It’s Good to Talk
Anyone of TV-watching age in ’90s Britain likely remembers the British Telecom ads with the late Bob Hoskins iterating, ‘‘It’s good to talk,” in his quintessential accent. He wasn’t wrong.
These ads were part of a marketing campaign that transformed British Telecom into the company that it is today and would carry it through to the broadband revolution – but not promoting it as a telecommunications provider.
Rather, this campaign represented BT's realization that it was in the business of reciprocated confidences. That’s a fancy way of saying, “The exchange of ‘confidences’ between human beings leads to better communication and, in turn, deeper relationships.”
So, talking is good – as the ad so very clearly states – but it's easy to forget the power and advantages of our most natural way of communicating, and conveying empathy and support.
When we started Strivacity, we implemented something we thought was a little controversial at the time. We made the decision to never use email for any internal communication or collaboration.
We haven’t looked back - here’s why
18 months later, with customers, a product in the market and fast approaching 20 people on staff (including some go-to-market folks), we haven't looked back. At the time of writing this piece, I have two unread emails in my inbox, and I’m happy to say one is from a customer – the other is a webinar reminder from a vendor.
While we only have great things to say about our communication tool of choice (which is Slack*), this isn’t an article about how wonderful Slack is. The reason we are not looking back to using email is not because of a particular tool or our intention to use “instant messaging.”
We are not looking back because removing email as a time vacuum in our working day has created a subsequent company culture that's not based on an inbox, but one of real communication and relationships (and more time to get real work done).
When we decided to put aside internal email in favor of Slack, we put together guidelines to make sure all of our team members had appropriate expectations on its use – for example, don’t expect immediate replies, it’s OK to be “away” if you’re doing real work, make sure you use the right channels for the right subjects, and so on.
(Side note: We foster a peer-reviewed communication guidelines policy, allowing and encouraging all employees to make suggestions and contribute at any time. More on this at the base of this piece.)
But even with all of our planning and using Slack, getting more real work done isn’t the greatest benefit of not using email. It turns out the greatest benefit is we actually talk to each other a lot more! And I mean actually talk – not in meetings with lots of people to address some agenda points, but we truly collaborate one-on-one or in small groups on a specific topic/issue in-person, or now via phone or video (because, well, the coronavirus).
Through more meaningful communication and collaboration, we found we can address most issues this way head on, instead of shooting off endless emails or Slack messages that include the entire population of a small nation. What used to feel like awkward one- or two-minute short and snappy phone calls now are considered hyper-productive ways of figuring something out. As a result, we have far less meetings.
What about our working relationships
We found that even across remote locations (and I’m talking pre-COVID-19 here) personal relationships developed quicker than we’d experienced in the past, as did the foundation of trust between individuals and teams. These relationships were crucial to establish prior to the pandemic wreaking havoc, and something we’ve maintained ever since albeit virtually.
Because we share information in groups via Slack and openly converse about projects on the regular, we’ve seen very little duplication of effort. Why send a follow-up or ask a question through email when the work has already been done live? And did I mention we have few meetings?
Furthermore, we found that the digital equivalent of swiveling around in one's chair or walking over to someone's desk to ask a question or collaborate has become a nirvana of efficiency and productivity.
I think Bob was onto something.
Email and instant messaging are not synonymous
I’m often asked, “How is Slack any different from email if your messages are just sitting there?” asked before I’ve been able to make the point that our advantages don’t necessarily stem from leveraging Slack, but rather that by not using email for internal communication, we talk more. Human to human. There is no hiding behind written words on a screen and passive aggressive email lingo when you can hear another person’s voice, or even better see their face, their body language, their expressions.
So back to that question – I would say sure, if you use a tool like Slack in lieu of email in a way where folks fire off countless direct messages to others or to public channels (a bit like CCing a distribution list) without any consideration, then you’re not using it properly. But if you remove email from the equation and implement guidelines for how to properly utilize Slack or the like, what you will find is people will naturally talk more – which is really the point here.
Take me as an example. I’ve found myself more respectful to others when asking a question or requesting information. I’ll say to myself, “Is Szilard online? Nope. OK I’ll wait to have that discussion.” Half the time I figure out the answer myself, and I never end up needing to bother him. Sometimes I find myself actually learning something through my newfound sense of self-efficiency. Not interrupting someone elses time only helps productivity. It's a win-win.
So, what about COVID-19
As much as this isn’t a promo about Slack, this also isn't another article about how the coronavirus has changed everything or working from home during the pandemic. The virus certainly has changed much about the way we now work. I think I speak for most when I say we all miss the in-person aspect of working together in an office. But the tradeoff of conversing via phone or video is much more rewarding than reverting to email, as it still helps nurture those important working relationships.
Reflecting on the last eight months or so (who’s counting?), our teams have adjusted remarkably well, and we owe that to the communication culture we planted, grew and nourished prior to the pandemic.
To summarize what we have learned and observed during our little social experiment:
- No one misses time spent dealing with the dreaded inbox
- Clear delineation between internal and external communication allows us to be customer and partner communication-focused – if I receive an email, there is a high probability it’s from a customer or partner
- We talk to each other far more via phone and video than we do via written text, despite using Slack
- The question, “Can we hop on a quick call?” has proven to be commonplace, kickstarting live conversations to sort things out and reach decisions quickly
- Miscommunication and misunderstandings are quickly resolved
- Gone are nastygrams
- Using a tool like Slack doesn't mean you have to be interrupt-driven (unless you let that happen)
- Clear communication guidelines are key, not to mention those that are regularly assessed and improved upon by employees
- A culture evolves as people contribute and the company grows. Culture is never instructed, nor should it be dictated from the top
- When working across various cultures and with people with different first languages, speaking via phone or video can remove the barrier often in place with written communication
Want a copy of our communication guidelines policy, written by our employees for our employees? We’re happy to share it. Have questions about any of this? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
*We also use Slack as our command-and-control hub for our CI/CD pipeline, but that's a blog for another day.