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Thinking outside the inbox ‘improves team work’

He works for IBM Madrid, lives in Gran Canaria and his boss is based in the United States. So why on Earth did Luis Suarez decide to give up email? The social software evangelist tells Kate Bassett about his take on life outside the inbox

You decided to dump email four years ago. What sparked the decision?

Luis Suarez: It was really down to a bunch of different reasons. First, I felt I wasn’t being productive enough. I was being bombarded with daily newsletters, announcements, project updates and queries. Sometimes 15 people would email me with the same question and I’d waste time cutting and pasting the answer. Email was being used as a ruthless delegation machine: it was a way of dumping work on to someone else’s plate. I was constantly receiving messages saying “Luis, can you do this?” or “Please can you help with that?” I was sick and tired of doing someone else’s job instead of mine.

Second, there’s a distinction between collaboration and communication. Email is a good communication tool, but it’s not collaborative. It encourages private interaction between a select group of people and that sparks political games, power struggles and bullying. People use email as a way of justifying their work or covering their butts.

Third, I wanted to show that there is a corporate life after email – even for one of the world’s top vendors of email software, IBM.

What steps did you take? Was it as simple as deleting your inbox?

I made the decision to cut the cord on February 15, 2008. It’s one of those dates you don’t forget. I wrote a blog where I announced that I was going to stop using email and, instead, I would use different social software tools to communicate. If people wanted to ask me a question, they could do so in a forum. If they wanted to create content with me, they could set up a wiki. If they wanted to share a project update with me, they could post a blog.

I don’t want to kill email, but I hate the way we’ve used it to kill our own productivity

I didn’t delete my inbox. My email account identified me as an employee in the company: that’s the first thing HR gives you when you join and it’s the first thing HR takes away when you leave. But when people wrote to me, I’d only answer via social media. They gradually got the message. I used to receive around 40 emails each day. Now I get 15 a week.

Aren’t you just shifting conversations from one medium to another?

Yes, I’m doing exactly that. But there’s one big difference: everyone now benefits from my interactions. I’m sharing my knowledge with my entire network. It doesn’t die the minute I press “send”. I’m leaving behind a legacy.

For work-related stuff, I use Connections, IBM’s internal social network; for everything else, I tend to use Twitter or Google+.

I no longer have to deal with bullying. I no longer have to justify my work because everyone can see what I’m doing. I don’t have to waste time on political nonsense, figuring out whether I should cc or bcc my manager or my manager’s manager. It’s such a relief.

Consider this: the average employee spends at least three hours each week on “housekeeping”: clearing out email folders; archiving messages; moving attachments; and so on. So, in the past four years, I’ve saved 624 hours. I can spend more time with clients. I can spend more time sharing content and helping others.

What are the disadvantages of sidelining email?

People were shocked when I announced that I was turning my back on email. They called me crazy. They thought I’d be fired in two weeks. I had to invest a lot of time and patience educating colleagues about social media tools. Sales staff, in particular, just didn’t get it. They thought of me as “that stubborn Spaniard”.

Does email still have a useful role to play?

Yes. I still use it for occasional one-to-one, sensitive messages. I wouldn’t want to hold a Twitter conversation with HR about my salary, for example. I also use my email account to sign up to new services and I use the calendar function to schedule meetings with clients.

Most people refer to me as “the guy who wants to kill email”. That’s not true. I don’t want to kill it. But I hate the way we’ve used it to kill our own productivity.

I think we’ve reached a tipping point. People are feeling overloaded. My case is extreme – I’ve shrunk my inbox by 98 per cent – but I’m not the only one challenging the status quo. Last year, European technology services giant Atos said that it wants to get rid of email by 2014, for instance. Email isn’t going to be wiped out altogether, but we’ll gradually see its transition from a content depository to a notification and messaging system.

What would be your advice to someone else who is considering ditching email?

You need to start resisting the urge to hit “reply” the minute someone sends you an email. Most people reference their Twitter handles or LinkedIn sites in their email signatures. Respond to messages that way.

Second, take a piece of A4 paper and divide it into three columns. Over the next two weeks, study the type of messages you receive via email. Write down the different categories – newsletters, work updates, questions, presentations and so forth – in the first column. In the second column, make a note of the social software you could use instead. In the third column, jot down the benefit of shifting the conversation away from your inbox. Aim to move at least two interactions to a new social networking platform each week. Within two months, you’ll have reduced your emails by 80 per cent. Easy.

Luis Suarez is a knowledge management consultant in IBM’s Global Business Services division. His passion for travel is matched by a professional desire to promote knowledge sharing and collaboration among his colleagues. He famously – or perhaps infamously – dumped email in 2008. 

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Written by Kate Bassett

Freelance business journalist and former editor of Real Business, she writes for publications including the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Independent. Read more articles from Kate.