All lines are open
I was talking to a colleague on the phone discussing an upcoming meeting with a client. I was chatting with a colleague in Teams discussing options to fix a platform issue. I was drafting an email response to a colleague in Outlook to confirm the correct steps in a process. The funny thing is, each of these conversations was with the same person. The moment I realized what was happening I thought to myself, "This is it. I've violated some law of nature and the universe is going to rapidly contract into nothingness."
The universe, however, remained intact (as far as I can tell) and I was given the chance to think more deeply about this phenomenon of modern life. Feature, or bug?
The message dictates the medium
You communicate differently depending on the medium through which you are delivering your message. Open your work email right now and look at the last three emails you sent. Now look at the last three chat messages you sent. What about the last three Tweets? I would bet good money that the emails take on a more formal tone, have complete sentences, and include a greeting and a sign-off. The chat messages are less formal, include fewer complete sentences, and a single question or piece of information is often chopped up into several shorter messages. Tweets are artificially limited to 280 characters and require the author to be concise. Differences like these are present when comparing any method of communication - phone, chat, email, video, or even an actual physical letter.
Theory & practice
Now, stay with me here, but we need to quickly discuss some communication theory. I'll make sure it's not boring.
One important framework researchers use to describe communication methods is media synchronicity theory. This theory essentially states that all communication includes two processes, "conveyance" and "convergence." In simple terms, conveyance means delivering and thinking about a raw message or data, while convergence means delivering and synthesizing abstract ideas. The authors of media synchronicity theory argue that certain communication methods are better suited for conveyance, while others are better suited for convergence. I have reproduced a chart from their research below. There are a lot more details we can get into another time, but those are the basics. See, not too bad.
In that universe-breaking moment when I was communicating with the same person three different ways, I was living out media synchronicity theory. I was using three different forms of communication because the set of tasks I was performing required it. I selected the medium that best suited my desired outcome.
When you decide to send a chat message instead of an email you are likely not making an intentional choice based on theoretical frameworks that a few business school professors came up with (at least not before you read this). The utility and efficiency of the medium are not the only factors. There are also social, cultural, organizational, team, and personal norms and values that make you alt+tab over to Gmail instead of picking up the phone.
Social norms, synchronous, and asynchronous communication
One important social norm that we encounter is that of synchronous versus asynchronous communication. When you pick up the phone rather than send an email, you are telling the recipient that you want to discuss something immediately. When an immediate response is expected, this is known as "synchronous" communication. "Asynchronous" communication, on the other hand, means responses are expected to be delayed.
Most digital communication methods are neither inherently synchronous nor asynchronous. Rather, communities, organizations, and people define the rules of engagement for each available method of communication. For example, an email can be received and responded to almost as quickly as you can answer a question on the phone. Similarly, a chat message sent through a messenger and a comment logged in an issue tracking tool are essentially the same, but most people expect an immediate response in one of those cases.
Communication Rules of Engagement
For teams it is important to establish these rules of engagement for each available communication method and to enforce them often. One useful framework to help get you started creating this set of rules is Stephen Covey's Time Management Matrix from his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
I have adapted this framework to better suit this specific use case and have done away with the "do, plan, delegate, eliminate" conditions for each quadrant. Instead, the matrix helps you catalog which methods are synchronous versus asynchronous and which specific messages belong to each method.
How to establish your rules of engagement
1. First, brainstorm a list of the methods of communication you use today. Email, chat, text, voice meetings, video calls, comments in your project management or issue tracking tools, and so on.
2. Assign each communication method to the "Messages & types" section in one of the four quadrants (urgent/important, urgent/not important, not urgent/important, not urgent/not important).
3. Next, brainstorm a list of types of communications, messages, and discussions you have with your team. Don't categorize them yet, just get them all out on the page. Feature requests, questions to your product team, communicating issues to customer success, meeting requests, process ideation, alignment discussions, and so on.
4. Now, drop each item on the list into the "Communication method" section in one of the four quadrants (important/urgent, important/not urgent, not important, urgent, not important/not urgent).
5. There you have it, a foundation for your communication rules of engagement.
Your communication strategy will evolve as the communication methods themselves change and evolve. For example, chat applications are catching up to email in their ability to handle attachments, images, and voice recordings. Will this make email obsolete? Maybe, but norms tend to play a larger role than advances in technology. If you must send a long-form message with screenshots and attachments either method will work. The question is, does your organization value email for this type of message, or would you prefer to see this show up in a Slack channel?
Feature, or bug?
To answer the initial question posed in this article, this fragmented means of communication is, without a doubt, a feature. Sure, it helps to quickly access each method from a single tool or starting point, but the ability to choose the medium that best fits the message and the social norms that provide structure and set expectations helps us prioritize the thousands of messages that are flung at us each day.
[Bonus] Ping me, email me, call me, zoom me
Here are a few communication methods and ways they're generally used.
- Chat – Usually informal, chat is used in various ways among different organizations. More often than not, however, chat is the space for brief semi-synchronous discussions and information exchange. Quickly checking in with the team or an individual, asking for quick favors, opinions, or ideas, venting and complaining about an annoying meeting or that company-wide email that just went out. There are many teams that use chat both synchronously and asynchronously in place of email and other methods and take full advantage of the capabilities of modern chat applications like Slack and Teams. Slack, Microsoft Teams, RingCentral, Discord, Mattermost.
"Hey are you going to be able to make the 2pm meeting?"
"Can you send me the link to that API documentation?"
- Comments – Unique in that they are normally tied to a particular issue, case, user story, project task, or other specific element, comments are generally an asynchronous form of communication used to provide specific direction or feedback that may require action, but does not require immediate response. Just like chat, however, comments are used both synchronously and asynchronously. JIRA, Smartsheet, Confluence, Monday, Trello, G Suite, GitHub
- Email – Depending on the recipient, email can informal but often take on a more formal tone than chat or comments. Email is the primary form of external communication for most companies and, as a result, there are accepted standards and etiquette. Email is often used to express longer messages that include complete sentences, context, references such as links and attachments, formal greetings and closings, and a professional tone. Outlook, Gmail, Superhuman, Hey.
"Good afternoon team,
"As you know we are coming down the home stretch of the Big Fantastic Project and we are all working hard to close out the remaining open items. I am meeting with senior leadership this coming Monday and will be reporting out on our current status, roadblocks, and progress toward hitting the launch date. Can you please update the project tracker (attached or linked) by end of day Friday? I need to report up to the senior leadership team on Monday.
- Voice calls & meetings – Speaking directly to someone else is about as synchronous as it gets. The expectation is that ideas are conceived, explained, and discussed with immediacy and often in a reactionary manner. Once the initial context is provided for the call, this method requires all parties to improvise questions and responses and to provide immediate feedback. If you are discussing something novel for which you have not prepared there are often "takeaways" or "follow-up items" that move a synchronous voice call into the realm of asynchronous communication. Webex, RingCentral, Microsoft Teams, Discord, iOS, Android.
"Good afternoon everyone, thanks for joining the call. As you know, we are quickly approaching the go-live date. I want to make sure we are still on track..."
- Video call – Unsurprisingly, this method best simulates face-to-face discussion since you can see body language and non-verbal feedback. One unique attribute of video calls is that many times people are speaking with a 2x2 mirror in the corner of their screen providing them feedback on their own expressions and non-verbal cues. This is not normal during traditional face-to-face conversations and can make participants self-conscious, vulnerable, and may impact how people respond and behave. Other than this unique attribute, a video call is the same as a voice call. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, RingCentral, Discord.