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Special Report: From talk to type

Is email getting in the way of modern business?

Email is supposed to help us get the job done quicker, but according to a recent poll we're spending more and more of our time in the office sending personal messages than getting on with work.

Edesign.co.uk's poll results showed both sexes flagrantly abuse their email accounts, but there's a clear gender divide. Office flirting is the number one use of email for men, while organising their social lives is the top attraction for women.

So does the electronic age equate to a less efficient, more casual workforce? Vineet Vijh, who helps design and implement email and other electronic communication systems for corporate clients of Unisys, defends the informality of email communications as merely a reflection of normal social change.

"Email makes communication sharper, quicker, more informal," said Vijh. "It is merely a sign of the times: each generation shuns formality to the next level."

Furthermore, claims Vijh, the misuse of office time to send personal emails is no different to making personal telephone calls. "Any tool can be misused. Probably the volume of email abuse is increasing because it is more convenient and private than the phone."

But others think email is a lazy way to converse and that it's hindering business communications. "Misuse will fall eventually, and email will become more efficient for businesses, but email is still no substitute for face-to-face contact," says Jon Newlyn, business development manager from e-business systems builder Attachmate.

Newlyn warns that email and other forms of virtual contact, such as instant messaging, chat rooms and mobile phone text messages, should not be our only method of communication, whether it's a business or social matter. "Email is asynchronous – that is, users don't know the mood of the person they're contacting. Over the phone you can gauge a person's tone; face-to-face you can tell even more," said Newlyn.

Instant messaging, though not perfect, said Newlyn, is a better way to communicate as it's immediate. "It's synchronous and as close to face-to-face as you can get, so reactions can be instant. Emails can be unread for a day and moods may have changed by then."

Newlyn also warns our dependency on electronic communication is reducing the nuance of language. "We're losing the greys," he says. "We’ve got the black and white of the text, but the greys — how we talk, how we deliver that information, how others react — are all lost."

Vijh is less proscriptive, pointing to instant messaging as the next big business communication tool. "Each new form of communication starts out as an informal chat tool," says Vijh, "but business instant messaging is just round corner — it makes things much simpler than email, for example, for lawyers who need to negotiate the terms of a contract before it is finalised."

And though he's an avid supporter of 'proper' forms of communication, Newlyn concedes that the 'dumbing-down' of the English language caused by our regular use of all forms of electronic messaging, is not necessarily a bad thing. "Maybe this can improve communication. Language should be dynamic — new words enter every edition of the OED."


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