Why chat isn't for everyone

Published Jun. 8, 2020 by Andy Leverenz in Communication

Why chat isnt for everyone

Today, the written word has never been so important as a means to communicate. Text messaging, chat, emails, and video calls have taken more precedence than having one-on-one conversations in some cases.

With so many ways to communicate I find it ironic that less communication is happening.

Through chat-based tools and applications, we can get answers instantly and yet we struggle to communicate well enough to translate our emotions, ideas, and concerns. Until you expand on a topic or idea do you begin to communicate in a manner suitable for the other party reading to gain the full grasp of your thoughts.

Expanding on a thought or idea usually involves going deeper than knee-jerk responses or chat-based messages. To learn or understand a concept some deep thought is required. Expanding on those thoughts typically happens in written form. Until you write can you express to others fully formulated thoughts and ideas. This is where chat tools suffer.

Even though chat can have a poor impact on your communication habits, there are some plus sides.

Pros of chat-based tools

Who would have thought you could get instant feedback from someone clear across the world through a small window on your computer or phone. With this awesome advancement comes some caveats. Here are a few of the plus sides.

💚 Real-time is quicker

Real-time communication has its place. In my case, I commonly use chat to confirm a quick question, troubleshoot an error, or perform some sort of operation that requires multiple peoples' attention.

💚 Feeling welcome

Through chat, you can have conversations that make you feel welcomed. This is especially important to the remote workforce who might need a dose of socialization in a given day. Having a place to share funny GIFS, stories, and more help takes the edge off.

💚 Dealing with problems immediately

Sometimes real-time is required when a customer is upset, a website goes down, or a crisis occurs that requires immediate attention.

The cons of chat-based tools

Chat-based tools seem like a great solution to communication until things scale. Add multiples of people to a chat-based app and quickly you start to see the shortcomings. Things move faster and it's much harder to keep up. As a result, people take shortcuts that often leads to poorer communication habits.

🚩 Always online

When using a chat-based tool you're essentially agreeing to be always online by default. Other people can message you whenever they like hoping for a prompt response. That's like being in meetings all day.

🚩 Lack of sustenance

Chat-based tools don't encourage long-form responses. Their goal is to help you communicate quickly. They achieve this goal but unfortunately what you communicate gets sacrificed. Abbreviations, acronyms, grammar, spelling, and more get used in favor of meaningful writing.

🚩 Recommunication breakdown

In a chat tool, the conversation is on a conveyor belt. You only have so much time to be a part of the chat before it gets lost in the abyss. As a result, you or someone else has to recommunicate the same thing over and over. This kills productivity and your ability to focus which makes everyone's job harder.

🚩 The "right now" culture

If your team's culture is to expect immediate feedback from an instant message you might start to question the values set in place. People love being social but don't want to get hounded for not being around the second they get messaged. Giving time for reflection and response encourages better communication and a calmer working environment. Besides a site going down or a real emergency, there's little need for such a prompt response. If you're on the other side of the conversation and responding instantly you might realize your time starts to get to be devalued. If people begin to get their needs met thanks to your very quick responses they will keep coming back for more and ignore their own needs and space.

🚩 Notification overload

If you use a tool like Slack you already know this pain point. Unread direct messages, channels, and badge counts leave you anxious and feeling behind even when most of those notifications don't concern you directly. You can tailor your notifications in your settings but that's extra work and hacking you shouldn't need to do in the first place.

🚩 Context shifts

Your chat tool is probably open or at least active during the extent of a given workday. This creates the temptation to stay within the tool rather than getting meaningful work done. If you need to communicate something that's pressing, then that makes sense to do. On the other hand, if you're procrastinating looking at Reddit or similar sites and sharing links to things online you're not using the tool most productively. It may seem like it takes little time off your plate but compound this trait over time and you're reducing the time you have to get meaningful stretches of work complete. This also distracts your teammates who get notified when something new is posted. Before you know it a large chunk of the team is distracted and shifting context elsewhere.

🚩 Nothing to reference later

When in a chat message thread the experience is designed to move forward as you respond. This makes chatting easier but leaves you searching when you need to reference something later. The need to re-communicate becomes prominent if you can't find what you were trying to reference and ultimately leads to a lot of time wasted.

🚩 Time-zones be damned

Chat enables anyone anywhere to concurrently communicate with someone. This is both amazing and bad. It's bad because sometimes people have an off button. They don't want to be bothered after they are done working for the day by a message you're sending at 10 am in your time zone when it's 7 pm in theirs. With chat, we often forget about this gap in time because of the "right now" culture mentioned before.

🚩 Bye-bye deep work

If you're anything like myself you love uninterrupted blocks of time to commit to a project or problem you have been meaning to work on. This is your most valuable time to make progress. If you don't get this chunk your day often leads to less than admirable results. Factor in a chat-based tool and you're bound to never get those uninterrupted blocks of time. The best solution here is to close the chat-tool completely to avoid context shifts and distractions from notifications.

What can you do instead?

Much like the team at Basecamp, we believe in the mantra of "Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time". Real-time tends to come up as something that needs to be communicated immediately given the right circumstances. Should your entire communication process be built around real-time? We think not.

Real-time hinders productivity. Giving your employees or team members room to communicate when they want asynchronously pulls down the barrier of being always online or always bothered. You start to feel calmer and more in tune with what you are communicating because you take the time to formulate meaningful thoughts, ideas, and responses.

We built Compose to aid in this practice. Through writing you can keep it async, meaningful, and impactful while saving a tool like Slack or equivalent for those scenarios where real-time is necessary. We don't want to own your entire project management process like Basecamp, Asana, or similar tools. We only want to help you communicate well again and be calmer while doing so. Your quality of life will improve without all the unnecessary stress of a real-time tool, this much we can promise.