How to Kill Email With the Right Project Management Software

Email increases stress, creates unnecessary work, and makes people feel overwhelmed. No one can be the best version of themselves at work under these conditions. The last few years, organizations have started to move away from email in favor of team messaging apps, such as Slack and other workplace communication tools. Finding the right tool, or set of tools, affects whether your team will be able to give up their traditional inboxes. For many teams, project management software should be part of the solution.

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What's Project Management Software?

Project management software, also called project management apps, are online tools that teams use to track work. In the broadest sense, a project management app could be anything from a complex piece of software for managing work, like Microsoft Project, to a basic to-do app. The beefiest apps include other business tools for managing resources, tracking time spent on task, or even billing.

We often distinguish different types of collaboration tools from project management apps to make it easier to recommend the right app for the right purpose. That said, those two categories and a few others (such as kanban board apps and work-management apps) overlap substantially. So while I sometimes make the case that apps such as Asana, Trello, Airtable, and Basecamp aren't strictly project management apps, we can include them here.

What Do You Do in Project Management Software?

Every project management app is a little different, but most of them let you see various aspects of your team's work without requiring you to ask your colleagues about them.

When you log in, you see all the tasks that your team must complete and the deadlines. You see who was assigned to which task, if and when they completed it, and whether they had any comments about it. If one of your colleagues is out unexpectedly, you can log into the project management app and check whether they had anything urgent assigned today that another team member should pick up. If you currently use email to tell someone that a task is done, ask questions about a task, or send something off for approval, you would probably benefit from a project management app.

There's more to it than that. As you and your colleagues use a project management app, the app keeps count of the work that gets done. How many tasks were completed on time? Is the project at large still on track to be completed by its deadline? Robust project management apps come with all kinds of charts and graphs to help you keep an eye on this sort of thing. That way, if the project starts to slip, you can detect it early and work to prevent it. But let's not get sidetracked. Let's stick to how project management apps help people communicate.

What Does a Project Manager Do?

A project is a series of tasks. A project manager is the person who knows what all those tasks are—or at the very least oversees them. Sometimes the project manager doles out the tasks or puts them into a pool for people to claim. The project manager then keeps an eye on the tasks and the people doing them until they're all done.

Not every team has a project manager per se, but most have someone who's in charge. It could be a business owner, manager, or a team lead. Whoever is your point person or daily decision-maker, that's your project manager.

Why Email Is Bad for Projects

Email is electronic mail, which I know sounds obvious, but stay with me here. Mail is a horrible avenue for assigning work. Imagine if your assignments came to you by snail mail. It's almost ridiculous. Yet email isn't all that different from regular mail, except that it's faster.

Think about what email is good at providing:

  • asynchronous communication with a paper trail
  • document delivery

Now think about what a project manager needs to know when they manage a series of tasks:

  • who's available
  • how much work each worker currently has assigned to them and when it's due
  • the progress of work that's already assigned (e.g., "John has two tasks assigned to him and both are 90 percent done")
  • a calendar of deadlines
  • the ability to prioritize and reprioritize tasks based on the needs of the project

Doing that kind of work by mail is laughable.

More importantly, the way most office workers use email creates interruptions. When new email messages arrive with dings or pop-up notifications, workers typically check to make sure that the incoming message is not urgent. Then they get back to what we were doing until the next interruption. People do this all day long, checking and scanning their email. Several studies show that using email takes up around 30 percent of a knowledge worker's day, and that time is spread evenly throughout the day, rather than being in discrete chunks. In other words, email interrupts us constantly.

Interruptions usually have a net negative effect, although it might not be in the way you assume. Interruptions make people feel more stressed and like they have a bigger workload than they actually do. People also feel greater frustration and time pressure.

The way people interact with email also leads to wasted time. We lose time when we have to reread the same email that we scanned earlier in the day because we've forgotten what it said. If you forget what the date is for a key deliverable, digging it out of email takes time. And what if the email you dig up is an old one and the date has since moved forward a week?

This is all to say that email wasn't designed for managing tasks. It's the wrong tool for that job.

Communicating With a Project Management Service

Project management involves juggling people and resources, keeping a watchful eye on time, and redistributing or reprioritizing tasks as the situation changes. Project management software was designed to handle those kinds of issues and others that commonly crop up during the course of a project.

What's it like to communicate in a project management app versus in email? It's like the difference between seeing something with your own eyes and reading a description of it. In the first scenario, you have control over what you want to see and when. In the second, you rely on other people to type out messages telling you what they think is most important—or, worse, what they think you want to hear.

Different project management apps have different tools for communicating. Nearly all of them support @ mentions, for example. Seeing as Slack and other team messaging apps have become so popular, you can often connect them to your project management app, thereby streamlining your conversations to one place. If you don't already have a team chat app, you might skip it and instead look for a project management app that includes an in-app chat box. Zoho Projects and ProofHub both offer it.

Let's say the project in question has a lot of visual elements, and the team working on it needs to discuss them. Your life will be much easier if you have image markup tools in your project management app. That way, you can electronically scribble on an image and attach comments, making it easier for everyone on your team to both give and understand feedback. Volerro is one example of a project management app with markup tools.

As mentioned, project management apps handle all the basic stuff you need to juggle and track, like tasks, deadlines, progress, and assignees. All that information is visible to those who need it. In that sense, there's less need to communicate about these sorts of matters. You never need to email someone and CC half a dozen people to know whether they're almost done with a task when you can log into the system and see it's marked as 75% done. A lot of the stuff that requires you to read between the lines when using email for task-management suddenly becomes crystal clear when you use project management software.

Less Time Emailing Means More Time Working

The benefits of getting a team off email and into a project management app to communicate can be enormous. The reduction in email alone is sure to make everyone happy, but that pales in comparison with the added value of having greater visibility into who's doing what, what else they are doing, and the status of every task. It makes it much easier to have accurate information on hand as you work, so that decision-makers can make good decisions.

For more specific tips on working with a project management app, see 7 Ways to Simplify Project Management in Teamwork Projects and 5 Zoho Projects Features to Organize Your Business.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.