Software development companies have been using real-time online communication tools for about 10-15 years by now, and it's hard to imagine how they could possibly do without such tools at all. Online collaboration started out first as instant messaging, back in the late 90's - early 2000's. With distributed teams and with work outsourced to other parts of the world, instant messaging became indispensable. Be it a development team located thousands miles away from an executive team, or from a customer support team, or whether an organization needs an online hub where the remote workers can get together, no one questions the need for such tools and the value they bring to the workflow. However, online messaging has always been a subject to productivity-related concerns, and for a reason. I want to look into how the real-time online communications at work evolved over the last 15 years, how it was early on, what has changed now, and what we need to do about those changes, as stakeholders, or as employees if we want to be productive and feel good about our work.
Instant messaging at work in the early-mid 2000's: Block and Spy
In early 2000's workplace culture was more restrictive and prohibitive, in general, than nowadays. Some companies used the punish-and-fear practices with regard of instant messaging at work: they would log ICQ chats, banning any chatter unrelated to work altogether, or they would go as far as to totally block instant messengers. A point to note: there was no Facebook in the early-mid 2000's. Instant messaging just started out, and I'm old enough to remember how it seemed to be one of those technological miracles. People were soo eager to chat online with their friends when at work. The employers, naturally, wanted to keep their employees working and working. The practices of material production were implanted to software development back then. They assumed, mostly, that knowledge workers should work by the same token as machines in the manufacturing: 9-5 and non-stop. Back at those times, the issue of productivity with instant messaging at work was about not letting people get distracted. To get an idea of how it was back then (or to refresh the memories), we can refer to this 10-year old article in Wall Street Journal. Someone would probably smile, as they read this, quoting from the article: "Being overly casual with colleagues and superiors is one of the biggest pitfalls of using instant messaging."
The rise and decline of Facebook in the mid 2000's - early 2010's
By mid 2000's this dynamics was replaced by a new one. Enter Facebook, going mainstream in about '07-08. No doubt, Facebook has influenced the way we live our lives, let alone our communications with friends and co-workers. Some employers sensed trouble as early as then and blocked access to Facebook in their companies. But these attempts were futile, because the general public opinion tended to regard such actions as the Draconian culture-of-fear measures. 5-7 years later, one can observe yet another change. Now numerous studies and research prove that Facebook makes people unhappy, and they give a detailed account of how exactly this happens. I reckon the recent notorious psychological experiment conducted by Facebook is a clear proof that they sense trouble and look for the clues on how to keep people hanging out there. Otherwise, the Facebook's game might be over. Anyway, back to to my story.
The Facebook-ization of workspace
Facebook, as outstanding a phenomenon in public life as it is, has certainly influenced the way companies arrange their online communications. Before Facebook, it was about instant messaging. In the age of Facebook, real-time communication at work has got more and more Facebook-ized. Now these tools are not "instant messengers", they are referred to as the tools for "team collaboration, file sharing, document sharing, social sharing". Can you feel the difference? Now, let's think logically: if research proves that Facebook makes people unhappy, and given that real-time collaboration tools have acquired many Facebook-ish traits, it is safe to assume that teams might be subjected to this same unhappiness and feeling low as they use such tools, similarly to how it happens with Facebook users! So, which Facebook-like peculiarities of online team collaboration tools do we need to keep an eye on? Where's the potential danger of unhappiness and unproductiveness?
Miserable observer vs. energetic doer
As the research has it, one of the most insidious traps associated with Facebook, on a psychological level, is spending more time in passive than in active mode. The more time we spend browsing photos and passively checking updates, the worse it feels. Same with the real-time team collaboration tools. Once we spend a lot of time passively checking status updates of our co-workers, on how something worked great or sucked in an area of work which is beyond our control, a certain cognitive bias of being let out of the real action is slowly formed. It might feel that our work doesn't matter at all. There's a nagging voice that says: "All my efforts are in vain, no one needs them." In a bounceback fashion, these people will want to stand out and make a difference. But their work is not related to any major achievements. They just do their job, as a tech support engineer, or as a QA engineer, or as a software developer. Still, they feel alienated, under the influence of this bias, and they will act Facebook-ishly to remind the rest of the world that their work matters. They'd post an update that — in their mind influenced by the bias — would make their work appear meaningful. But this update wouldn't add value to the work of others in the team. Or, they might tend to be overcritical as to how things work, or how something is eternally wrong. I do not mean the exchanges where the team collaborate online to resolve an urgent issue real-time. My point is that these channels of communication have to be arranged thoughtfully, and engage those employees that can be the doers in such situations, rather than passive observers. I've given just some examples of the distortions produced by those biases. Let alone that this vicious "feeling low+the need to compensate" circle creates a swirl of alienation, its contribution to the team's productivity is zero. If an employee is preoccupied with this unhealthy virtual environment, and tends to act in a Facebook-ish fashion, they do not do the work. They blow their productive focus and their mental energy on coping with such psychological biases.
What to do about Facebook-ish biases?
If something like that happens in your team, fingerpointing and spotting individual point of failures will not help. People are people, we have emotions and visceral reactions. The only way to go forward and to keep us productive, energetic and healthy at work is to sit down, think and come up with the strategic setup for internal communications. Who in the team needs to collaborate real-time to do their job? For whom online collaboration is more of a waste, loaded with potential biases? If someone needs some information, could there be such a setup, where they'd get this info async? If this info is available, how do we make sure that everyone knows where to get it? These are just some questions that one needs to answer. If you're a a stakeholder, or a person in charge of the mechanics by which your company runs, there's a compelling evidence that calls to de-Facebook-ize work-related communications. If we think more about it, the real-time messaging is usually required for customer-related issues. It could be, a tech support team urgently needs help from developers or from the dev ops. But do they need to include other people from QA and dev to these firefighter talks? Gee, if the production team see that customers always come complaining, they might get a bad cognitive bias that no matter how hard they work, customers still have issues. The rule of a thumb is: think who needs which information to do their work, rather than "why don't we keep everyone informed real-time?" Biases developed from spending time in passive-observer mode come with a price tag: dissatisfaction with work, loss of productivity, and a whole array of other such bad things, which no sensible person, be it an employee or a business owner, would want to have in their organization. If you are an employee, think if you want to stay on top of all the updates real-time. Beware passive browsing. It's the most dangerous thing ever about anything online. If your management has no policy for real-time collab tools, invent it for yourself. When you start feeling bad being a passive observer, and catch yourself posting notes with negative or sarcastic messages, run away. Shut down those channels, and focus on your own work.
Slack, an online team collaboration tool, displays some cheerful messages for its users. One of these messages is particularly wise and well-intentioned. Here's how it goes: "Enjoy Slack responsibly". Also, Slack has a slogan on their web-site: "Be less busy", which I would like to extend: "Be less busy. Be more focused instead".