Slowing down communications at work

Our modes of communication at work has a problem. It’s the problem of moving at rapid speeds. We don’t wait enough to evaluate a piece of information from all angles before hitting the send button. This means we make decisions on imprecise, disjoint information as well as not spend enough time to sit back and chew on an idea, problem, process etc before coming up with a well rounded, thought out decision.

We could be on Slack all day and get nothing else done.

This is what a senior colleague told me when I was talking to him about the problem of missing out on conversations and decisions made through the IM during my evening and night when the folk in the US have their business hours. It’s so true. The notifications from these applications are a source of disruption to a focused time block to get meaningful work done. An argument can be made that during such periods, notifications can be turned off. And it makes sense too. However, the design of IMs is to keep you staring at it. How many times have you waited while someone says Hi <name> and then goes into <person> is typing... for several seconds/minutes during which you just sit there staring at the screen until they say something meaningful? The fear of missing out on updates when they pile up as unread messages on the application and not having a straightforward way to keep them as unread or todo items to be looked at later makes this even more of a hazard to turn off for long durations. Again, there’s a counterpoint that if it’s important enough, it’ll bubble up through the channels after some days/hours. That said, we live and work in different timezones, and when the primary means of communication is through such a medium, bubbling up even 12-24 hours later is a waste of productive hours.

The other issue apart from constant distractions is also one of approachability of an individual. When the system expects you to be online during business hours, one also has to be ready for a constant barrage of messages from their peers about things they could have easily looked up on the knowledge bases that the teams maintain or in the case of software development, even go through the code to find what’s needed. The added benefits when one does this is that they get more familiar with the culture of the teams they are a part of, as well as an establishment of a cultural practice of making the knowledge global and easily accessible. The one-on-one messaging or threads within IMs usually make the knowledge hyper local and not approachable for another person who’d eventually run into the same situation. The use of ADRs to document decisions instead of tribal knowledge that gets passed on through oral or written communications is an example of this approach.

When I posted on a social site about the issue about spontaneous and synchronous communication in an industry that’s moving towards remote, asynchronous work, one of the responses was about encouraging behaviors in individuals to not make instant replies. We also discussed a bit about the servituous nature of our country’s culture and reiterating to our peers about not setting such expectations with people on the other end. I had an issue with that opinion. We are putting the onus on the individuals to change themselves instead of changing the system. From my experience, this is a habit that transcends cultures because the system unintentionally promotes it. Of course, country’s where long hours in the office and responses even during weekends is seen as a good trait, it’ll take a while to move away from these practices irrespective of the system moving to a slower medium of communication, but that shouldn’t prevent us from trying.

There needs to be a push for slower, meaningful communication with a focus on making the decisions more visible, easy to find, better documented etc. This may reduce the velocity of delivery in the short term, but has long term benefits of establishing a culture where the teams can be composed of independent individuals, who would still have a process in place for coming together and making decisions that impact them all.

Note: I am in no way endorsing a permanent move away from any form of spontaneous communications. We just need a way to slow down and make decisions and formalize them within a system that captures them for the long term. Whiteboarding and brainstorming have their own value, but those aren’t activities to be done over a chat medium. If such an activity needs to be done in a distributed team, conference calls > emails > a chat within a group.