No more email: How one company broke the habit (mostly)

Credit: gajman via Flickr

When Tory Teunis, the vice president of operations for Las Vegas-based All Western Mortgage, says he hates email, he really means it.

Teunis hates it so much, in fact, that he has eliminated internal email for most employees and has replaced it with an internal enterprise social networking system. That change means that workers now "talk" in virtual rooms where they can communicate, collaborate, post documents, and do the work they need to do without having to fire off dead-end emails to each other.

Dumping email with a better way to conduct business had been a goal of his for years, he told CITEworld.

"There's a lot of uncertainty with email," said Teunis, from its delivery, which can be unreliable, to the reaction time of recipients, who don't have to respond immediately and can let messages -- and work flow -- stagnate inside a company. And don't even get Teunis started on the other problems with email, including spam folders that can send important messages into the nether regions of a company's information systems.

"It's always been a problem," said Teunis. "In the past, you've gotten around it by operating with multiple systems, such as instant messaging, bulletin boards, blogs and interoffice communication. We were looking for something that brought all of these things together in one."

His quest to dump email inside the company of some 450 employees began in 2011 when he began looking to replace it with internal instant messaging systems from vendors such as Campfire, Jive, PinkNotes, HipChat and others. But none of them had enough features and services at the time to make them competent replacements in the enterprise, said Teunis.

"I wanted administrative controls for users, too, and so many consumer level products couldn't serve us. I was looking for an enterprise-level instant messaging system that would do more on the business side."

After testing several of those applications and even deploying one of them, Jive, to about 100 users, Teunis still hadn't found an answer to the mortgage financing and processing company's email problems.

Then one day he read an article in a technology publication about Unison, which builds a collaboration application that lets workers use private virtual rooms to communicate with each other. Teunis demoed the system and found it still needed some other tweaks to make it work for All Western Mortgage, so he contacted the company.

"I got into a conversation with Unison to make it work for us," he said. "I needed corporate lockdowns and permissions and administrative tracking. Originally, when we were talking, they told me that a lot of the permission features I needed were being rolled out on their next version."

Earlier this year, Teunis heard back from Unison that the features he needed were now built in, and he began a 60-day internal trial to see how it worked. The system was fully deployed in May to All Western's 450 employees, including 350 sales staff and 100 operations workers.

"It's internal instant messaging with a degree of social media," said Teunis. Other systems he had previously tried weren't as user-friendly, he said, and they often tried to be heavy on trendy social media features rather than collaboration features needed by enterprises.

"We needed instant communications between departments, and we can see where employees are gathered in the virtual rooms," which helps the company track work progress at a glance. "It's very important for us to know where our users are at, where they are spending their time."

Customers can still send email to company employees, but instead of going to individuals, it is routed to departments where a select few workers can receive it and respond, said Teunis. Those workers can then post those messages into the Unison software where it can be responded to by the proper employees.

The company is working to replace this method in the future by integrating incoming email from customers directly into Unison "rooms," so it can circumvent conventional email systems entirely, he said.

The 350 salespeople still have access to email systems when dealing with external customers, but they no longer have internal email communications with fellow employees. About 90 of the company's 100 operations employees also don't have internal email anymore. All of those former internal communications are now handled with Unison. Managers can track worker and project progress from their iOS and Android devices.

All Western Mortgage has also integrated their Unison system with external partner companies to tie it in for communications with outside vendors, said Teunis. "There's no internal email that's originating inside this company."

So far, the Unison system is working well and is a simpler way to communicate compared to email, he said. "What I like about it is the tracking feature. I can eyeball the entire company by looking at my desktop," which is useful in businesses that are heavily regulated and need to ensure that employee conduct is proper.

"It does have a degree of Big Brother in it," Teunis admitted. "Most of the competing vendors out there sell the synergy and collaboration benefits of such systems. But if you are in a regulated business, such as banking or finance, and you want to know what the people who are working there are doing then you have to have a bit of Big Brother. It allows us to see where our resources are."

The Unison system has even replaced the company's old internal PBX telephone system for internal calls for many employees, so all internal calls are now routed through the application and sent to workers who use headsets to answer calls. The set-up also allows videoconferencing, so all of All Western Mortgage's company meetings can be held online in real-time between its 15 offices and three operations centers in some 20 states.

"We make all communications go through this system, including documents, texts, phone calls and voice and video chat," said Teunis. "It's become a big part of what we do here."

When problems have come up with the new system, Unison has been very responsive so far, he said. "They actually listened to me and took my feedback and put some of the features I talked about with them into the system," said Teunis. "When people do that, you know they are taking you seriously.

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