Here we’ll cover all the basics of shared inboxes, like the definition and how they work, plus the benefits and challenges that come from using them. But first things first: What’s wrong with the email we’re used to? Why are teams using shared inboxes to manage email instead?
Traditional email presents several problems when teams try to work together. Email can get complicated quickly, especially when teams use group email addresses, like firstname.lastname@example.org.
We spend a great deal of time on email at work. The average person receives 55 emails each day. And when you’re a part of a group email address (or many), it piles up even more.
Hitting reply-all means everyone who’s on the email thread or part of the group alias gets yet another email — often one they don’t need to read.
When you receive an email to a group address, there’s no way to tell if someone has answered, or who’s responsible for doing so. Often, everyone assumes it’s been handled, so no one replies at all. Or, two teammates send two different replies to your customer.
If you have a question about a customer email, you might forward it to your teammate or CC them to have a conversation about it. This means customers get long, messy forwarded email threads from your team.
If you’ve run into any of these problems at work, a shared inbox might be for you.
We’re glad you asked. A shared inbox is an email inbox that many teammates can access to send and receive emails from the same group address, like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, for example.
With the email we’re used to, group email means that anyone who’s a part of a distribution list or group alias gets their own copy of every email. One person can reply to an email, and unless they hit Reply-all, no one else will see it. If someone deletes an email, everyone else can still see their copy in their inbox.
Things work a little differently with a shared inbox. You’re all looking at the same queue of emails. When one person replies, everyone who has access to the inbox can see it. When someone archives an email, it leaves the inbox for everyone.
While every company is a little different, there are a few benefits all teams tend to see when they start using a shared inbox:
You can assign messages to set owners for specific teammates, so your team won’t miss an email or drop the ball, even when you’re dealing with high email volume.
With a shared inbox, you don’t have to reply-all to let everyone know you’ve got it handled. Everyone works through group email together, rather than getting their own copy of every email.
No more poking teammates for help or waiting for internal replies. When you have a question about a customer, simply search their name in the shared inbox to access the context you need.
With less email to parse through, no confusion on who’s answering what, and access to all the context you need, you can get back to customers faster.
No more sharing email passwords and feeling lost every time you log back in. A shared inbox eliminates this security hazard.
Keep customer conversations going even when one shift is off for the evening. In a shared inbox, your teammates can see the whole email thread and pick up right where you left off.
Managers can monitor conversation content, keep an eye on workload, and stay in the loop on progress at-a-glance.
When your team is trying to cut through the mess of their inboxes each day, they’re losing time that could be spent on work that’s more fulfilling and moves the needle for the business.
When you’re responding faster and more personally, customers feel cared for and want to stick around.
There are several ways teams manage shared inboxes today. Outlook and Gmail have shared inbox features that allow you to manage email as a team, or you can use a shared inbox software that's specifically built for managing email as a team, like Front. We’ll go over the capabilities of each below.
Outlook is Microsoft’s email application. Beyond standard email accounts like email@example.com, there are a few ways teams can manage group email in Outlook:
Office 365 Groups: teammates can be added to a group to share resources like a shared mailbox, calendar, or document library.
Outlook Distribution Groups (or Distribution Lists): a general address that distributes emails to a list of other email addresses. You cannot send email from a distribution address. You can only send to the email address.
Shared Mailbox: an inbox that allows many teammates to send and receive email from the same general address.
Gmail is Google’s email client. Gmail created Google Groups to help teams share emails and work together on them. There are two common types of Google Groups:
Email List: a single email address that you can use to contact many teammates at once. You can only send email to an email list. You cannot send emails from the email list address.
Collaborative Inbox: a shared inbox that allows teammates to send and receive email from the same general address.
Shared inbox software, like Front, is built specifically for helping teams work together on email. You can plug all kinds of email addresses into it to manage shared inboxes and individual work email, like firstname.lastname@example.org, in a single platform. Shared inbox software has a several other features that are designed to help teams work efficiently together:
Many communication channels: With shared inbox software like Front, it's not just for email — teams can manage other messages like SMS texts, tweets, live chats, phone logs, social media, and more in shared inboxes, along with email.
Built-in accountability: You can assign an owner to every message so that it's clear to everyone who's handling what.
Easy collaboration: You can comment @angela, can you help with this contract? on an email, instead of forwarding or cc’ing a teammate. You can also share email drafts with teammates, so you can edit together before sending to customers.
Integrations: Shared inbox software connects with other apps, like CRMs, project management tools, knowledge bases, and more, so you can access that information directly in your inbox.
A shared inbox in Gmail and Outlook allows your team to access a shared view of emails. It does not establish internal processes around how your team should handle those emails. Be aware of these other challenges when you’re considering using a shared inbox in Gmail or Outlook:
You cannot assign owners to emails in Gmail or Outlook shared inboxes. This means no one has a clear view of what they're responsible for answering. To give ownership, you'd have to define this for everyone, i.e. establishing spoken rules such as, "Jim handles all emails about pricing."
In a shared inbox in Gmail or Outlook, you cannot work together with a teammate to write an email. You have to forward an email to a teammate to discuss it, or you have to take the conversation to another platform, such as Teams or Slack.
You cannot get an understanding of which teammates reply to the most emails, which customers email you most often, or any insight into your emailing habits. This means it's hard to keep promises on SLAs, tough to staff appropriately, and hard to know how to divvy up customer accounts to your team.
Successful companies like Stripe and Buffer sing the praises of the concept called email transparency. It’s when your team is okay with sharing email with each other, so that everyone has the context they need to get work done. The easiest way to have email transparency is through a shared inbox. It can feel jarring at first, leaving teams feeling a little skeptical:
Why would I need to share information with my team?
This sounds super overwhelming. I don’t need more email to look at.
I don’t want my team to see my emails…
Teams that practice email transparency tend to say that everyone has less email to sort through, since you can answer shared emails together. There are fewer updates and forwarded FYIs flying around since you can collaborate directly on email threads. And, if you’re all doing your best in your email replies to customers, then you don’t have anything to hide. Instead, you can help each other improve.