Ever since I began managing an online community, I have tried exhaustively to move people away from email, for many reasons.

Email is a deep, cavernous hole. If I am sent an important update, or an important resource, I will forever be the only person who has access to that information, unless I take pro-active steps to share it out to others. Email, I have heard it said, is where information goes to die.

Email conversations are difficult, if not impossible to track. We need to read through reply after reply, usually seeing the same information over and over again. We have to scan over email signatures, logo artwork and well intentioned reminders not to print out an email unless absolutely necessary, and that the information in the email is intended only for the recipient. I have to work, sometimes very hard, to find the exact information I am trying to find.

Many of us have been using email in our workplaces for almost 30 years, and it is time (I have argued) to find something new. It is time that email went the way of carbon copies and interoffice manila memo envelopes.

But email has not gone away, and it is probably not going away any time soon. We are all so used to using email, and it has become a vital, necessary tool in our day to day work. Also, much to my frustration, email just keeps getting better and better.

So, go ahead and use email, but I have a few suggestions to share on how you might make the most of the platform, and to use even a fraction of its features and functionality. These suggestions are based on the assumption that you use Outlook, but many of these features are available in other email platforms as well.

Outlook Application vs. Outlook Online
I suggest using Outlook Web Access (OWA), a fancy way of saying the online version of Outlook rather than the application you store on your computer and use from there. There was a time that OWA was a “lite” version of Outlook, at best, but that time has long passed. I prefer OWA for a number of reasons:
1. OWA looks better than Outlook with a sleek, contemporary, and it looks like other online tools that you use every day.
2. It’s easier to roll new functionality out to the web than to an application, so new functionality often comes to OWA first.
3. Since OWA is online, it often integrates with less effort to other online tools for easier meetings, task management and collaboration.

The mobile version of Outlook is also excellent, and combines your email and calendar in a single user experience.

Speaking of Task Management…
I have always wanted to manage tasks better than I do, and I have been on the constant look-out for the next best application to help me do that for years. Outlook has always had a task manager built in, but it had limited functionality. Microsoft recently bought the wonderful third party Wunderlist task management app, and rebranded it Microsoft To-Do as it became integrated into OWA and O365.

To-Do is an excellent task management system on its own, but now when reading an email in OWA, simply highlight text that is of particular interest to you, and a window will appear showing two icons.

If you click on the Microsoft To-Do check-mark shaped icon, you will have the opportunity to change the highlighted words into a task for yourself complete with a due date, or they can be changed into a calendar appointment. Clicking on the square text balloon icon will trigger the creation of a response email where those words will be quoted above the rest of email you received in a very clean, easy to read format. Almost as if you are saying, yes, I am replying to your email, but I am really responding to this key message.

Also, if an email in Outlook is “flagged” (by clicking the red flag icon), it automatically appears as a task in To-Do.

Email as Social…
Though email may in fact be a relic of the past, it has successfully incorporated some great functionality that makes it work more like a social networking tool. For instance, if an email conversation feels like it has ended, but a response would still be nice, an email can be liked by clicking on a thumbs-up icon that will be seen by the sender.

Yammer enterprise social network functionality is also making its way into email. Whereas Yammer email alerts were only designed as a means to get users back into the Yammer network, emails will now be fully functional Yammer posts. Users will be able to “Like” a Yammer post in email, to respond to a Yammer post in email, and be able to share a Yammer post from email.

More and more, Outlook is acknowledging an entire world of features and functionality in other platforms, and making email a more robust platform as a result.

Email as Integration…
Nothing we do stands alone. Tasks connect with each other, tools integrate with each other, and Outlook recognizes that our work revolves around the different tools we use. Just recently, Outlook began to use its Cortana AI technology to review your email, tasks, calendar appointments and other data to advise you what you should be thinking about, planning for and working on by sending a daily Briefing email. The email arrives in your email early in the morning and helps you plan for the busy day ahead.

Keep your eye on email. There are ongoing changes that will result in deeper integration and enhanced functionality. I hate to admit it, but email can be pretty awesome.

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