Fixing Workplace Communication, Chapter 02, Part 02

So, I am writing a book with what some would say is an unrealistic goal: fixing workplace communication. With such a goal in mind, I believe ongoing feedback must be an essential part of the writing process. So, I decided to share my work as it evolves. 

This issue of Generative Communication includes the second part of Chapter 02. I am excited to receive your feedback, ideas, questions, and insights. Please share them here.

The Five Flaws of Near-Time Communication 

Near-Time Communication, be it email, instant messaging, or whatever else comes next, is continuous, spontaneous, fractured, unfocused, and shallow. And that is a huge problem when our goal is to collaborate and co-create. 

It is safe to say these communication means were not designed to have any of these traits, but they are all inherent to how Near-Time Communication works and how we use it. If that is not enough, these five flaws create a negative feedback loop. They feed each other and create a snowball effect. Near-Time Communication is not just a poor form of communication — the more you use it, the worse it becomes. 

Near-Time Communication is Continuous 

Near-Time Communication happens all the time — it is always present. One might consider this a positive trait, but its implications are purely negative. If email and instant messaging are “always on,” we are also expected to be. We are expected to be online and responsive. Even if no one says that explicitly, this expectation is an inherent part of how Near-Time Communication works: from popup notifications to the online presence indicators and read receipts. Most of these features can be turned off, and some companies have implemented one form or another of a quiet-time policy. But all these hacks are just Band-Aids trying to overcome the nature of these platforms and the default mindset derived from their implementation. 

Yet, email and instant messaging are not just “always-on.” Many of the discussions we are having using these platforms are also continuous. Some of them are practically endless. All these conversations have a beginning (although it is not always easy to find), but most of them are not limited in time, and some never reach a clear bottom line. What starts as a simple question or statement can quickly turn into a thread with dozens or more messages, and each can spin off into a side thread. Returning to the twenty-word statement that opened this book and the imaginary responses that followed, it is easy to see how such a brief message can trigger a never-ending discussion. It could pop and re-pop in your inbox for days and weeks until someone finally decides to kill the thread and move the debate to a Real-Time Communication mode by setting up a meeting. 

Now, I’m not saying that all these discussions would necessarily be shorter and more effective if done face-to-face, although, as we will see, when done right and with some preparation, most of them could. At least the ones that are important to your goals. But when these interactions are confined to emails and instant messages, they are innately unlimited in time and attention, and overall, we spend more energy on them. Each such thread keeps evolving, changing, and sometimes backtracking, and if you don’t follow it from the start and read every message, you are practically lagging. Jumping back into the discussion is increasingly difficult.

Have a look at your email inbox, Slack, or any other platform you use for Near-Time Communication 

  • How many active threads do you have?
  • How many abandoned threads (which were not concluded) can you find?
  • What is the longest thread you have recently closed?
  • How long did it take to reach a bottom line in that thread?

It is widely accepted that activities and projects should have well-defined scope, time, and effort targets. Even long-term projects are partitioned into smaller parts with clear goals. You don’t have to plan everything, but you must have a well-defined milestone ahead of you to understand if you are working effectively (let alone improving your effectiveness). Given the amount of time and energy we spend on workplace communication, there is no reason why email and instant messaging should just continue aimlessly without well-defined targets and scope. But that is precisely how most Near-Time Communication is managed. Or should I say unmanaged? 

Near-Time Communication is Spontaneous 

Revisit the Near-Time Communication you took part in during the past week.

  • How much control did you have on when each discussion was triggered?
  • How much control did you feel you had on allocating time to reply?
  • How long did it take to process and respond to a message on average?
  • How many messages did you ignore? 

I use the term Near-Time Communication for a reason. While email and instant messaging were designed as asynchronous tools, in the typical scenario, they create a sense of urgency that compels most people, in most cases, to respond in a short time. It is certainly not a real-time conversation, but we do a great deal to make it as close as possible to the real thing. This is to say that instead of gaining more control over when we communicate and with whom, we have become more reactive and spontaneous. 

But if this is merely an attempt to emulate Real-Time Communication, one might argue that this is not a flaw. Real-Time Communication is often spontaneous; even in a pre-scheduled meeting, the conversation is not scripted. The participants usually respond quickly and spontaneously to what others are saying. This mode of conversation, which is quite natural for Real-Time Communication, is not always optimal, though. Many people find meetings frustrating because they are often too spontaneous, and we will certainly address that later. 

But when it comes to Near-Time Communication, the problem of spontaneity is much more critical because we are engaged in multiple conversations at any given time. We can receive a new message, question, or reply spontaneously from any number of active discussions. We feel compelled to respond promptly, and the result is that we often have zero capacity to process the new information and develop a well-thought-out, well-phrased response. The hectic nature of Near-Time Communication discourages us from taking the time and maximizing the value of what we share. The message is clear: respond quickly and move on to the next thread. If you take some time to process your response, you risk losing your chance to participate in the discourse. You lose your chance to influence it. If you are not quick enough, you might as well not play the game. 

Communicating to achieve a goal, whether to come up with a creative idea, solve a problem, or analyze an opportunity, takes time. Phrasing ideas, contemplating, challenging, and refining them is rarely immediate. Quick, spontaneous messages are the opposite of meaningful communication, but unfortunately, they are the pillars of Near-Time Communication. 

Near-Time Communication is Fractured 

So, we have multiple active threads in our inboxes, and at least some of them will take a long time to converge. We keep revisiting them because our communication is spontaneous, and we have a sense of urgency in responding to practically all of them. We spare our time and the time of the people we communicate with because we are all in this together: we all have inboxes full of active threads and get dozens or more messages daily. Let’s admit it: we have some real work we should attend to, and to do that, we must clear our message queue. Therefore, it is no wonder that we try to be brief in our writing. But while being brief is generally not a bad idea, we are often too brief. And this has a tremendous toll on the effectiveness of our conversations. 

When taken to the extreme,brevity makes our communication fractured. Sometimes, it feels like receiving random jigsaw puzzle pieces and trying to get a sense of the complete picture. Occasionally, each participant sends fragments of a different picture altogether. 

Let’s revisit the first paragraph of this book and imagine it is sent as part of a near-time conversation. 

“Our workplace communication is broken. To fix it, we need to talk less, write more, and write better. Way better.”

What appears to be a complete idea at first is really no more than an attention grabber. It is not even an executive summary because it fails to say anything concrete about what we should do in practice. So, it calls for numerous follow-up questions. Here is an example of one:

“So we should avoid having random encounters by the coffee machine?!”

Well, as you already know by now, the interaction mentioned in this question falls under informal Real-Time Communication, and we are certainly not trying to kill (or even change) this kind of natural interaction. So, another piece of the puzzle is revealed in the following reply: 

“No. I was actually referring to formal meetings and email threads such as this one.”

“Wait, so do you expect us to write more like this? It doesn’t sound too effective if you ask me!”

“Right. This is not what I meant by ‘write more.’ This is actually the kind of writing we should avoid.”

“Now I’m lost…”

And so, the thread goes on, with messages arriving spontaneously at random times. The best-case scenario is that each message reveals a new part of the picture and clarifies the idea. In the worst case, some messages take us back and change our understanding of something we thought we had already nailed. You might hope things will become clearer after ten or twenty such back-and-forth statements, questions, and replies, but as you know, they rarely do. Even if all the messages are coherent and gradually create a solid idea, keeping track of the logic of this fractured discourse is practically impossible. 

This is a hypothetical example. As always, the best examples are probably in your inbox. 

Find a thread between at least three people from about a month ago in your inbox.

  • Try to follow the discussion. 
  • Does it include more than one logical thread? 
  • Assuming this thread reached a bottom line, can you find it and recreate its reasoning? 
  • As an experiment, try sending this thread to someone who was not involved in the exchange of messages. Ask them if they can follow the discussion, understand its logic, and find the bottom line. 

A fractured conversation is never effective. It is hard to follow and often incomplete. When you take into account that the conversation is not limited in time and any participant can add new information and insights arbitrarily, you end up with a lot of energy invested in just keeping track of the discussion instead of thinking about the core idea. When you revisit the recorded conversation in the future, you will find it extremely difficult to understand. The logic of the text is not well-modeled. There is simply no way to structure an argument when the text is based on short fragments that are conceived sporadically. To make things worse, in many cases, this long, unstructured text created over time by multiple people is the only record that remains from the discussion. If you take a decision or realize some action is required, and you wish to communicate it to other people, this poorly designed thread is the only thing you have at hand.

Near-Time Communication is Unfocused

When the conversation is unstructured, bits of ideas, data, questions, and insights are shared spontaneously, and when the end of the discussion is often not visible, it is just a matter of time until everyone starts to lose focus. That is why often, Near-Time Communication threads feel like they are all over the place. 

We already mentioned that each conversation could potentially spin off to multiple sub-threads. Apart from making the discussion pretty much endless, each side discussion has a defocusing effect. Instead of gradually converging toward a well-defined conclusion, each sub-thread takes a slightly different path. Even if most of these threads end with a meaningful bottom line, no one can guarantee all side discussions will be aligned. But that is the relatively manageable part of the problem. 

Since most Near-Time Communication is hectic and spontaneous, and since we have little or no bandwidth for deep processing, most of what we write in emails and even more so in instant messages is practically a brain dump. This is not to say that we write nonsense. But generally speaking, we don’t invest in the writing itself. No matter how good the idea is, when we write it spontaneously, we often fail to phrase it well, and as a result, the text loses its focus. We mostly know what we wish to say, but this is hardly enough when communicating with others. How we articulate an idea is at least as important as the idea itself. 

To make things worse, each person participating in the conversation can add to the overall defocusing effect. So, even if your original email was perfectly phrased and super clear, the first cycle of responses is likely to defocus the entire discussion. Or at least it will require quite an effort (much more than we typically invest in Near-Time Communication) to bring everyone back on track. 

As a discussion loses focus, there is a greater chance it will take longer to conclude. More messages will be sent, and ideas will become more fractured. In parallel, new information, insights, and responses will be shared spontaneously. Under these conditions, the chances of regaining focus are poor, and the snowball effect will amplify each of the flaws we discussed. 

Remember: when communication is ineffective, it doesn’t get better with time — it gets worse.

Near-Time Communication is Shallow

The four flaws of Near-Time Communication are a combination of design and usage flaws that feed each other. In theory, you can overcome these flaws and make email and instant messaging bounded in time, more planned and less spontaneous, more structured and less fractured, and more focused. In theory. One reason this is unrealistic is that Near-Time Communication is not confined to the workplace. We use instant messaging, for example, beyond work, and it isn’t trivial to adopt a different mindset when we use the same tool in a different context. 

But more profoundly, email and instant messaging are inherently fractured and spontaneous mediums, quickly turning them into continuous and unfocused forms of communication. You can try to fight the nature of these platforms, just like you can probably try to write and publish a novel on Twitter. It might be technically possible, but it is far from being natural. It will consume a lot of energy from you and your audience, and the result will be anything but optimal. 

The first outcome of the four flaws is well-described in Cal Newport’s book. We are amid some conversation (or multiple ones) at any given time. We must be ultra-responsive, and we don’t respond on our terms. As a result, we have less time and energy to do the meaningful work we are supposed to do. Near-Time Communication drains our ability to do any work that requires deep focus — focus needed not just to get things done but also to create new things, come up with creative ideas, and enable growth. As crucial as workplace communication is, it is merely a tool that serves other goals. Near-Time Communication, however, took over and quickly became the most time and attention-consuming work activity. Instead of helping us work better, it gets in the way of doing meaningful work. As Cal Newport writes, this is a good enough reason to consider a radical change in how we structure our working processes in general and communication in particular. 

The second outcome of these inherent flaws is no less critical: Near-Time Communication is exceptionally shallow. We cannot have a deep and meaningful conversation when we keep jumping from one thread to another and don’t have time to process inputs, gather our thoughts, and phrase them effectively. We cannot express profound ideas when everything and everyone pushes us to be brief. When responding quickly to keep the conversation flowing is favored over thinking things through, the outcome is invariably superficial. When our communication is shallow, the work that relies on it will likely fail. We need a more meaningful way to communicate, enabling us to utilize our collective brain power. We need to turn communication into a generative activity. 

Generative Communication requires space and bandwidth. Each participant should have time to gather information, process it, develop insights, and consider how to articulate them. Ideas have to be not just well-phrased — they need to be challenged; they need to be refined. You have to ask tough questions, which might take time to answer. None of this is possible when you use a continuous, spontaneous, fractured, and unfocused way of communicating and when you are engaged in numerous conversations in parallel. Communication is essential to create something or solve a problem together. But not all forms of communication are equal. If communication is the food we need to work together effectively, Near-Time Communication is fast food. It seems to get the job done in the short term, but you cannot live and thrive on it for long. The more you rely on it, the greater the long-term damage you will likely experience. 

We need a better way to feed our brains with information, insights, and ideas to do the best work we can. 

The Collateral Damage of Near-Time Communication 

I know. I promised a solution. Just one more thing before we start fixing workplace communication.

Near-Time Communication is dominant beyond the workplace — it is present in our lives. I can’t say that we dedicate most of our time to email and instant messaging, but the frequency we attend to them and the nature of these interactions turn them from tools to habits. Mostly bad habits. These platforms don’t just affect how we communicate when we use them — they affect how we think and communicate in general. At some point, having a discussion over days and weeks, using spontaneous, fractured bits of information, insights, and questions, seems pretty normal. Social platforms that have taken over other parts of our lives are critical contributors to this mode of interaction. In many ways, they suffer from the same five flaws by design, which may be the primary reason we are blind to the problem. We normalized these flaws and accepted them as the modern way to interact and communicate. It is no surprise that other forms of communication have gradually started to show the same symptoms. The flaws of Near-Time Communication are contagious.

Workplace meetings trigger a lot of frustration among employees and managers alike. It is not rare to see campaigns designed to reduce the overhead of meetings or make them more effective. In many cases, it comes down to shortening the default meeting time, having a meeting-free day, and reducing the number of participants. I don’t want to disparage these policies. If meetings are ineffective, reducing their impact is undoubtedly a positive step. However, these policies are primarily technical. They fail to address the fundamental question: What is wrong with how we run the formal parts of our Real-Time Communication? As you can already guess, the answer is precisely the same things that make Near-Time Communication flawed. 

Many of the work meetings we have are continuous. True, each session is confined to a particular time slot. But the real question is, how many of our meetings reach their final minutes with a clear view of what needs to be done next (apart from scheduling the next session)? Any meeting that fails to generate an actionable outcome is either redundant or incomplete, which means the discussion should continue. When agenda spillover is the typical outcome, we should ask ourselves what we can do about it. And that is assuming that we even have an agenda for the meeting in the first place. 

Most workplace meetings are prescheduled, yet many of them are spontaneous in the sense that they don’t have a predefined agenda and lineup. Occasionally, we don’t even know what the meeting is about when we start it, but even if we do, we often don’t know what to expect and what is expected of us. Conversations should not be scripted, but there is a vast spectrum between knowing exactly what everyone will say and not knowing what we are expected to discuss. Spontaneity and effectiveness don’t go hand in hand in most cases. 

Since many meetings don’t have a predefined agenda and the expectations are often fuzzy, many discussions are fractured even when they are done face-to-face. We run from one meeting to another, and within the same meeting, we frequently switch topics before we resolve anything. When the conversation is unstructured, we waste time and energy on context-switching. The logical flow of the conversation becomes obscure. Continuing the discussion at a later point, let alone revisiting it in the future, becomes impractical and sometimes impossible. 

Being fractured, continuous, and spontaneous makes many of our meetings unfocused. It is easy to be drawn to side discussions instead of converging toward a conclusion. New issues (or sub-issues) can be raised at any point, and the center of the discussion will shift. Sometimes, this is necessary. In many other cases, it just makes the conversation fuzzy. 

Like emails and instant messaging, many of our workplace meetings are shallow. They appear to cover many topics, but they are often discussed in a way that cannot result in a good, operative decision. Even when we do reach a bottom line, it usually just scratches the surface of the problem, which is why so many meetings result in the task “to continue the discussion offline.” We just don’t make much progress in meetings; therefore, it is unsurprising that many of us feel frustrated. We don’t perceive meetings as a meaningful way to communicate and promote our goals. We consider them to be primarily a setback.

Real-Time Communication should have been the most effective way to communicate. And yet, many of us feel we don’t utilize it well. It suffers from the same flaws as Near-Time Communication, but while these flaws are inherent to email and instant messaging, meetings should have been better. Much better. We have too many meetings because many are just the fallback after we couldn’t reach a decision or solve a problem using Near-Time Communication. In that sense, the typical meeting has become nothing more than the extension of an email thread. At the same time, the way we communicate using email and instant messaging has affected us so much that we rarely try to interact differently when we meet face-to-face. We accept the outcome of ineffective meetings because we know that Near-Time Communication gets in our way, and we grew to believe this is how workplace communication is doomed to be. We exchange words and sentences, but we don’t really communicate. We meet, but we fail to interact deeply. 

Workplace communication should have helped us work better and connect. Instead, we feel less connected than ever before. We feel workplace communication prevents us from achieving our goals. We are less productive, less effective, and make suboptimal decisions. We communicate more, but it feels like we are communicating in vain. Eventually, we feel burned out because we seem to work more and achieve less. What started as a promise became a plague. And instead of Real-Time Communication helping us overcome these flaws, it became more like Near-Time Communication. 

As work becomes more distributed and we move into a new era where people working together can be scattered around the globe, our communication can quickly become more continuous, spontaneous, fractured, unfocused, and overall shallower than it ever was. In the past, we could have balanced some of these flaws with informal and unplanned encounters. When we work from anywhere, this option becomes less viable. 

The solution lies in the third form of communication — communication designed to deliver value without being intrusive. A more profound form of communication that will also make our real-time interactions more effective. And, yes, it relies on writing more and writing better. Way better!

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