Paradoxes of Engagement: Less Communication Is More

Minimizing hours for synchronous communication makes us more productive

In 2017, long before the pandemic, Gallup released research that showed some startling results regarding working out of the office:

All employees who spend at least some (but not all) of their time working remotely have higher engagement than those who don’t ever work remotely.

And those that work remotely 60%-80% of the time say they are more likely to strongly agree that working remotely makes them more productive.

Human communication is naturally “bursty,” in that it involves periods of high activity followed by periods of little to none. Our research suggests that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams. | Riedle and Woolley

When I wrote about this earlier this year in Paradoxes of Engagement: Remote Isn’t, I suggested that perhaps the difficulties linked to managers communicating with out-of-office workers led to better managing:

Because of all the difficulties of communicating with remote workers, managers have to make an extra effort to connect. That means they are likely to put it on their calendar or todo list, or both. Because of that, managers will pay more attention to what is being said, and as [Scott] Edinger puts it, ‘tend to be more conscious of the way they express their authority’. They are likely to make an effort to catch up with remote workers to get a sense of what’s going on in their lives.

But recent research suggests a different factor may be at play in the increased productivity and engagement of those who have adopted a minimum viable office way of work (actually on site no more than a day or two per week, or the equivalent).

Christoph Riedle and Alice Williams Woolley take a different slant in recent research, and focus on the communication style of successful teams:

Human communication is naturally “bursty,” in that it involves periods of high activity followed by periods of little to none. Our research suggests that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams. Those silent periods are when team members often form and develop their ideas — deep work that may generate the next steps in a project or the solution to a challenge faced by the group. Bursts, in turn, help to focus energy, develop ideas, and achieve closure on specific questions, thus enabling team members to move on to the next challenge.

The researchers point out that with distributed teams, finding times when team members can focus on ‘being bursty together’ can be complicated, but doing so ‘can help smooth out the jagged edges of our Covid-induced remote-work constraints’. This means that other times are dedicated to heads down, individual, deep work.

How to accomplish this? The simplest may be to schedule periods for communication, and block off the rest:

The old-fashioned way to do this would be to schedule blocks of time when people are open for meetings, and then do a burst of back and forth communication during those blocks.

Riedle and Woolley offer this as a counter to one of the consistent arguments made against minimum office: serendipity in face-to-face interactions.

The bottom line: Worry less about sparking creativity and connection through watercooler-style interactions in the physical world, and focus more on facilitating bursty communication.

In one of those I-shouldn’t-be-surprised coincidences, at a recent event (see First Look | The New Dropbox Spaces) I learned that Dropbox has announced plans to adopt what it is calling a Virtual First way of working. Virtual First means more than just allowing people to work from home, but that is the jumping-off point. Starting immediately,

remote work (outside an office) will be the primary experience for all employees and the day-to-day default for individual work.

A key aspect of Virtual First is planning around bursty communication:

We’re embracing what we call “non-linear workdays.” We’re setting core collaboration hours with overlap between time zones, and encouraging employees to design their own schedules beyond that. As our workforce grows more distributed, this will help balance collaboration with needs for individual focus. We want to prioritize impact and results instead of hours worked.

I was briefed by Dropbox staff that core hours would be 9am to 1pm in each time zone. That means that a video meeting with team members in San Francisco and New York would likely have to be scheduled at 12pm Pacific Time, while one involving San Francisco and Dublin would have to be run outside of some attendee’s core hours. Presumably, the majority of communications will involve people in the same or nearby time zones, but in any case, people will (generally) have at least four hours of time for deep work, and they can decide in what hours to do that work.

The other elements of Virtual First are geared to make it an adaptive system.

One key factor is the designation of Dropbox Studios, which are existing offices (such as San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Dublin, to start), and on-demand spaces elsewhere. The company expects to become more distributed over time, adding additional Studios along the way. These are facilities where Droplings can come together — once it is safe to do so — for face-to-face meetings, conferences, and other activities.

Another pillar of the plan is designing the future employee experience around Virtual First. To that end, Dropbox has developed a Virtual First Toolkit and made it freely available. They expect to extend and amend the Toolkit as needed.

Synchronous communication of the sort envisioned by Reidl and Woolley during those periods of bursty communications needs to be augmented by an increased reliance on written async communications, to decrease the need for meetings or quick sync-ups. In Virtual First Toolkit: How to communicate effectively, Dropbox has outlined their thinking on this critical sidebar to effectively coordinating among teams while still streamlining communications. In the next Paradoxes of Engagement installment, I’ll examine the theory and practice of writing more and talking less.

Read all the Paradoxes of Engagement series: