous” at work! As you know i work in a multinational, multilingual environment. I don’t know whether the sum of all good exceeds the sum of all bad about using emails in our unique situation. One of the major advantages (apart from the obvious ones) are that for people who do not speak English well, having an email (or something written that they can go back to) is essential so that they can slowly digest the contents. Of course a major disadvantage (apart from the obvious ones) is that they spend ages crafting an email.
    A recent non work example. I booked a studio apartment via Airbnb recently. And i asked to Skype the landlord after booking that is as i had some questions about the place, what to pack etc. He told me that NO ONE has asked to talk to him before! How very strange!!! But he was very pleased. I think the social part of email cannot match the voice or face to face interaction.

    • Thank you, Phaik Yeong! You bring up a terrific point about the value of being able to slowly digest work-related content. I do know, however, that Thailand loves LINE, so I wonder if a team messaging app could really take off within the department? It would have the smoothness of a LINE chat (including emojis and such) and your colleagues could best gauge how quickly a response was needed. Just a thought! Also… AirBNB! I agree on that one. I had my first AirBNB experience a few weeks ago and was interested in meeting my landlord, or at least speaking with them on the phone before up and moving into their space. When we finally did meet I felt a million times more comfortable. Thanks again for your comments!

  • ashleeconsulting

    Great take on the impact of email in our everyday lives. Indeed, email is pervasive. Even in an article dissecting the beast, we are prompted to sign up for an email list before it even begins. We can’t get away from it, and yet it keeps us informed and connected… for now. I’m certain there is change on the horizon. Nothing gold can stay, let alone something silver or bronze. Modern teams will use the tools that best help them accomplish their goals. When email no longer serves that purpose, we will adapt and evolve. Until that day, we will use the tools we have to build a better world where they are no longer necessary.

    • Thanks for your message here, Ashlee Consulting. This is worthy of going up on the fridge: “Modern teams will use the tools that best help them accomplish their goals.” And I love that you pointed out how it takes an email to sign up. Pervasive indeed, and still very much needed in many capacities.

  • Erin M. Kelly

    First of all, this is some great stuff! I think it goes without saying that this ties right into the modern world in general. I’d even go as far as to say it ties into modern manhood as well. Technology has been a huge part of society for decades now, and the Internet and e-mail were on the forefront of that. E-mail completely changed the way that the common man works and communicates, but it’s now being overshadowed by text messages, smiley faces, emojis, and other growing forms of communication. I think this observation brings up several questions: Will we, as human beings and businesspeople, be willing to change and adapt to the technology everyone else is using, even if it could potentially hurt us in the long run? Will we be willing to follow suit, take that risk. and in a way, be blinded by conformity? More importantly, will e-mail be so obsolete that we soon regard it as old as dinosaurs? Will it be something that’s so outdated, we lecture our own children and say, “When I was your age…” like our parents and grandparents have done to us? in order to answer these questions thoughtfully, we must not forget where we started.

    • Great stuff here, Erin! Your final line really drove the point home, and solidified my want to open this piece with a brief history of email. Rather than only praise the alternatives, or only show email’s weaknesses in comparison… where did it come from and how did it get us to where we are? Grateful for your read!

  • Joshua Prentice

    I remember when I was sending out and reading emails from a c prompt…

    I actually do not like modern productivity software. Sure, it can be good when everyone is moving things forward from one centralized location, but when all of us are online together it makes it feel like I have to perform faster than I already am. I like the slowness of email. It gives me my own time and space to process.

    And remember when email was the new fast system? Things needed a stamp not too long ago.

    But one system I really like is India’s system. Those email confirmations we get are text confirmations. While email exists, texting is the primary mode of doing business.

    • Joshua Prentice

      You know what I don’t like? I don’t like people looking over my shoulder as I work. I feel like some of these newer team-oriented technologies are means for people to look over my shoulder.

      • I’m with you on over the shoulder. Can’t do it. And again I think it’s the team and the workplace culture that most influences this — seems a topic worthy of many articles here. Thanks again for your insights!

    • I totally see your point here, Joshua. And thanks for the info regarding India’s system — didn’t know that. Of the software I’ve used, you can all be online together at the same time, or not. Ultimately it seems the workplace culture is what would apply the pressure to work faster. That’s a hurdle in itself, especially for teams with a traditional hierarch. And especially if those at the top of that hierarchy are somehow using this as a way to monitor the performance of everybody else…

  • I managed people for more than twenty years before I decided to pursue the writing life, and I can honestly say that the proliferation of email and the expectations associated with electronic communications contributed to my decision. What should have been a useful communication tool, quickly became misused. It substituted for face-to-face communication, became a medium for people to write things they normally wouldn’t say, and filled in the void for people with too much time on their hands, i.e. didn’t have a life. From the moment I got my first Blackberry at the turn of the millennium, my managerial role changed. Not only that I would receive emails 24/7, but that the expectation was for me to engage thoughtfully in every crisis, real or imagined–in the evening at home, on weekends, at my son’s rehearsal dinner. Routine projects that would normally be tackled during working hours suddenly became a crisis on the scale of a national threat. I would receive in excess of one hundred emails per day. I would arrive in my office in the morning with a plan for the day, open my email, and the next thing I knew it would be afternoon. So what did I do?
    I began scanning my email at the beginning of the day for legitimate emergencies and then move forward with my day. If my boss asked or a got a phone call from someone asking if I read an email, I’d say, “no, can it wait?” It made them think, and after a while they were more thoughtful with their correspondence, and respected my time and talent more. I took back control of my work life and my productivity
    increased, as did that of my team. Nothing replaces one-on-one communication. People need it, employees need it, staff needs it.

    • Jim – it was incredible to read how work email changed the culture within your team. Whereas I mentioned modern email addiction in my piece, you shed light on the way this began to crawl and then sprawl many years ago. Thank you for adding that perspective. When I was a full-time editor, I certainly didn’t have the mindfulness to step back from work email and say… “No, can it wait?” Hindsight, eh? Thanks for your wisdom and words, friend!

  • Marie Roker-Jones

    As a fellow introvert, I appreciate how email allows me to thoughtfully and carefully convey my thoughts. I remember the first time I signed up for an email address and the excitement of being able to communicate with others quickly and efficiently. With the introduction of texting and other apps, I find that I use my email less and less. When I work with youth on career development and job skills, I’m often surprised to learn that either they do not have an email address or if they do is something inappropriate or unprofessional. I’ve had students tell me that they check their email a couple of times a month. I still believe that email is a valuable tool, particularly for professional reasons. I hope that we can help younger generations on how to properly use email as a form of communication.

    • Thanks, Marie! I too enjoy the slow and thoughtfulness that email allows. My wife and I began our relationship with distance (her in West Virginia and me in Arizona) and through handwritten letters and emails we grew immensely close and deeply connected. And yes, the student email dilemma. I’ve had a few apply to internships with an entirely inappropriate email name. Still, as it relates to internal work email, I see email as a communication tool soon being comparable to the DVD player. Light years beyond VHS, but buckling under the ease of one-click streaming.

  • Email as a quality tool communication tool may not be dead, but it certainly reeks of mold and mildew! I have to go there so often, even on my smart phone to sift through the constant barrage of junk mail, newsletter subscriptions, Linked In group convo’s and more, hoping to not miss the ones that are important.

    To keep important ones from sipping by I have created groups for my various subscriptions. Then once those groups show over 20 messages I feel a panicky, overwhelmed feeling. Because now there are 6 groups with over 20 unopened messages! I check again to be sure no important emails have gone to spam, as happened last week when an irate person thought I was ignoring them. Phew,
    I can relax. Only spam is in the junk folder today!

    Found a few important emails. They are about 40 paragraphs long covering at least 8 points each. I break out Microsoft Word so I can make sure I respond to every point. Meanwhile my phone tells me 4 more emails just arrived.

    Around this time I have to decide whether to contact my EA group (Emailaholics Anonymous) or a therapist!

    All joking aside, I am thankful that internet based communication and collaboration is evolving. Our nonprofit has “clients” we serve around the US and indeed the world. We mentor and coach them using a variety of Messenger apps or our own live text chat site.

    As we try to build our volunteer base to match the needs, they are scattered as far and wide as well. The tools such as those in Google Apps for Work are invaluable. Now we are trying to work with other online tools that promise to take group project collaboration to new levels such as Podio.

    I look forward to insight from this group, or did until I was scanning through the Disqus comments and saw the pop-up; “Get help building
    an exceptional team, delivered right too your inbox weekly…. Subscribe to The Modern Team.” I entered my email address and contacted my EA group leader yet again.

    • What a picture you’ve painted here, Blair! A step-by-step walkthrough of your inbox — groups, stresses and all. I hope you find the online tool that helps take your team’s deeply important work to the next level. Thanks for sharing your story with us, and scheduling another appointment with EA for us!

    • ljonespwc

      Regarding your last paragraph, Blair, I totally get it. It’s so ironic that we want to build a list of like-minded people — using their email addresses of all things. 🙂

      But to me (and I think all of us at Flow), we see a clear separation of internal and external communication. Email for us has been an awful tool for communicating internally — but as Flow’s CMO, I would be lying if I didn’t say that email is extremely effective for building relationships with customers and prospective customers. It feels like the subject of a future post… 😉

      Thanks so much for taking time to share your thoughts!

  • Wow! An exceptional piece – very thorough. It makes me realize just how addicted to email I am, and like with any addiction, the thought of giving it up is terrifying and requires a deep commitment. Not sure I am there just yet!

    • Thanks, Jaclyn! I realized my own addiction as I wrote the piece! Ha! I’d love to help you see the other side at some point. You know my… email.

  • Great piece.

    Spam in 1864! There are no original ideas.

    We’ve moved to Slack. So much easier, faster and effective. There is some resistance from some folks, so I’m implementing this:

    “Charging each employee $1 for each email sent after you announce use of the app. Cap it at $15 dollars for the week. After 30 days (the typical trial period for many team communication apps out there) donate the money to an agreed upon charity.”

    • Hi Marshall – thanks for your comments here! Please do let me know how the resistance moves (or bends or breaks) with your new strategy. Onward!

  • Henrik Oldenborg

    Who the hell has time to read all of this?

    • ljonespwc

      🙂

      We think… leaders and influencers who want to change their organization. It’s a small investment for what could be a transforming outcome, don’t you think Henrik?

      • Henrik Oldenborg

        I agree there are many thinks in this article that gives the reader som very valuable insight, but I kind of got side tracked around the Monty python video. I might be more of a technical reader, maybe an introduction listing the things this article will shed some light on, it feels kind of messy. But i’m looking forward to the next article

      • Thanks for your feedback, Henrik. Longform works for many but, you’re right, for some it simply takes too much time. We’ll be showcasing a nice balance of articles here; I think you’ll enjoy our latest piece (just published 60 minutes ago).

  • Cameron, great piece. Effective communication is vital for highly functioning teams. Internally at CauseEngine, we’ve pretty much done away with internal team emails. We use a mix of Trello, gchat, and make sure we get on a video conference with each other at least once a day since part of our team is remote. Email has been relegated to clients and our community of CauseEngine pros – but even there we’re moving sales and customer service to intercom. There are better channels to have real communication with people. However, I agree with Erik, knowing the right channel for the right person is still key. At the end of the day, genuine two-way communications will win. The tools at our disposal are simply trying to replicate face-to-face discussions. The thing I like about team communication through something like Flow is that it includes team comms with project management. It’s a way to super charge getting epic sh$t done. We’re a small company – we’ve been very intentional about establishing how we communicate as a team – so when we bring on new employees there will already be a culture of collaboration and transparency.

    • James – thanks for laying out specifics about how CauseEngine communicates internally. This line stood out to me: “…we’ve been very intentional about establishing how we communicate as a team.” Great to hear that! Many teams I’ve talked to, in just about every sector imaginable, talk about ‘why’ communication is important. This leads to all the fluff that everybody already knows is important. But the how… that’s the next level on the path to getting ish done, and your focus on that is probably a huge reason why your small team consistently does. Thanks again for taking time to read, comment and deliver the how!

  • Barry A Olson

    Cameron, what a thoughtful piece. I love to think of email as a gremlin – makes complete sense. I am a junkie – there, I said it. I receive too many emails per day to mention, and often find myself clicking refresh instead of engaging in what’s occurring right in front of me! Such a tragedy; especially when that email refresh leads to a spam email from Kohls! The rub for higher education is that removing email requires a systemic retooling – not impossible, but for this culture, it might as well be. I like the intergroup text ideas, and find that our students tend to gravitate towards that format, too. I think it would be neat to explore these options through a classroom format, where I take my class and ask that all communications flow through this particular system (not email), and see how they do. I think that higher ed is lost in a sea of social media options, with no true singular answer available. We expect students communicate through email, and then get frustrated when they fail to respond or use the system. I hate to abandon standards, but if there is a better way, i think we need to be open to change. What we have lost, both in higher education and in daily life, is the willingness to truly engage – eye to eye, heart to heart. I am guilty of it as well. We have become a culture of immediacy that relies upon the next message or image. We are dealing with this at home, too, as my 13 year old struggles to shake the monkey that is his iPhone. He has now been without it for six days, and the shakes have stopped, but the need for electronic engagement is still present. The glow of a device is that siren song, and we, all to often, fall for its false hope. How sad is it that we wait for emails? Similar to Waiting for Godot – the insight, person, message that never comes. Well done. A lot to consider.

    • Hey Barry – I’m with you on Rasheen Carbin’s “gremlin” comment. When that response first came in I couldn’t but think… nailed it! Your comments about higher ed are interesting as well. Do you think a small liberal arts college could pave the way and get this thing started? They seem to have far less bureaucracy to cut through, and many, especially here in Philly, wield a ton of influence (pound for pound, at least). And then your Waiting for Godot-inspired poem: The shakes have stopped / the siren song / falling for its false hope. Damn. Well done back to you. P.S. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to implement this into higher ed. Sure seems a potential win for the educators, staff, students.

  • Austin Graff

    This is a great article. Very convicting as I cannot image life or work without email and do check it all the time….it definitely can become an addiction.

  • James Porter

    Cameron, thanks for this article. I think email has become a crutch in the work place. I know we are all busy and have tons of meetings, but sometimes a 15 minute chat can take the place of a back and forth email chain that lasts 4 rounds with confusion abound! I also know personally, that for brainstorming and receiving complex feedback, email is not how I best receive that information – in person (or even over Skype is). Tone is easily misconstrued and intentions not clear.

    That being said – email is indeed NOT dead, it just isn’t being used properly in my opinion. For example, for complex project management, email is absolutely a bad tool. It makes task management difficult and can get very cumbersome when working in a fast-paced environment. I like the idea of instituting email rules both for internal communication and when or when not tools should be used.

    One final thing, I think that the “always on” approach many workplaces take makes you fear the inbox, rather than see it as a way to communicate with each other. What came in over the weekend? What emails came in at night? What’s waiting for me after a vacation? We are slaves to our email at times and it’s entirely unhealthy.

    • Your comment here is so good, James! Thank you! I absolutely agree with you about email being used as a crutch, implementing rules around it… and certainly the “fear the inbox” remark. I think this final bit really involves not so much the project management tool (or email) but the building of a workplace culture that values and encourages true time off. If you know your team values you, and if you can put in a solid work day without fear of losing your job if you aren’t checking emails at 10pm, it seems the inbox can become less of a thing to fear. Thanks again for checking in!

  • 360WISEGUY

    Ohhhh You Just Killed It with this on Cameron !!! (((( BOOOM ))))

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