E-mail rebels at work

Employees aren't just using Gmail or Hotmail to goof off on the company dime anymore. Increasingly, they're using webmail services to do their jobs.

By Owen Thomas, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- For years, I had a colleague who adamantly refused to use our corporate e-mail. His coworkers didn't like the nuisance of having to remember to send messages to his personal account.

But I could hardly blame him for his one-man revolt: In five years, we went through three back-end systems and four e-mail clients. By holding out, he saved countless hours having to learn new software and deal with the inevitable glitches.


Not all corporate IT departments are likely to turn a blind eye to such obstinacy. But there's a quiet rebellion afoot against corporate e-mail, with employees using instant messaging and Web-based e-mail systems from Yahoo (Charts), Google, Microsoft (Charts), among others, to circumvent annoying policies and work more efficiently.

And a few companies, like videogame developer RedOctane, are adopting free webmail as their corporate messenger.

Taking IM to work

Some of the smartest tech companies are taking advantage of this groundswell. Microsoft and Google (Charts) are offering versions of their consumer webmail services to companies and other organizations, while IBM (Charts) integrates its corporate instant-messaging software with AOL Instant Messenger.

Matthew Brown, an analyst at Forrester Research, says there are a number of reasons why people might use outside messaging systems for work.

The first, he notes, is that workers might not have access to their work from outside the corporate network, so they mail files to a personal account to continue toiling from home. Or they have contact lists built up over years in their personal account which aren't easily exported to a work account.

And, Brown notes, while most companies don't even offer an official IM product, workers have grown accustomed to using IM at school or at home. So they expect to be able to use it at the office, too.

Then there's the simple fact that consumer-oriented e-mail and IM are often better than the corporate systems they replace.

Google, for example, offers 2-gigabyte mailboxes - ten times larger than those available to most corporate users."We do see consumer products driving [the features users expect from their] business tools, and that's significant," says Mike Horowitz, a product manager at Google.

When policies overlook practice

One question that lingers about free webmail is its security. Almost all webmail providers have cutting-edge, updated spam and antivirus technology.

They may not be likely to carry viruses - or at least any more likely than corporate e-mail servers are - but their use by employees make it harder to monitor what's entering and exiting a company's network, and that creates risks of data leakage, leading to identity theft or the loss of trade secrets.

According to a recent survey by the American Management Association, 76 percent of companies have written policies governing e-mail use, and 26 percent have fired employees for misusing e-mail. IM is more of a wild frontier; only 31 percent of companies have written IM policies, and more than half of employees who download free IM software say their employers aren't aware that they've done so.

But draconian policies that forbid all use of outside e-mail and IM aren't the answer.

Instead, IT buyers and policymakers need to think more about how employees use email - and ways they could eliminate headaches. So-called "two-factor" authentication, which pairs passwords with a physical token that displays an ever-changing number, is a great security measure. But do you really want to make all your employees carry fobs around just to access e-mail?

Likewise, antispam scanning and content filtering measures make e-mail safer. but they can make e-mail delivery so slow that workers turn to IM instead to reach coworkers faster. (Wall Street traders, working in a business where fractions of a second can mean millions of dollars made or lost, are known to favor Yahoo Messenger for its speed.)

Like it or not, the future is here

The AMA survey has another telling statistic: Only 42 percent of organizations train employees about e-mail risks and explain why their policies exist. It may not be the most glamorous solution, but training people to use e-mail wisely is bound to make your corporate e-mail simpler - and cheaper over time. Guidance may do more to mitigate risks than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on high-tech scanning and filtering software.

And what does all that technological investment really accomplish? It may well just drive more employees to use simpler but unsanctioned Web-based e-mail accounts that aren't encumbered by endless security measures. When that happens you're less secure than you were to begin with.

Faced with this dilemma, some companies aren't fighting webmail - they're adopting it. RedOctane, maker of the wildly popular "Guitar Hero" video game, recently signed up for a package of Google software called Apps for Your Domain, citing Gmail's 2-gigabyte mailbox. The company's previous e-mail system only offered 10 megabytes per user.

Using Google's free service, RedOctane employees log in to Gmail, but their e-mail carries an @redoctane.com address.

Microsoft's Office Live program also offers hosted e-mail which uses the customer's domain name for addresses, rather than Microsoft's Hotmail.com.

IT departments are notoriously conservative when it comes to e-mail. It's seen by most technology managers as a core function.

But if the e-mail rebellion spreads, they may have no choice: One way or another, they'll be handing their e-mail over to big Web companies like Microsoft or Google. It will just be a question of whether they do it willingly - or if their employees do it for them.


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