Saving Face Time

It’s no secret: office meetings usually inspire dread. They’re long, boring, and interrupt workflows for an entire team. Worse, they’re often a source of confusion. Employees can easily leave an hour-long gathering with no clear understanding of what the meeting was about, or what the boss expects.  

That’s why Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson don’t hold regular staff-wide meetings. Fried and Hansson are co-founders at Basecamp, a web application company that offers a productivity tool which shares the company’s name. The two have also co-authored several books about their business philosophies and workplace standards, including Rework (2010) and It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work (2018). Although Basecamp has a small staff, it serves a large customer base. In 2018, Basecamp provided its product and its technical support to 100,000 companies with the help of only 54 employees. What’s more, Basecamp has managed to grow its customer base and improve its product while collaborating with teammates who may be a continent or more away. Most of Basecamp’s employees work remotely and coordinate across time zones to complete projects.

So how do Fried and Hansson communicate effectively with employees while forgoing traditional staff meetings? They rely on written updates. In It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, Hansson and Fried explain that meetings can too easily devolve into boasting or whining. Written updates, on the other hand, present team leaders with the opportunity to think through what they want to say before they hit send. There’s less opportunity for someone to hijack the conversation or muddle the message. Emailed updates also allow employees to catch up with company news without interrupting their schedules. When a leader sends out a written or typed update instead, an employee can concentrate on finishing her project and read the update later.

Written updates are effective, so what about instant messaging? Some executives might be tempted to try a group chat service like Slack or Google Hangouts, with the hope of improving team coordination and camaraderie. Fried and Hansson, however, caution against that route. Convenient communication is not the same thing as effective communication. Written company updates are effective because they communicate important information without demanding that workers surrender their attention spans. Instant messages, however, run the risk of creating distractions. If instant messaging is used for all company business, employees may lose a sense of which tasks are urgent and which ones are not. They may believe that anything said in chat needs to be acted on immediately, or they may be distracted from their work by idle chatter. If a coworker is busy attending to a high-priority task when an important subject is addressed in chat, his silence can be mistaken for agreement. Because they are often shorter and delivered in a clipped, informal style, instant messages are also often misread when it comes to subtleties like tone and humor. More often than not, instant messages and group chats degrade communication rather than improve it. Any substantive change in company operation or policy should be addressed in a written update.

Written updates can also help workers and leaders understand that effective communication is more important than instant communication. Smartphones and instant messaging have given people the ability to receive a response to a question at a moment’s notice. The downside to that technology is that some users have started to expect instantaneous feedback. An employee, for example, may feel pressured to reply to her boss’s emails or texts immediately, even if they were sent during off hours. Written updates, by contrast, are created with the expectation that staff members will take a few hours, or even a couple of days, to formulate a response.

Bosses can learn more about effective workplace communication by studying Basecamp and other successful companies. For more insights from Rework, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, or hundreds of other books on business and work efficiency, open the Instaread app.

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