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Why Persistent Chat Tools Turn Into Productivity Nightmares
Persistent chat tools - like Google Chat, Hipchat, Campfire, Messages, and the latest darling, Slack - all try to jump into the gulf between the effectiveness of working in real time with people face-to-face and the ineffectiveness of working in real time with people via email. I've been using tools like these in our team since 2011, and what we continually have to relearn is that there are a few contexts in which they actually increase our productivity, but the majority of the time, they are a major distraction if we're not careful.
In case you haven't used one of these tools and wonder what the big deal is, imagine that you're able to create a chatroom where everything typed is archived and searchable. You can jump in a room and ask a teammate a question, and anyone else in the room can see that question. If your teammate isn't on at the moment, she can see the question when she logs in later. Even "logging on" is so last decade, though, as these tools now sync up with your phone, computer, or tablet. So wherever she is, your teammate will be able to get and respond to your question. There are many more add-ons and integrations to these tools (especially Slack), but this idea of persistent and unified chat is the core foundation of these tools.
These tools are insanely useful during launches and all-hands-on-deck deadlines because everyone who needs to see what's going on can see what's going on in real time. Without them, it's like playing Marco Polo where what you're trying to find is where the project is and who's doing what and when. You're left with one of two scenarios: either there's a lot of over-communicating and chatter; or project hand-offs kill you because the next person to pick up the project might not check email when you need him to. And compared to the disjointed array of communication tools people are organically using - a combination of email, text messaging, phone calls, sticky notes, and chatrooms - consolidating communications into one tool can quickly make everyone's lives easier.
But it's that ease of communication that starts to turn the dream of having all communications in one place into a nightmare. Outside of those intense periods when you need people to be coordinated that tightly, these chatrooms devolve quite quickly into a virtual watercooler or a stressful stream of interruptions and noise. One of the first things I need to talk to many of my clients about is how they carve out time away from these tools because the tools and the habits for using them are making people utterly ineffective at focusing on their high-value activities.
How so? Most of the time, they most need to do high-level thinking, planning, communicating, and problem-solving, but these asynchronous channels pull them into minutia they should not be in or interrupt them with GIFs, jokes, or random questions that would be better reserved for a dedicated sync meeting. Even worse is the way in which the founder or executive ends up being the team's personal Google by answering questions that the team could find through a quick search or by talking to each other.
It's not just founders and executives, though. Everyone needs space and time to go dark and get their own creative work done. It's considerably harder to do that when the technology follows you everywhere you go AND there's an expectation that you'll be on, despite its supposedly being asynchronous communication.
This is why I must agree with John Herrman's assessment in Are You Just LARPing Your Job?:
There may be offices, and types of jobs, for which sitting in a chatroom all day makes everyone more productive. This does not seem to be the case in online media, which is most effusive in its praise for the service ... Working in an active Slack (or Campfire for that matter!) is a productivity nightmare, especially if you don’t hate your coworkers. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either rationalizing or delusional.
The reason these tools devolve so quickly is that the teams who need them the most for the aforementioned events also need a vehicle for connecting with their remote teammates. There are no easy coffee breaks, lunches, happy hours, dead spots in meetings, hallway chats, or walks to the parking lots for the multitude of people who spend all day working with people they've worked with for years but have never met in person. So we do what humans do and find other ways to bond over GIFs, jokes, memes, or lolcats.
These bonding touchpoints are essential to well-running teams and healthy human relationships. Too few companies allow enough room for them to happen or actively encourage them, making the need for the people within the companies to connect even more pointed.
But these tools unintentionally amplify and extend every touchpoint. When we tell a joke to our coworkers in the break room, we affect only the two or three people we're with. In a few short moments, we can high-five or tease the person who didn't get it, but then move on to other things. But that same joke in a chatroom with five or six other people can stretch out over the course of an hour and people can add to it. What's true of jokes is also true of someone who's having a bad day or, worse, gossiping or venting.
These antipatterns don't have to take hold and persist, but rooting them out takes even more management, oversight, and expectation-setting than does modeling good email management practices because of how close these tools feel to texting and Facebook. When Late Gen-Xers and Millennials use texting or Facebook to send GIFs, jokes, memes, and lolcats to each other as a way of bonding, it's only natural that they'll do the same thing with tools that seem to have the same capability.
Like it or not, the future is now when it comes to these persistent chat tools, meaning that they're already here and they're going to be staying for a while alongside email. So the question is not if you'll use them or a future generation of them, but when you'll use them. When that time comes, make sure that the ways you're working with and in them are working for you and the people you're working with. Technology, like money, is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.