Email project management: Benefits, limitations, and how to manage projects efficiently

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Over a quarter (26%) of workers struggle to prioritize daily tasks, citing the lack of a system and the effort needed to create one as the major reasons why. In a busy agency where every minute counts, these “systems” can mean the difference between success and failure — making project management tools a top priority.

On the surface, email project planning tools may seem like an obvious solution. After all, everyone uses email — from your team members to the clients and stakeholders you’ll be working with.

It seems like the easy option, but email project management may end up causing more problems than it solves. Let’s take a look at what this type of project management system entails, its advantages, the disadvantages, and of course, alternatives that may suit you better.

What is email project management?

It’s exactly what it sounds like: Rather than using a project management app, email project management means managing projects directly through your inbox. You’ll send out emails when you create and assign tasks, to remind team members of deadlines, to check on project status, and whenever you need to communicate information about various tasks.

The advantage for agencies is that everything about your projects is all in one spot: Your inbox. That includes not only email communications, but also project work, attached files, etc.

And the problem? For most teams, project management via email just isn’t viable. Gmail, Outlook, and other email platforms are designed as communication tools. They’re not a project management solution. As such, they just don’t have the tools available to help you keep projects organized, on deadline, and under budget.

In fact, this survey shows that only 23% of project managers use project management software — and 54% don’t have access to real-time key performance indicators. Without organizational tools and access to analytical information, it’s easy for projects to get off track.

Features to look for in an email project management tool

If your agency is using email as a project management tool, there are a few considerations to make if you want the system to work well. For example, Gmail and Outlook both have some native features that allow you to manage projects to a degree:

  • Creating reminders

  • Scheduling events and calendar invitations (which can send email notifications to attendees)

  • Adding project team members to dedicated groups

  • Using folders to separate emails by project

However, to bring out the best in these tools, you need project management software that can expand their functionality. Let’s look at a few must-have features in project management software that can help you get more out of your email client.   

Email integration

Since email will always have a place in project management, your tool of choice should integrate easily with your email platform of choice. 

Teamwork is a great example of the things you should be able to do using email integrations. You can install Teamwork’s Gmail add-on from the G-Suite marketplace, which will then allow you to log in, add tasks, task lists, and files. From there, you can assign tasks to team members complete with a priority setting, due date, and task status.  

When using the larger Teamwork software, you can also reply to comments made within the platform straight from your inbox. Or you can reply to comments with specific commands if you’d like to do something like unfollow an item, mark it as completed, "like" someone’s post, or take another action. You can learn more about these Teamwork features here.

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Planning and scheduling

The basic function of any project management platform is to help you plan and schedule projects. Thus, it follows that email project management tools should do the same. Make sure your email project management tools will let you add tasks, assign them to team members, set deadlines, and keep tasks organized — all from your inbox. Time tracking is another valuable tool that email alone doesn’t offer, but it can help you identify inefficiencies to get tasks and projects done in less time.

Team communication and collaboration

Communication and team collaboration tools are essential. Most project management tools feature places where you can share files and add comments to tasks so that everyone can easily stay up to date on what’s happening.

This is something else your email project management tool should do. Ideally, it will easily let you add comments to specific tasks, notify people with @ mentions, follow up on issues, and more. Additionally, your tool of choice needs to handle attachments so team members can share docs and other files while keeping project assets organized.

Task management

Task creation and management are a couple more key features to look for — and by “creation,” we don’t just mean writing up an email about the task and sending it off to the assignee. When you create a task via email, it should appear on your project management platform, complete with assignees, dependencies, and due dates. 

This is one area where Teamwork really shines. For example, you can integrate it with Gmail, which allows you to create, assign, and manage tasks directly from your inbox. It means you’ll enjoy the simplicity of email for creating tasks and enjoy the rest of the work management tools and features Teamwork has to offer.

Learn more about Teamwork’s Gmail integrations here!

Benefits of email project management

While there are definitely some big drawbacks to managing projects using only email, there are a few advantages — especially if you’re using a project management app that integrates well with your email. Let’s explore some of those benefits.

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Lets you interact with projects directly from your inbox

One of the great things about email project management is that you can interact with projects directly from your inbox. It’s not as easy or convenient as using a project management app. But when you’re mobile and don’t have access to the platform you’re using, this gives you a way to make updates on the go. 

It’s also useful for quick check-ins from your email account when you’d rather not disrupt work by loading a separate app. You can quickly scan email subject lines, then get back to what you were doing.

Increases communication with the team

Email project management can make it easier to communicate with your team. Most teams will use email in addition to other communication methods — many of which will send notifications to your inbox. Managing projects via email places all of your communications in one spot.

Gives you task notifications

Similarly to communications, email project management keeps all of your notifications in one spot, too. Whether you’re relying on email alone or using project management software that sends updates and notifications to your email, this gives you one place to see every update as they come in without flipping between apps to keep tabs on things.

Limitations of email project management

The big issue with email project management is that it isn’t a comprehensive solution that covers all the project management bases that you’ll need to cover. Read below to see some of the biggest limitations; you may discover some of these are deal breakers that make email a non-viable option.

Crowded inboxes

If you rely on email for project management, your inbox will soon be crowded. Team members will send you status updates, questions, and other requests, while clients and stakeholders will send requests for updates, changes, and more. When managing multiple projects, go ahead and multiply this mass of messages by the number of projects you’re managing, and you’ll see how the inbox bombardment can quickly get out of hand.

With project management software, you can better prioritize messaging. Rather than cluttering up your inbox with status updates, those will show as notifications within your project management app — which means less mess in your inbox, which makes it less likely that you’ll miss a critical email among all the clutter.

Decentralized workflows and storage system

If you manage projects through email, your team will likely adopt their own planning and scheduling tools to keep track of their tasks and deadlines. Some may rely on email, others will have written daily planners, a few will use spreadsheets — you get the idea. On top of that, people will rely on whatever storage system is tied to their email: OneDrive if they’re using Microsoft, or Google Drive if they’re using Gmail, for example.

The end result? Everything becomes decentralized — from workflows and the digital workspace to the very cloud storage where project files are stored.

Project management software eliminates this kind of decentralization and disorganization. Each team member can use the software to stay on top of their workflow, and everyone can use the storage and attachment system that comes with the software.

Mixing project emails with other emails

One of the biggest issues with email in general is that it’s a catchall for everything. Company-wide updates, non-project-related emails, marketing emails, personal emails, spam; lots of things will make their way to your inbox along with a deluge of project-related emails.

Ultimately, unless you’re checking and sorting emails constantly (a drawback we’ll discuss below), your inbox is likely to turn into a disorganized mess quickly. Lost or buried project emails can easily throw your projects off track.

Difficulty with the search function

Even the best email providers have less-than-perfect search tools. When you need to find something, you’ll need to remember keywords to help you narrow the search down and folders where you may have archived the emails. Finding something specific from among dozens upon dozens of emails related to a single project quickly becomes a chore.

Project management software gets around this problem quite neatly. To start, when you’re searching for communications, you won’t have to search the entire inbox, just the relevant project. The app should also give you ways to tag communications, making the search even easier.

Checking emails kills productivity

Here are some must-see stats from Mail Manager concerning email and productivity:

  • 32% of people spend nearly an entire working day per week just managing emails.

  • 70% believe that email is among the workplace’s biggest productivity drains.

  • 73% say they spend way too much time trying to find emails.

If you continue to browse the research, you’ll discover that all of these emails lead to a whole lot of frustration among those surveyed. But the main point is that email is a productivity killer. 

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Consider this: Deep work is the point at which you are so fully immersed in your task that you reach maximum efficiency. Unfortunately, the deep work state isn’t something most of us can flip on and off like a light switch. Instead, it takes a few minutes (or sometimes even longer) to settle in and really focus.

If you’ve got email in the mix, then every time you check it, it’s like popping that deep work thought bubble that has been forming over your head. Now you have to start that train of thought from scratch, which takes time.

Multiply that process out by however many times per day you’d have to check your email to manage projects, and you can see how email project management can absolutely destroy your productivity.

Apps like Teamwork can help you avoid this problem — especially if you’re part of an agency managing multiple projects. That’s because, through Teamwork, you can access each project individually and break down complex projects into multiple levels of tasks and sub-tasks. That allows you to build a workflow in which you can seamlessly move from doing project work to tending to notifications before moving on to the next project that needs attention.

Want to learn more about how it works? Click here to see why Teamwork is ideal for agencies!

Our approach for truly efficient project management

While you can make email work on a limited basis, a specialized project management app is the best approach if you want a truly efficient project management system. No matter what app you choose, all of them will have features like easy file sharing, dashboards that make it simple to see tasks, due dates, goals, and objectives, and commenting features so that you can keep communications organized on a per project and per-task level.

These apps come with other benefits, too. You can:

  • Track key metrics.

  • Use dashboards to track project progress.

  • Allocate team members based on skills and availability.

  • Track expenses, budgets, and project financials.

Achieve increased productivity in your projects with Teamwork

Email project management may not be able to do everything you need it to do all on its own. But with Teamwork, you can have the best of both worlds.

Teamwork Desk gives you help desk software and the ability to manage client emails in one location, while Gmail integrations for Teamwork allow you to manage projects in-app or via your inbox.

Ready to give it a try? Sign up here to discover how Teamwork lets you easily manage projects — from the app and your inbox!

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