Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Text me, quick

One of the main advantages of electronic textual communications is its potential asynchronicity.  The recipients of your messages do not have to read them upon arrival, and you, too, can choose when to check up on the messages you have received.  This allows each person to meld the receipt and transmittal of messages into his or her daily schedule, to be dealt with at convenient times.  It enables one, too, to think through a message you have received, perhaps reading it several times, so your response can be more meaningful.

A sad reflection of our times is that you have read the previous paragraph and are probably saying, “Not so.”  Society has already evolved to expect that you will be online all the time.  You have become but a vessel collecting the rainfall of text as it arrives, always poised to answer promptly.  If you do not answer a message quickly enough, you will be pestered by a follow-up note wondering if you received the first one.  As I have watched traffic over the last ten years, the half-life of that sequence has shrunk by two orders of magnitude:  In 2002, it was not uncommon to expect a response within a day.  In 2012, the expectation is often 10 minutes.

What a burden we have thus created for ourselves.  A tool that could have enhanced our lives rebounds to remove control.  A tool that could have enabled us to organize our days more fruitfully acts instead to impair time management.

Is there some compensation for this change?  Has the ease of using social media helped draw us together?  While I am a strong proponent and active user of social media, I cannot be blind to the fact that it serves to isolate as well as connect.  You just have to watch teenagers walking down the street together, texting other friends, to get a sense of this dichotomy.  Even easy-to-use old-fashioned email is the source of many misunderstandings and often stands in the way of face-to-face conversations that might be more productive, efficient, and engaging.  This is especially the case in email exchanges that comprise serial messages back on forth on the same topic.

I once knew a dean at university who was enamored of the idea that she could send a long email to the president of the school, receive an equally thoughtful one in reply, respond with another of her own, get another one back, and so on.  One day, unsatisfied with the result of one such exchange, she was mentioning her correspondence to a colleague who said, “Why don’t you go and talk with him?”  It was easy enough to do so, in that he had an open door policy.  Nonetheless, she answered with shock, saying, “Do you think he would have the time to do that?”  She missed the point that she and the president had spent hours on the subject in the course of their written correspondence, failing to communicate sufficiently well to reach an agreement.  Sure enough, a ten-minute meeting in person ironed out the misunderstandings.

There is an experiment that I wanted to try in my hospital, but I left the job before doing so.  I offer it to you for consideration: Designate Monday as an email-free, texting-free day (except for matters of clinical necessity.)  Spend this first day of each week talking with your colleagues in person or on the telephone.  Even then, minimize use of the telephone:  Get up and walk down the corridor or downstairs to the next floor whenever you can.

Some of you are already saying that you will “never get your work done” if you adopt this approach.  But I have a theory about this.  I think you will actually get more work done.  I think you will eliminate a large number of misunderstandings and re-work.  I think you will learn about problems in the making and help avoid them.

Most importantly, I think you will also be reminded how much you like your fellow workers and enjoy their company.

Try it, and let me know how it goes.  You can text me, tweet me, or comment here on the blog or on Facebook.  :)


dad said...

Completely agree. E-everything has taken on the elements of an "on line subpoena" where the sender expects, and the recipient feels obligated , a response in fairly short order. The nuance of tone and inflection are lost and many times additional one is spent to solve an issue that would have taken a one minute call. Thanks for challenging the behavior! Worthy discussion for those seeking high performance from true teams.

Ali Farquhar said...

I couldn't agree more! For many, email has come to dictate the work day rather than support the work that most needs to get done. People end up feeling both busy and unproductive at the same time. Creating a company-wide dialogue and making conscious choices about electronic media can help. As can turning off the auto-fetch on your email so you don't get distracted when a new message comes in; setting specific dedicated time windows in the day when you will deal with email; and, if you are feeling radical, deleting ALL your emails then retrieving only those from the trash that are absolutely necessary to address. Email is a great tool but it can never replace the nuance of a person to person conversation, nor the trust that comes from knowing the person behind the screen.

Dr.Theresa Willett said...

All true! The switch from numeric to text pagers offered a wonderful way of conveying info without requiring call-back. As you explain, however, the social expectations have morphed to again be unreasonable. Good leadership can try to set better expectations for email vs phone vs in-person-worthy issues, but the external culture is a very difficult one to resist. Maybe it is best to take advantage of 'silence' modes on devices and let the unreasonably demanding stew in their own juices if that is what it takes to make the point.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps eons from now, our physical speaking apparatus will have atrophied in favor of very, very large thumbs. (:. Seriously, I believe these new forms of communication will become fodder for much sociological research in decades to come; it is truly transformative. Whether in a good way or bad way remains to be seen.


Anonymous said...

I would have loved this experiment! Another side benefit of getting up and out of your chair to go talk with your colleague, rather than flying your fingers over the keyboard, is, well, getting up and out of your chair. He who moves the least dies the soonest! Getting people physically engaged in real conversations requires them to get off their arses. Sometimes I think we are closer to the herd of techno-dependents depicted in the movie Wall-E than we realize.

Anonymous said...

Your theory is interesting, but its premise requires that you actually like your fellow workers and/or that you can avoid the small talk that inevitably occurs before/after the issue is addressed. Personally, I prefer email communication because you can address only your issue with less chance of distraction.

Power Wheelchairs said...

All real! The switch from numeric to text pagers granted a great way of conveying info without having in need of call-back. As you explain, unfortunately, the social expectations have morphed to once more be unreasonable. Good leadership can just be sure to poised better expectations for e-mail vs cellphone versus in-person-worthy issues, however the external culture is a very difficult one to resist. Possibly it is preferable to take advantage of 'silence' modes on equipment and additionally let the unreasonably demanding stew in their own juices if that is exactly what it takes to help make the aim.

Anonymous said...

It will be a fine day when the etiquette of electronic communication catches up with the technology......