The honeymoon’s over. Why we need to chat better, not more

Communication at work is notoriously hard to get right. Fred Brooks identified it as a key aspect of any team’s success in the software engineering bible, The Mythical Man Month, when he found that the more people you have inputting or communicating, the more problems you may encounter in actually getting projects done. The same sentiment was echoed in a recent article by Basecamp founder, Jason Fried on the pros and more notably, cons, of chat platforms on employee productivity and well-being.

[easy-tweet tweet=”This current wave of technology innovation has seen a never-ending slew of new ways to communicate” hashtags=”Cloud”]

This current wave of technology innovation has seen a seemingly never-ending slew of new ways to communicate. As somebody who was at Skype during their hyper-growth phase, I witnessed the move from voice to chat, and have followed the many iterations of chat since.

These tools, by and large, have made access to communication easier, but certainly in the workplace, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of making communication better.

A lot has been said in recent weeks about team messaging tools. What started as a gushy love affair hailing the beginning of a new dawn of communication is beginning to give HR managers and staff alike some serious headaches. I can certainly agree with a lot of the negativity. I recently wrote an article defending email’s place in the world and I’ve been pretty positive that by seeing messaging as a substitute for email, you’re just replacing one set of problems with another. Hello chat-box zero.

I think there are a few fundamental issues with using messaging as a team:

The first is that it has created an added distraction. Messaging is not alone in being a culprit of this problem. Our phones are beeping all the time, our desktops are notifying us of new emails, tweets, messages and updates. Focus is fundamentally important to getting good work done well and it’s slowly being eroded by our modern toolchain – not to mention our decreasing attention spans and just how easy it is to go shopping on Amazon or read some news mid-way through a work task.

I feel that making messaging alone the scapegoat for this problem is pretty unfair; it may have amplified it, especially if you don’t manage your notification settings and availability well. The good news is there are other little tools to help with these issues. I’ve recently started using a Mac App called Focus that can be configured to disable distracting websites and notifications allowing you to get work done. This comes down to people taking back control of their time, and tasks.

Defining other rules of engagement for how your team communicate and actively working towards being smarter, not louder or faster, when it comes to communication is critical to success. We need to get better at delineating specific scenarios when we ought to communicate face to face, when email’s best, and when it’s ok to thrash it out over chat (and for how long ideally), so we’re not using chat as a de facto solution, sucking all our time away.

But I’d like to take a minute away from negativity of messaging and talk about some of it’s strong points, which I feel have been undervalued in recent weeks. In particular, a sense of belonging. This is so fundamentally important to our beings it fits neatly in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy. Increased home and remote working has enormous benefit in building a team and allowing your team to win back on the work-life balance front – however, even in that setting, feeling connected to your colleagues, your peers and cohorts in your industry remains fundamentally important.

We see this a lot at Gitter. We provide a home for developer communities, allowing technically minded people to come together and connect across companies, across cities and continents. What we see happening on the network continues to reinforce my belief that forming connections with like-minded groups and individuals is fundamental to the future of work as much as good teamwork amongst your colleagues is. Every day we see people connecting, sharing ideas, solving problems and learning together. What’s even more fascinating is that the number of direct message conversations make up just over half of all of the conversations on the network. We constantly hear stories of people learning new skills, receiving job offers and creating new technologies together through these connections.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Defining rules of engagement is important in working towards smarter #communication in the workplace”]

I feel that messaging has a huge part to play in how people connect in this way. It’s more intimate and personal than browsing profiles on LinkedIn, it feels more immediate and connected than message-in-bottle posts or emails. I can still remember the first time I used chat online, back in the early 90’s; that sense that you and someone else, or other people, were talking together across untold distances created a feeling of connectedness I’ve seldom felt since; long may it continue.

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