It was love at first sight. I spend a lot of my time “in my email” and maintaining a clean inbox, what some call “inbox zero“, is a small obsession of mine.
For my work email though, I have throughout my working life mainly been using the Microsoft product Outlook. Some people would say it is the only software that effectively combines email, tasks, calendar and contacts to one tool. Sometimes called a PIM, short for “Personal Information Manager”, the tie in with the Microsoft Exchange server for collaboration with your colleagues makes Outlook the email communication tool of choice in most offices.
Truth of the matter is that Outlook is a truly horrible environment to do anything in, especially combined with Exchange. Email inbox hell. There are some very specific features in Gmail leading to massive time savings. In short, switching to Gmail for your personal as well as your work email will make you a true email ninja. Or how do you feel about these benefits:
- Enough storage space on the Gmail servers to never have to delete an email again (in Gmail you “Archive” emails once you read them, which means you can find them again later). Compare this with your average quota based Exchange forcing you to archive email to your local computer (only accessible on that computer) every so often.
- The power of the Google search engine focused on your email conversations. Never lose an email again. These days the search in Outlook is acceptable, but it doesn’t stand a chance against Google.
- Organisation of email conversations in “threads”, which means that all related emails are grouped together chronologically. A thread with a new reply automatically pops up at the top of your inbox. Never respond to a complicated customer question again, just to find 15 minutes later as you work through your Outlook inbox that your CCd colleague already answered it last night.
- Labels rather than folders, allowing you to mark an email up with more than one “tag”. This email was from a specific customer, about a high profile project, but also talking about that fishing trip you will be making soon because that customer is also your friend? No problem in Gmail, whereas in Outlook you would be forced to save that email in exactly one folder if you wanted to move it out of your inbox.
- A modern web based work environment that works, giving you access to your email from any computer without installing licensed software, combined with apps for most mobile platforms that seamlessly let you take your email (and contacts, and calendar) with you when you leave the office.
Those are just the most obvious benefits. There are more. I switched to use Gmail for all my email, work as well as personal, about 18 months ago and I have become a much happier and relaxed office minion for it. Truly.
There are a few things to think about though, when making that switch, and since a few of my colleagues lately have been asking me questions about how to go about it I have pondered a blog post about it for weeks. Thinking that the problems I solved for myself when I moved to Gmail were mainly relevant for our specific IT setup, I never got around to it.
Last week however, Micke Kazarnowicz (@kazarnowicz) posted a great and detailed post on why switching from Outlook to Gmail for your work email is bliss, and how to go about it while being aware of the pitfalls and potential drawbacks. Micke blogs in Swedish though, which won’t help my colleagues in London, so I asked him if it was ok that I translated it and he approved, telling me that all he published on his blog is published under Creative Commons anyway. Go Micke!
The original post is called “Why I switched from Outlook/Exchange to Gmail at work” (in Swedish) but might as well be called “How I learned to stop worrying and love Gmail”… I have added my own experiences, tips and suggestions along the way, clearly marked. Have you switched to Gmail for all your email? Share your experiences in the comments below!
Why I switched from Outlook/Exchange to Gmail at work
At Björn Borg we use Microsoft Exchange Server 2003. Disregarding opinions based on preference and taste it brings a range of problems. Some general, some related specifically to being on a Mac:
- We can only store a certain amount of email on the server. If you hit your quota, email bounces back to the sender. I can archive emails, but those archives will only be accessible locally on the computer where I created them.
- Entourage (Microsoft’s take on Outlook for Mac in earlier Office versions) doesn’t support all functions. I can for example not book any meeting rooms via Entourage.
- From Office 2011 you can get Outlook for Mac. Unfortunately, not compatible with Exchange 2003.
- The client is locally installed. Exchange comes with a web interface which was modern and cutting edge in 1998. It is extremely slow to work in, and outdated.
Gmail is an email tool I have used for some time so I decided to start reading my Björn Borg-email via that interface as well. The others at Björn Borg are still on Outlook and few even notice I am using something else.
- Compared to how much I hear my colleagues talk about mail access problems, full mailboxes and mail they can’t find I have no problems at all.
- I can use Google Calendar instead of Outlook. I can send, receive and reply to meeting invitations using Gmail without causing problems for people on Outlook.
- I have access to my email through a remarkable web interface which also is available in a great mobile version regardless of which make of smartphone I use.
- I can reach my email as if I was on my own computer from any other computer in the world. I never need to learn different interfaces.
- I never need to install a program for reading email on my computer.
- I get my email in my iPhone without any need for complicated configuration. Since I use the web interface I have simply added a bookmark to Gmail instead of the iPhone mail app. It works in the same way on my iPad. Gmail’s mobile ui works on all smartphones.
Manne’s note: It is also worth noting that while the mobile web interface for Gmail is fantastic, it is also possible to use the iPhone/iPad native mail app to access your Gmail. If you add Gmail to the mail app on your phone as you would add a Microsoft Exchange account you get offline access to your email, automatic synchronisation of your contacts and calendar to the Contacts and Calendar iPhone apps, and the ability to reply to and compose email while offline. Best of both worlds.
- There is never a “your mailbox is full” problem, I have never had to delete an email and I have all my email in the same place. Since Gmail checks and downloads my work email regularly regardless if I am signed on or not my Exchange-mailbox never fills up even if I don’t read email for a week.
- Emails I send are always in the folder “sent” regardless if I sent them from my computer, from someone else’s computer or from my mobile.
Manne’s note: This point can’t be stressed enough, for anyone who relies heavily on their email for Getting Things Done. All your email in one place, where you can search for it, see exactly how the conversation went and who said what in one single thread view.
- I can do much more advanced search queries than in Outlook.
- I have learned how to use the Gmail keyboard shortcuts and can now go through my email without needing a mouse (speeding things up).
- I have all my contacts and my list of things to do in one place, and sync these with my phone.
- I can choose which emails I want to see. By searching for “label:björn-borg” I will get just the emails related to Björn Borg. By searching for “label:inbox -label:björn-borg” I will get all new emails except those related to Björn Borg.
- I can use tools like Rapportive and all the other innovations released by Gmail Labs. How about for example being able to regret sending an email and pulling it back?
Manne’s note: Damn straight. Microsoft has controlled the office environment at small and medium sized businesses for decades, and what innovations for email and productivity have we seen from Redmond? No, the clip doesn’t count.
- High security. Gmail is by default run over HTTPS, and the risk of somebody hacking Gmail compared to someone finding a security hole in Exchange 2003 and abuses it feels smaller.
- Manne’s note: Micke didn’t mention one of the in my opinion greatest advantages. Gmail will automatically group all email together in “threads”, in such a way that you see a subject line in your inbox, and if you click it it folds out to all emails sent with that subject line (or a variety there of, like staring with “RE:” or “FWD:”). This can’t even be shut off. You may feel it is strange in the start, but take the time to get used to it. The time saver this brings is ginormous! How many times have you spent time on an email at the lower end of your inbox, then working your way up through more recent emails only to find that somebody else already responded, or the person who asked a question emailed again saying it had been resolved? With Gmail threads this NEVER happens. And I love it.
- Manne’s note: Another advantage is the use of labels rather than folders. Folders are like book shelves. You can only put a book on exactly one shelf. Crap for organising. Labels are more like colour coded post-it notes. You spread your books out on your shelves and then tag each of them with one or more post-it notes allowing you at a glance to see where all your books about CSS3 are, or all your books about CSS3 and HTML5. Much more flexible, and great, since information often are ambiguous and needs more than one label to be described in such a way to make you easily find it three months later.
- Manne’s note: Spam filtering. It really, really works in Gmail.
Not convinced? There’s more. But rather than banging on about it here, check out this post from Lifehacker with a great comparison between Outlook and Gmail features.
- We don’t have an SMTP server, so I send my @bjornborg.com emails via Gmail’s SMTP. That has the unfortunate effect that some recipients can see that the email has been sent by “Micke Kazarnowics (by way of [my @gmail.com address]). If you have your own SMTP-server I recommend you use it in your Gmail settings for your work account.
Manne’s note: This is actually a major drawback. When I switched some colleagues thought I was ignoring their emails. I practice inbox zero. I never ignore emails. Turns out that due to the “sent by way of” thing mentioned above, Outlook treated my emails as spam and put me in the Junk folder… Took me a while to figure that out and then inform my colleagues to whitelist me! But the issue may still be there with people outside our office, although I haven’t heard anyone saying so. Then again, if I end up in their Junk folder, how would they know…?
- When I send email from my iPhone/iPad I can’t choose the sender email address. My @gmail.com address is automatically used.
- Same thing when I send meeting requests from Google Calendar – the sender is my @gmail.com address.
- I still can’t book meeting rooms in the calendar, so I have to log on to the Exchange web interface to do so.
Manne’s note: Not a disadvantage, a feature. The more cumbersome process of going to a different tool to book a meeting room has made me think twice about having meetings. I now rather sort things out over phone, Skype or a cup of coffee. Much nicer.
- I can’t send to local recipient lists on the Exchange server. For example, we have one called “office” who reaches all at the office.
Manne’s note: Not an issue in my case. Our work related recipient lists all have aliases that work with Internet email, so I have added them to my Contacts.
- I can’t access the Exchange server Address Book. The first time I want to send an email to someone at work I need to find out their email address.
Manne’s note: Yes, this is annoying. At Livebookings we have a great induction process though (I actually mean that, we have really good HR), and part of it is that all new employees must email everyone with a short bio on themselves and say hi. When I get that email, I make sure to add them to my Gmail Contacts (with their bio in the comment, which makes it so much easier to later strike up a conversation with them).
Things to be aware of
- Gmail checks email automatically. You can’t set it to check “every hour” or “every 15 minutes”. Gmail sets itself, by starting out quite infrequently and then lowering the time between checks every time you get new email. You can’t just click “refresh mail” in your mailbox to force Gmail to get new emails from the Exchange server. To do that you have to go into your account settings for the work account and click “check mail now” (see screenshot).
- It takes a while for new practices to become routine. Like “change sender email”, “add signature” for your work account, since these are done manually. Give it time.
How to do the switch
Google have a great guide on how to set up Gmail to fetch your email from a different server. I will assume you already have a Gmail account for your personal needs. If you aren’t already familiar with the Gmail interface you may lose some of the advantages. To do the switch you will need:
- Your Exchange user name, along with the name of your mailbox and the name of your domain. The user name is frequently what you log on to your computer / network with, the name of your mailbox is frequently what is to the left of the @-character, and the domain is in the field under your user name in your computer logon screen. For example: I log on with MIKA on our office network, and my work email address starts with micke.kazarnowicz. You need to enter the user name in Gmail using the format domain/usern name/mailbox.
- The address to reach your Exchange-server in order to fetch email using POP3. Often it is the same address as you would use to access your Exchange webmail.
Manne’s note: Again, I think our IT environment is simpler than Micke’s. I had a set of instructions on how to access our Exchange server over POP3, and only had to use a simple user name and password to set it up. Like for any POP account.
- Your work email password.
When I set up the new account Gmail asks me if I also automagically want to add a specific label to all the email coming in through that account. This is a good thing to do. I chose the label “Björn Borg”, which means that all my work email are neatly collected in one place.
Manne’s note: To me this is a must do. The way I use this feature is that I tag all email that comes in from my work account with the label “AllUnprocessed”. Since it starts with an “A”, it ends up at the top of my labels in the left hand Gmail navigation which makes it easier to access. When I have read an email and done what I need to do about it, I remove the “AllUnprocessed” label and ass in labels from my usual filing system. Works great. I also use the Gmail Labs feature “Multiple inboxes” to split my Gmail inbox screen up in two areas: one with all my “AllUnprocessed” work email, one with my personal email. This makes it possible during holiday to “switch off” my work email: set the work account to “skip inbox” (automatically archives your email but leaves it unread, so you later can go to “AllUnprocessed” and see all the email). Then hide the inbox showing “AllUnprocessed” and the work email is gone from your inbox! Love this. Separation of work and personal life during holiday is something I am quite precious about.
I of course also added my @bjornborg email address in such a way that I can send from Gmail using that address as sender. When composing a new email I simply choose which address to send from (when I reply to an email, the sender is automatically set to the address the original email was sent to):
Manne’s note: I do this too, of course, although lately I have been lazy. So now some people in Livebookings, and some customers, send me email using my personal Gmail address. This wouldn’t be a problem, if it wasn’t for what I described above about “AllUnprocessed”. Emails not sent to my work email don’t automatically get that label, remember? So what I have done to fix this, and keep my system working, is to create a filter using Gmail’s powerful rules system. I look at the sender email of all emails coming in, and if the sender contains “@livebookings.net”, “@bookatable.com”, one of our bigger customers or partners domains, I also add the label “AllUnprocessed”. Never miss an email again.
Using the feature “Canned Responses” (available in Gmail Labs) I can have multiple email signatures, allowing me to have one signature for work email and a different for personal. This is what it looks like:
My colleagues can as usual send invitations to meetings from their Outlook calendars. Gmail recognises these and let me add them to my Google Calendar. When I have added a meeting, it is shown in my calendar with a question mark until I have replied Yes, No or Maybe. The recipient sees no difference from me accepting an invitation on Gmail rather than Outlook.
Similarly I can create events in my Google Calendar and add my colleagues’ email addresses in the invitation box. Those who get my meeting requests can also reply Yes, No or Maybe.
Manne’s note: That concludes this overview. As you see above, there are a few drawbacks to using Gmail for your work email but in all honesty I think it is so worth it. Gmail makes me 36.3% more efficient than if I was using Outlook. Really.
If you can switch (a lot of organisations just won’t let you, but if you are in a small or somewhat progressive company, give it a shot!) I warmly recommend trying this out.
Word of warning: Remember that your mileage may vary. What I (and Micke) see as great benefits, you may not agree with. Also keep in mind that there are small differences in everyone’s IT environment. If you are not confident of what you do, or have someone close at hand to help you, be careful and take baby steps, making sure to read up on what you aim to achieve at other places than this blog post.
If you have questions I will do my best to answer them, but doing practical IT support over comments and email is very difficult, and I will not be able to answer questions about your setup.
Thanks again to Micke for allowing me to translate this and share it with my colleagues! Gmail at work FTW!