/ Essays

Workplace communication is lazy and broken

Technology kind of sucks. Seriously, how many tools or software products have actually made your life better recently? I'll bet almost none. In fact, I'll bet at least a few made your life considerably worse.

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes was worried that things would fall apart when technology granted Americans so much leisure time.

How will we all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week? Over the next century, he predicted, the economy would become so productive that people would barely need to work at all.

If only. Instead, the opposite has happened. Technology means work follows us everywhere we go. And our personal lives follow us to work. We're more stressed and less productive than ever.

Part of the reason that we spend 2-3x more hours working than we need to is because workplace communication is so terrible. Finnish research Osmo Wiio famously said that "If communication can fail, it will."

Technology makes communication so easy. And that's a problem. When we don't need to be good communicators, we default to Slack and email. Technology is replacing good communication. If you close Slack and suddenly wonder what to do next, you'll know you have this problem.

It's time that startups (especially remote ones) take this seriously. Ironically, it's less stressful to wait two days for a response than it is to wait five minutes—assuming you have good processes in place.

  • Random info (urgent but not important): Google it. Make the best decision you can with the information you have.
  • Process questions (not urgent or important): Everything that can be documented gets documented. Find it yourself as needed.
  • Requests (important but not urgent): Put in a request for data, feedback, information and expect to wait 48 hours for a response. Writing feedback goes in Google Docs, expect a response in 48 hours. Code requests can be sent via email, expect a response within 72 hours.
  • Announcements (important and urgent): Finally, a good use for Slack! (Or a Google Chat, text messages and phone calls.)

We do our best work when we're calm and focused. Nearly all technology makes this harder, not easier. It's time to take communication (and our sanity) seriously.