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re: Working Remotely and Written Communication VIEW POST

FULL DISCUSSION
 

I am thinking about this problem in terms of communication channel bandwidth. Different channels have different bandwidths, and sometimes a channel just doesn't have adequate bandwidth. In more concrete terms, talking face to face conveys a ton of information in addition to the spoken word; you see each others body language, you see whether someone is intently listening or is bored, you pick up on jokes easier, just get instant feedback to what you're saying without anyone even having to say anything (e.g. nods). You can add gestures or scribble on a piece of paper to supplement your words. In a text chat all that is missing. A text chat is good for exchanging small bits of factual information. A text chat is not good for:

  • discussing a complex problem in depth in realtime
  • inferring people's reactions to what you're saying
  • talking in a larger group

You should not try to use text chat for these things. And if you are, don't try to read or convey information through it that just isn't there. Don't assume how people are or aren't reacting. Don't try to infer things you can't see. Use text chat to exchange factual information, which is what it's good for. Don't try to compensate for people getting agitated, because they might in fact not be.

A text chat is also terribly asynchronous and is costing everybody precious time. You have to wait for the other side to respond, but you can't really do anything else productive during that time either. Text chat isn't realtime enough to have a smooth conversation, but it's not asynchronous enough to have a measured back-and-forth either, like you might have via email or a bug tracker ticket.

If text doesn't have the bandwidth required to discuss something, switch to an audio conversation or, better, a video conversation. Upgrade the connection. Just a quick "Hey, do you have 5 minutes for a quick talk?" are often sufficient to solve something that might otherwise drag on for hours or days.

In addition, meeting in the real world every so often really helps. If you get to know people intensively, even just for a few days or a week, then you can infer their reactions better even in a text-only medium without seeing their faces or reactions. Go out for a drink if you get the chance. Good companies should be aware of that and initially fly remote workers in to get to know the team, and/or sponsor annular get-togethers or such.

 

Maybe this is just because I spent so much time as a kid MUDding, but, far from being "terribly asynchronous", I find text chat to be the best synchronous communication medium, if people are engaged. You can paste links, re-read what what people said to check context, and keep an automatic log to refer to when the conversation is over. And, it's harder to interrupt someone mid-sentence (accidentally or otherwise) or dominate a meeting.

I find audio-only phone calls stressful and unreliable, and video conversations quite strange and distracting, in part because of the odd personal space violations (people never have their webcams at appropriate distances) and wandering eyes.

 

I suppose it really depends on the "texting etiquette" of your fellow participants and what you're talking about exactly. A one-on-one is often not a problem, but a group conversation often devolves into chaos if several people are typing at the same time, I find. Because nothing is keeping you from "talking over" one another, and then it can become really difficult to refer back to previous points and respond to everyone appropriately.

I prefer a completely asynchronous medium like email or a ticket system, where slow thought out replies are the norm. For meetings, I prefer video.

I have to add that I primarily work with people from other cultures and different business roles, so that might exaggerate the problem. If you're all from within the same culture and are doing roughly the same work you may be intrinsically more on the same page.

That's a fair comment: text definitely relies on being able to keep track of conversational fork/joining and respecting a certain implicit conversational turn, and I agree that the more diverse your group is, the worse I'd expect that to work.

I do wish all the replies to our ticket system were thought-out, though, however slow they might be. There's nothing like having to slowly draw initially-omitted detail after detail out of a person over e-mail, like pulling teeth one by one.

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