Rishad Tobaccowala and Matthew Rechs on mirrors and managers.
Quote of the Moment
If you just want someone to reflect what you say, it is far more cost effective to replace a senior manager with a full-length mirror.
| Rishad Tobaccowala
I had a chance to talk with Peter Tsai, Head of Technology Insights at SWZD, regarding a study they’ve published: Workplace Communications in 2022 and Beyond. The key findings:
Legacy office communications technologies are losing their dominance. Businesses now find themselves at an important inflection point where most end-users (51%) prefer real-time business chat apps (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams) over email.
Continuing a long-term trend, analog voice usage continues to fall year over year, dropping from a 52% adoption rate in 2019 to 43%.
Following rapid adoption increases in 2020, usage growth of web conferencing apps and business chat apps has leveled off.
Growth opportunities for communications vendors include improving security or combining functionality from tools more seamlessly: Most companies (51%) now have a preference for providers that offer all-encompassing communications solutions.
I had a good interchange with Peter:
SB: Regarding the shift away from email as the formerly preferred communication medium, you imply that unresolved issues in email -- like spam -- are the driver for the shift. Is that what’s driving the shift, or is it the relative attractiveness of other media, like chat? Said differently, email is no uglier than it’s been for decades, but chat and videoconferencing are relatively prettier, at least at present, right?
PT: Spam issues aside, email has usability problems: It’s quite easy for recipients, images, or attachments to be dropped from email threads — which can lead to missed connections and frustration. For example, looping someone new into an ongoing email chain can be quite messy indeed. Apps like Slack and Teams were designed from the ground up with collaboration in mind, and conversations are built around channels instead of individual recipients, so chat history and attachments persist and stay organized, even if individual members choose to join or leave.
Business chat apps are also more interactive [than] email, often mirroring features present in common consumer-facing messaging platforms — including threaded replies that allow users to react to specific lines in a conversation (using text, images, or emojis), and integrated audio and video functionality, all in one app.
SB: Some of the negatives you mention -- like lost attachments, and lack of channels -- could be remedied by email app innovation. But the major plus of email is universal interoperability, which the major work chat tools lack. Thoughts?
PT: It’s true that users of Slack can’t easily communicate with users of Teams, and even two Slack users can’t necessarily chat with each other if they work for different companies (unless they have special permissions).
The lack of interoperability between platforms is the reason why some of our research findings focus on internal usage of these tools: Among employees working in the same organization, there’s a preference for real-time messaging over email.
At the same time, I wouldn’t want people outside my organization to be able to easily message me via chat anyways, for a variety of reasons.
SB: I bet that will shift over time if people begin defecting from email internally.
Your survey doesn’t frame the differences between email and chat as being based on the difference between synchronous chat and asynchronous email. (Yes, chat and email both can be used in the opposite modality, but are geared toward synch and asynch, respectively.) Is it that the pandemic has put a premium on synchronous communication?
PT: The pandemic-driven shift to remote work forced many previously on-site workers to collaborate from their homes. As a result, technologies that can simulate or replace face-to-face interactions suddenly became more valuable.
The real-time/synchronous nature of business chat apps and video conferencing tools are useful for office conversations that require a lot of back-and-forth interaction where collaborators can bounce ideas off each other, quickly iterating ideas and asking for clarification. Email is very text-heavy by design, and its usage more closely simulates old-fashioned written correspondence, instead of quick conversations (where many of the best ideas are formed).
SB: I’m not so sure about the ‘quick conversations’ being where the best ideas are formed [see Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, down in section 3].
Many who argue for asynch communication stress the benefits of text-heavy writing, as a way to explain and explore complex issues, and to capture -- in detail -- ideas and thoughts, which can be overly simplified in chat tools. Like the Amazon 6-page memo, which precedes any meeting or pitch, and where the company requires meeting participants to read at the start of the meeting, so everyone is at the same starting point. It's not clear how to achieve that with chat.
PT: I do agree that email does lend itself to longer, in-depth descriptions that need to be well documented. IT professionals in the Spiceworks Community are of the same mind, as you’ll see in discussions around this topic.
In my experience, sharing documents or more lengthy memos in a group chat is not a big challenge within Slack or Teams.
SB: There is a great deal of research evidence that constant real-time communication can lead to stress and is a contributor to burnout. On the other hand, researchers like Riedl and Wooley have found that ‘bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams’. This is the opposite of the always-on communications state companies seemed to have backed into. Thoughts?
PT: Being “always-on” can be a source of stress, and I agree with the HBR article that this stress can be managed if proper expectations are set… for example letting employees know they’re not required to respond to group threads outside of work hours, or building a culture where it’s OK to not immediately respond to instant messages.
Another source of communications-related stress highlighted in our research is the growing number of channels and apps employees are expected to pay attention to. In a 2020 version of our Workplace Communications study, 27% of organizations reported employees being overwhelmed by the number of communications solutions – often with overlapping/redundant voice, video, and chat functionality that could lead to confusion.
SB: Do you have a general solution to those issues of burnout and overwhelm?
PT: There’s an opportunity for vendors to integrate functionality into fewer, easier-to-use tools. Instead of having a separate solution for email, chat, voice, and video, there’s a growing desire among companies to simplify and consolidate. For example, our research indicates that 51% of companies would prefer to buy from providers that offer all-encompassing communications solutions.
SB: Thanks for your time, Peter.
PT: Thank you.
Matthew Rechs (@MrEchs) lays out a manager’s manifesto, which reflects how many ways management can be done wrong. Everything he says he will and won’t do has an opposite which other managers don’t do or do but shouldn’t. Another mirror!
11 Promises from a Manager: a thread
1. We’ll have a weekly 1:1. I’ll never cancel this meeting, but you can cancel it whenever you like. It’s your time.
2. Our 1:1 agenda will be in the meeting invite so we remember important topics. But you’re always free to use the time for whatever’s on your mind.
3. When I schedule a meeting with you, I’ll always say *when I schedule it* what it’s meant to be about. I will not schedule meetings without an agenda.
4. When I drop into your DM’s, I’ll always say “hi and why.” No suspense, no small talk while you are wondering what I want.
5. News or announcements that significantly impact you, your work, or your team will come from me directly in a 1:1, not revealed in a big meeting.
6. You’ll get feedback from me when it’s fresh. There will be no feedback in your performance review that you’re hearing for the first time.
7. I trust you to manage your own time. You don’t need to clear with me in advance your time AFK or OOO.
8. Your work gets done your way. My focus is on outcomes, not output. Once we’re clear on where we need to go, how to get there is up to you. If I ever find it necessary to suggest a specific approach, I will supply an example.
9. A team is strongest when it’s working together, looking after one another, and taking care of each other. Please look to your left and to your right for opportunities to help your colleagues. Please ask for help when you need it. Nobody works alone.
10. I trust you to skip level and talk to my manager or other senior management about anything you feel is relevant. You don’t need to clear it with me, and I’m not going to get weird about it when you do.
11. I will attribute credit appropriately to you and your team. I will never exaggerate my own role or minimize your contribution. I’ll be especially certain to nail down attribution when senior management are hearing of our accomplishments.
If this sounds good to you, please reciprocate by giving me in return what I need most: The truth. Give me your feedback, say when I’m wrong, and tell me your ideas for how we can do better.
If we trust each other, we can learn and grow together. That’s how I want to work with you.
In In defense of multitasking during meetings, Sarah Todd pries open a subject that seems minor but is actually a small prism throwing light (and shade) on many aspects of work.
In a recent survey of 200 executives at US companies, 92% said that employees who turn their cameras off and remain mute “probably don’t have a long-term future at their company.” What’s more, 93% of executives assume that employees who stay dark on Zoom are less engaged overall, according to the survey from the software company Vyopta.
Such news could spur some remote workers to heave a resigned sigh and flip their cameras on. But a better solution might be for executives and managers to reconsider their attitudes toward multitasking during meetings.
Even that minor nod is heretical in many companies. Here’s her case:
Turning off your camera and microphone during a meeting isn’t necessarily a sign you’re checked out. Some people may simply have Zoom fatigue caused by self-consciousness about how they look on camera—a condition that’s particularly likely to affect women.
So, companies who are working on worker wellbeing should lighten up.
But even if workers are multitasking during Zoom meetings, they may have a valid reason for doing so—too many meetings in the first place. “Nearly half of executives (48%) cite too many meetings as a reason why employees do not talk during virtual meetings, saying they had too many calls that could’ve been an email,” the Vyopta survey reports.
If people turn their cameras off because they’re multitasking during meetings, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s true that task switching makes it harder for people to pay attention to a single subject-—if an employee is drafting a memo during a Zoom meeting, they’re probably going to have a hard time recalling what their coworkers said, for example—but there are ways to multitask that don’t diminish people’s ability to focus, and may even improve their concentration.
Research shows, for example, that doodling during lectures can actually help students better retain information, and that people who participate in walking meetings feel more engaged with their jobs. People who fold laundry or lift weights during a Zoom meeting are able to do those tasks more or less on autopilot—which means that they’re not actually distracted from the meeting at hand.
Another perspective: when people are working from home, streaming their kitchen or bedroom closet becomes a strange adjunct to the office. In For Weary Workers, Video Backdrops Are Becoming Too Close and Personal, Ronda Keysen discovers that some employers are posting ‘job listings with requirements and specifications about dedicated home-office space’. This builds on video etiquette guides that mandate ‘no eating, no pets, and no children on camera’.
Your video background has become a form of surveillance.
Recently Constance Noonan Hadley, a lecturer in management at Boston University, and a team of academics surveyed 182 senior managers; 71 percent found too many of their meetings “unproductive and inefficient”, and nearly two-thirds thought they came “at the expense of deep thinking.” [Reported by Christopher Mims.]
So why don’t we stop having so many meetings?
This came up in conversation this week, so here: Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic:
After six decades of independent scientific research, there is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently. In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.
But why doesn’t brainstorming work? There are four explanations:
Social loafing: There’s a tendency – also known as free riding – for people to make less of an effort when they are working in teams than alone. As with the bystander effect, we feel less propelled to do something when we know other people might do it.
Social anxiety: People worry about other team members’ views of their ideas. This is also referred to as evaluation apprehension. Similarly, when team members perceive that others have more expertise, their performance declines. This is especially problematic for introverted and less confident individuals.
Regression to the mean: This is the process of downward adjustment whereby the most talented group members end up matching the performance of their less talented counterparts. This effect is well known in sports – if you practice with someone less competent than you, your competence level declines and you sink to the mediocrity of your opponent.
Production blocking: No matter how large the group, individuals can only express a single idea at one time if they want other group members to hear them. Studies have found that the number of suggestions plateaus with more than six or seven group members, and that the number of ideas per person declines as group size increases.
I wrote a piece for Chronogram’s The River, a Hudson Valley news service: The Donut Effect: How Remote Work Is Transforming the Hudson Valley:
If you listen to the CEOs of the largest firms, you might conclude that after the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of knowledge workers would be returning to the office. But mounting evidence says that’s not so. This will have major impacts, not only on the central business districts of New York City and other “super cities” like San Francisco and Chicago, but also on the peripheral suburban and exurban regions surrounding them.