Many of you are asked to take a leadership role within a team, whether it’s for research, administration, or even clinical practice. It is easy to feel unprepared for these roles, and there are many pitfalls waiting to sabotage your team’s productivity. The ALiEM Faculty Incubator has created a series of 10 case-based teaming problems to provide you with evidence-based advice and solutions for tackling some of the more common problems encountered in our professional team experiences. This provides tips for using social platforms to enhance collaboration across your internal and virtual teams.

Case 9

Your Program Evaluation Committee is drowning in emails! People respond to a question using the wrong email thread, and now there are multiple dyssynchronous conversations happening. What strategies can you use to help organize your group’s communication?

Email Overload

Anyone who has engaged in a group project in the last 30 years can relate to the frustration of an email chain with collaborators that is fraught with miscommunication. First established as an asynchronous communication tool for business, email is now pervasive in almost all aspects of life. However, “email overload” – a term referring to both the volume as well as status of an email – has been problematic since the beginning [1]. More recent data suggests that this problem is increasing [2,3]. Today’s average office worker receives 110 emails per day and spends 28% of their workweek reading and answering email [4]. So almost 30% of our time is spent using a dyssynchronous tool that has long been shown to overload us. Maybe it’s time for an update? The solution may lie in leveraging social technologies and business strategies.

The Future Is Here

A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that business communication via social technology is the future. Companies have an opportunity to raise the productivity of workers by 20-25%. Social technologies accomplish this by:

  1. Decreasing some of the inefficiencies created by high volumes of email
  2. Promoting internal communication and collaboration
  3. Improving role-specific tasks (“matching talent to task”)

Social Platforms

We list and describe some of the social platforms with which we have experience using for team and project-based communication. This list is not exhaustive – there are many others! But it will get you started if you’re new to using social platforms for collaboration. The key is to recognize the limitations of email as a one-size fits all tool and instead delegate tasks to the appropriate platform.

1. Slack

social platforms - slack Slack is a cloud-based program to help you organize team communication and content. It offers channels and threads to encourage a natural discussion and allows users to search previous content for specific text, files, or conversations. As a bonus, it integrates well with other common programs including Google Drive, Trello, and Dropbox.

2. Google Drive

social platforms - google drive Google drive is another cloud-based program that can contribute to collaboration and efficiency. Documents are stored on the cloud and can be edited simultaneously. This helps ensure group members are working on the most up-to-date documents.

3. Box and Dropbox

  social platforms - box dropbox

Box and Dropbox are 2 separate and distinct cloud-based options for centralized storage of documents and references. Both provide options for easy file sharing across teams.

4. Paid Project Management

These may be useful for collaborating on more complex and involved projects. Example platforms include Liquid planner or Apollo.

5. Real-Time Communication

For robust discussion, attempt to have the conversation in real time; either through a face to face meeting or video conferencing. Example platforms include Google Hangout or Skype.

Email Management: Inbox Zero

Unfortunately, email is likely to remain a major component of your team’s communication. But, there are strategies that allow you to use email more efficiently. One approach is to develop a habit of keeping “Inbox Zero” [5]. We recommend reading this article in full. However, summary points include:

  • Limit your number of inboxes. Keep your secured work and personal email accounts separate. This allows you to send sensitive information.
  • Unsubscribe from unwanted emails. There are apps that can help you with this, including UnRoll Me.
  • Develop 4 downstream systems:
    • Calendar: add anything time specific to your calendar; sync these updates on all your devices using a calendar app.
    • Task Manager: Things or Todoist can be useful in creating to do lists.
    • Reference: archive your email so that it is easy to find in the future. Applications such as Evernote can help with this.
    • Read later: send the remaining email to an application that allows you to read it later.
  • When sitting down to review your email, quickly review the entire inbox and either immediately archive, reply, or sort.
  • When finished getting through your inbox, close the email application and then review the sorted content from in their respective applications.
  • Avoid interruptions! Turn off all notifications related to email.

Case Conclusion

You establish a Slack group with multiple channels to organize the discussion topics. All files are uploaded to Google Drive and synced to your Slack group. In addition, your team is able to establish ground rules for email and now only uses it for specific purposes.


  1. Whittaker S and Sidner C. Email overload, exploring personal information management of email. Proc. CHI,1996. 276-283.
  2. Fisher D et al. Revisiting Whittaker & Sidner’s “Email Overload” Ten Years Later. Proc. CSCW, 2006. 309-312.
  3. Grevet C et al. Overload is overloaded: email in the age of Gmail. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems; 2014:ACM.
  4. Chui M et al. “The social economy: unlocking value and productivity through social technologies.” The McKinsey Global Institute July 2012.
  5. Forte T. One Touch to inbox Zero.
Michael Barrie, MD

Michael Barrie, MD

Assistant Professor, Clerkship Director
Emergency Medicine
The Ohio State University College of Medicine
Shawn Dowling, MD, FRCPC

Shawn Dowling, MD, FRCPC

Medical Director
Physician Learning Program
The University of Calgary
Clinical Content Lead
Calgary Zone Emergency Department
Nicole Rocca, MD, FRCPC

Nicole Rocca, MD, FRCPC

Assistant Professor
Department of Emergency Medicine
Queen’s University Locum Physician
Department of Critical Care Medicine