Remember when AOL launched Instant Messenger in 1997? How could you forget? Somehow the company behind the running man that loudly (and by today’s standards) slowly connected us to the world wide web, magic of e-mail, and chat rooms managed to create an even faster, more convenient form of electronic communication.
My handle was CDNBacon2000, at least until I moved to DC for college and created the less childish, more grown up “HoseDog202” after the nickname I’d acquired in high school. And throughout high school & college, it was not uncommon for me to have dozens of AIM windows open at once, chatting up a storm. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t glued to the television in my free time. I was glued to the computer screen. Talk about foreshadowing…
But CDNBacon2000/HoseDog202 would never have imagined that almost two decades later, this concept of “chatting” would become pervasive in the workplace, well on its way to usurping e-mail and conversation as the preferred method of corporate communication.
Way back when, business was conducted in person. I think we drove Model T’s back then. Phones came along, eliminating the need to move from our desks to have a conversation. Next came e-mail, eliminating the need to walk OR talk to a colleague. And these days, you don’t need to bother sending that e-mail and waiting for someone to read & reply. Instead, you can just #slack, #chatter, #hangout, #yammer, or whatever else, and get instant answers.
In essence, we now have the ability to virtually walk up to someone’s desk and say, “sorry to interrupt, but can I get your help on something real quick?” Only, we don’t feel guilty or compelled to apologize for interrupting online.
Super convenient, right?
But that’s not to say that our super-easy new way of “talking” doesn’t come with its own set of downsides. As much as I love the immediacy and convenience, I can’t help but notice that these supposed productivity enhancing methods of communication don’t always deliver on their promise. In fact, I think in some ways they can make us LESS efficient and LESS productive. Here’s how:
- Threads so long you could knit with them: nothing is worse than multi-person e-mail threads that go back and forth for days. What’s that? You were out yesterday? Welcome back to 72 e-mails about one topic, none of which got the group closer to answering the question/solving the problem posed by the initial note. E-mail threads are like compounding interest: incrementally, each one doesn’t seem like much, but put them all together and you’ve got yourself quite a number. And yet, many professionals are averse to a quick 5 minute face-to-face conversation (dare I say meeting?), content to let topics linger for hours or days and waste all that time reading the back and forth.
- Playing the waiting game: quite possibly one of the most annoying phrases in business is: “I’m waiting for so-and-so to respond”, especially if “so-and-so” works nearby. Often times, “Waiting on a reply” translates to: “I haven’t gotten around to it because I don’t really want to/care enough, but I’m going to make it look like I do and blame someone else instead.” This is one reason having the ability to “quickly ping” someone is useful when you can’t see or find the person you’re looking for, but as a general rule of thumb, if you can SEE the person you’re about to e-mail, why not just talk to them?
- Speaking in Silos: one of the reasons companies boast about having “open work environments” is the benefit of being able to interact with colleagues and learn from knowledge sharing in said environment. The theory here is that if 1 team member has a question or thought, s/he can say it out loud for others to hear and contribute to or benefit from. Sometimes, teams even have lively discussions as a result of someone asking a question. Imagine that! But today, it’s not uncommon for several individual, digital conversations to be going on at the same time in parallel, and who knows to what degree of accuracy questions are being answered. Ultimately, this decreases standardization of knowledge transfer and increases the presence of silos in the workplace. Now granted, Slack is trying to get rid of the silos by putting everything out in the open, but that’s not without its own set of issues (addressed later). The point is, all this 1:1 pinging, while convenient & quick, can also be wildly inefficient and lead to muddied water everywhere. Who’s on first? What’s on second? Chaos before you know it.
- Suffering from shiny object syndrome and the ping plague: trying to knock out some analysis, finish that proposal, or develop that operational process flowchart and need a few hours undisturbed to focus? Better sign out of everything and shut off your desktop/phone notifications. Actually, perhaps you should just disconnect from wifi entirely, just to be completely sure that you won’t be interrupted by an onslaught of pings. As these advances in communication continue, companies really need to think through their preferred platform because it’s very easy to get carried away and the next thing you know your employees are answering multiple pings from multiple platforms, which inevitably leads to greater inefficiency than intended. “Hey there, I just sent you an e-mail, gchat, slack message, and tagged you in chatter… can you respond to one or all of those whenever convenient for you?” Not only is it a waste of the senders time to post in various forums, but the barrage of incoming messages can feel like an assault by the recipient. The days of in-person, phone, or e-mail being the only mediums for connecting are long gone and without a sound internal communication strategy, things can get hairy pretty quickly. I worked for one company with less than 100 people that used 19 different platforms for communication. Might as well have aimed for 1 platform / person…
- Meeting in the black hole: you’ve been working on a project that involves multiple stakeholders from various teams within the company. It’s your project, but you rely on the knowledge and expertise of others to ensure the project is a success. You’ve done extensive due diligence on your own and gathered all the details and information you think is necessary to move forward. You’re ready to deploy the initiative. You call a meeting with the aforementioned stakeholders to give it one final review and blessing. In other words, a “speak now or forever hold your peace” kind of meeting. During the meeting, everyone’s staring at their computer typing furiously instead of the image projected at the front of the room. They may nod here and there to give the impression they’re listening, but rarely speak up and say anything. In other words, they’re there, but they’re not present. A mentor of mine would notoriously cold-clock members of his management team who were clearly not present: “John… what did I just say.” Egg on John’s face, rosy were John’s cheeks (And yes, I was “John” on a number of occasions). Another CEO I worked with mandated that meetings be computer free, and while that strategy does tend to make for more productive discussions, it can feel pretty autocratic to employees, and it is definitely inefficient to write notes on paper and then have to re-enter into a preferred digital format later. That said, it seems increasingly necessary for people to detach from their device in order to be the best version of their professional self when meeting with others. Sort of sad, when you think about it.
- Prioritization paralysis: most professionals care about their colleagues and want to please them. It’s human nature to help people when they ask for it. But in business, where there are so many competing projects and priorities, how does one go about juggling between staying on task and being that helpful colleague? Since it’s now easier for people to ping with questions or favors than ever before, the # of requests one gets increases and the traditional motto of only being focused on one thing at a time goes out the window as quickly as that ping notification popped up on the screen. And with the increase of 1:1 messaging, it’s harder for people to ignore a message, hence the analogy about chat as the virtual equivalent to popping by one’s desk. People assume you’ve always got a computer or phone on you these days, so the concept of being “there” or “not there” is fading. There’s a pressure to reply, tout suite! And if you don’t reply, you might look or feel like a jerk. Chances are you’re not, but most people also don’t feel comfortable responding with “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you with that right now. I have too many other things that take higher priority” because a lot of people would think that makes you sound like a jerk, too, even though from a business perspective it’s exactly what you should be comfortable saying.
- Forget inbox zero… can you be a slack hero? The Atlantic wrote a great piece about the two kinds of e-mailers in business and highlighted a 2012 study claiming that 70% of e-mails are answered within 6 seconds of being received. That’s some rapid fire response time. If you, personally, are not the type of person that gets anxious when you see anything other than Inbox (0), you definitely work with someone who is. Remember that 72-thread e-mail I referenced above? Yeah, that gives the inbox zero crowd serious heartburn. Bold text in the inbox is not their friend. How are these people going to function in the Slack universe when they see that they missed 857 messages on Monday alone? Fortunately, I’m not an inbox zero or slack hero, so I don’t know that hell, but if their inbox behavior transfers over to other mediums like Slack, there will be a lot of employees wasting a lot of time reading every little thing, even if it’s not relevant to them, just because they can’t bear not to. I’m all for transparency, and my general philosophy is to communicate broadly and often, letting those listening determine whether or not the message is relevant to them, but this takes it a bit far.
So, what’s the point of this whole article? What am I getting at?
I’m not saying that these tools are not effective or should not be used because while I generally encourage talking to people in person versus taking the easy way out and typing an email or chat message, sometimes digital is the better option. But we should use discretion and consider the gray area. Still, it seems that no matter what the era, the adage “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” remains relevant. And as we continue allowing technology to improve our lives and increase efficiency, let’s not forget that it all started with our eyes, ears, and mouth, and just because we don’t have to use 2/3 of those things in order to communicate with each other anymore, doesn’t mean we cannot or should not try to do so as often as possible. Let’s not forget that we are human beings just because we use machines to communicate now more than our own voices.
One final thought: as digital communication continues to permeate our social and professional worlds, at the very least, we should always be mindful of and strive to maintain the sense of common courtesy between the in-person and digital communication parallels. For me, that means trying every minute of every work day to:
- Be present
- Be focused
- Be open with information
- Be considerate of others time and emotions
I look forward to talking to you soon, however that may be.