Battle of the Office: Email vs. Chat

For a the last 20+ years, email has been the go-to means for businesses to communicate internally, with few serious contenders to challenge it.

But...a new breed of communication tools, the business chat app, is threatening email’s dominance.

Bloggers and the press have been writing obituaries for the embattled email for over a decade, however it seems the reports of email’s death have been greatly exaggerated. So what, if anything, makes these new rivals like Slack and Facebook Workplace a serious threat to email?

Is email’s reign finally coming to an end?

Naturally, the only way to truly find out is to compare email head-to-head with the business chat platforms. And what better way to compare them, than by letting them duke it out Street Fighter-style.

So without further ado - let the battle commence.

Player Selection

Retro game character selection illustration
The business chat category is pretty crowded, with a number of different apps that offer diverse feature sets. To offset these differences, this match will pit email against chat apps as an entire category, not just one product.

First, let’s run over the pre-match stats of these two heavyweights.

Email is clearly the more powerful of the two, with an estimated 2.7 billion users worldwide.

Even just for internal communications, email is still by far and away the most important tool for businesses. A survey by ReportLinker found that half of US workers use email as their primary tool internally. Only 8% used business chat apps.

That might make it seem like an uneven match-up, but chat apps have youth on their side. The biggest player, Slack, was launched in 2013, whereas email has been around in a recognisable form since the mid 1970s.

What chat apps lack in maturity, they make up for in agility, taking advantage of modern technology. In contrast, the last time there was a change in the email protocol standard was in 2012.

Round 1: Speed vs. Strategy

If you’ve ever played Street Fighter, you’ll know that there are two schools of player. There are those that focus on pressing the right button at the right time to pull off awesome combos.

Then there are those that mash the buttons, hoping that the speed will win them the game.

In some ways, it’s a little bit like how chat and email differ.

Chat apps are instant and messaging on the fly. You are expected to respond to messages as soon as you get them. It means discussions happen at a faster pace, and you get to decisions quicker.

And in today’s fast-paced business environment, being agile and quick to make decisions can be the difference between winning and losing.

On the other hand, email users have a much more forgiving window to respond within. No one expects you to stay glued to your email accounts to receive emails or respond to emails. If you respond late to an email, it is usually assumed that you are not at your desk or you are simply not available.

It might mean discussions take a little longer to resolve, but it gives you an opportunity to finish off a task before switching to the new message. You can now dedicate your full attention to the new message and give a thought-through response.

Let’s take a look at the first round scorecard:

After the first round, it seems chat apps just about have the upper hand, but their distracting nature means the lead over email is very slim. Onwards to round 2...

Round 2: Never lose track

If you’ve ever used email for internal communication, you’ve probably forgotten to respond to a colleague at least once. You might have felt guilty about it, but I’m here to tell you that it isn’t your fault.

No! In fact, your colleague’s email never had a chance. Within moments of it hitting your email inbox, it was buried by sales pitches, client requests, and spam.

Out of necessity, email clients have built complex filtering features, so, if you have a spare couple weeks, you can optimise your inbox and never miss another colleague’s email. Until you need to update the filter, that is.

If that doesn’t sound fun (it doesn’t to me), then maybe a chat app is for you. Because you’re only using it for internal communication, you don’t need to worry about Angela from accounting’s message being buried under newsletters.

But chat apps haven’t quite won this round just yet. They have an Achilles’ heel; they can cause confusion because they encourage a more informal and less structured form of communication. Group chats combine all of a group’s discussions into only a few threads. These threads move quickly, often switching between different conversations.

Keeping track of what has been said is hard work!

Collaboration with your teammates shouldn’t be a challenge. You shouldn’t need to balance seven ongoing conversations for fear of missing out.

So what’s the score after round two?

It’s important to be able to keep track of what has been said, in this regard, at least, email has it figured out. Want to continue an existing discussion? Just hit reply. Otherwise, click compose.

Round 3: Simple or Powerful?

Each character on Street Fighter has trade-offs, and making that decision of which character to play as, has consequences that can affect how you play, and whether you win.

I think it’s time for another analogy.

Email is like a Street Fighter character with powerful combo-moves, but only if you manage to remember the complex sequence of buttons. Chat apps are like the character with just one kick: simple to remember, but not quite as effective.

They might not seem like much, but the simple ability to add or remove people to an email chain midway through is exceptionally useful. It’s something you can’t do on most chat apps either.

It’s a feature that really mirrors how we collaborate on tasks, as people are invited to help when required. But, as with a lot of the useful features in email, they are far from easy to use.

Chat apps do away with that complexity entirely by simply removing the possibility altogether. The reliance on endless group threads means you either give someone access to the whole message log, or start a new group just for this conversation.

So how are we doing after the third and final round?

Although email allows for more complexity it can be harder to set-up, and it’s likely that you are not making the most of it. Chat-apps although more simple, can be missing some nice to have functionality available in email, but are more easier to use. In this sense it is a lot about what you need from the tool.

And the winner is...:

There is no winner. It’s a draw.

And no that doesn’t make everyone a winner either.

In conclusion, both email and chat apps have positives and negatives, but neither can be crowned the ideal communication tool.

Email is perhaps old and too stuck in its ways, lacking innovation and protocol updates.

Chat apps are new and innovative, but still too simple for the complexity required by business communication tools. This is especially evident in lack of overview in group threads, when conversations can get off topic, and it can be easy to lose track of what has been said.

At the same time, even though email allows for more complex functionality, it is unlikely you are making the most of it.

So what does this mean, to go back to our original question, “Is it game over for email?”... Our conclusion is not yet, but only for lack of a better contender, so this battle must continue as the winner remains to be seen.