Escaping Chat Hell... The 3 Text Rule
Our CEO & Chief Geek, Alex Bratton shares his rules for when to chat and when to have a conversation.
Best Practice Tip: My third text in any conversation is always, "Let's talk live"
Yes, that's right, my THIRD response in any text or email chat is “let’s talk about this live [...in Huddle 2]”. If a text series has gone beyond two simple exchanges, such as a question and an answer and still remains unresolved, that means there’s enough to work through that we need to switch to a more synchronous, real time communication tool — actually TALKING in a conversation. Novel, right? My team and I do that in LexGo Work, the digital office platform we created, where we single click into a conversation (where we see and hear each other), work an issue together and then get out.
I see too many organizations losing productivity to chat apps. Email was bad enough but chat replacing conversations has taken the problem to the next level. Now let's take this "best practice" and show where it came from and why I recommend others do the same.
The Problem - Text Chat Isn’t For Conversations
Every business leader I know has a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with text chat. In fact I think Dante’s 9th circle of hell is built around text chat. Chat is a needy attention parasite that will chime constantly throughout the day if we let it. Turning off notifications and hiding our phones during a conversation to stay focused in the moment then leads to a firehose of information to sift through immediately thereafter.
Text chat also tries to encourage having ‘conversations’ in an on again off again manner. The ‘Alex is typing...’ indicator is a perfect example of fanning the flames of inefficiency inherent in chat tools. We’re ‘talking’ by typing back and forth, staring at that ‘is typing…’ indicator and waiting for the other person to respond. But are they really typing? Did they walk away? Are they going to answer me? Are we done talking now? There is no framework to the conversation other than something randomly showing up from the other people involved. What could take 5 minutes in an actual conversation can take hours or days using async chat.
Don’t get me wrong, this is the exact same problem we saw years ago when we all relied on email as a communications crutch. How many mega email chains with pages of responses ever resulted in timely decision making? The only ‘benefit’ with the email based conversations was they didn’t typically appear every 30 seconds with the same level of urgency as a chat.
Some proponents of text chat tools highlight the transparency of information flow and decision making it provides. It provides this ‘transparency’ in the same way as working in an open office floor plan with no walls or door where every person is shouting at the top of their lungs. It’s a flood of noise. It requires massive amounts of energy, time and concentration just to keep up with the flow let alone identify a few bits of meaningful information.
I think Dante’s 9th circle of hell is built around text chat.
Async vs. Sync Communications
The key problem in chat tools is the inherent blurring of the line between synchronous communication (real time, like a phone call) and asynchronous (like email or snail mail). Nearly everyone uses text chat for immediate answers as well as the slow crawl of random memes and quotes of the day. The critical failing of team communication is when async tools are used to attempt conversations in partial real-time.
Think about a chat ‘conversation’ for a moment. You’re pinging away with someone else throughout the day. First off, each time they respond you’re pulled out of the zone from whatever you were actually trying to work on. You context switch back to the chat, think for a split second and respond. You then look for that ‘is typing…’ indicator to see if the recipient is going to respond soon. Seeing no response after a minute you go back to your other work. Think about all the time waste hidden in the waiting for the other party to respond and then add on top the context switches that ensure you’ll never be focused in your work.
I’ve recently seen a number of approaches people have created to clarify realtime vs. async in tools like Slack. For example, send DMs for anything that’s urgent (sync) and post to channels (even if the channel only has you and the recipient in it) for anything where a time lapse is ok. That requires having a new channel for every person in the organization you might communicate with as well as every group of people. And once you’ve heard the first realtime ping, you’re staring at all these channels with no way to prioritize the messages hidden in each.
How many chat channels are you using on a daily basis? I’ve been able to trim down to about 20 (which is still way too many). I also have all alerts turned off for chat. It’s is 100% async. I’ll get to it a couple times a day when I have time, not when each message appears (just like email). If someone needs me urgently they can find me in our LexGo Work digital office or send an SMS/iMessage.
Chat tools are great for sharing one way updates to keep a broader group informed on specific topics, asking a specific question or provide feedback on a concept when they’re well thought out (the exact same way email can be used effectively — it requires writing out complete thoughts). It’s the quick, urgent response in text conversations that removes time to think and doesn’t provide enough information to the recipient.
I make sure to use separate tools for sync and async comms to keep expectations on response time crystal clear. I operate in LexGo Work for real time conversations (because I can simply have a 5 minute conversation to get to resolution on an issue) and Slack for async (sharing updates, feedback, success stories or direct questions with direct answers - “What is the new customer’s address?”)
Going Sync With Conversations, Not Meetings
One of the reasons for the reliance on chat for discussions, was that the other alternative is yet another online meeting. That means setting up a meeting link, agenda and boosting the level of formality significantly — this isn’t the quick conversation to resolve a question, it’s a big time investment as a ‘meeting’.
Having conversations is what we used to do back in the physical office and asking ‘do you have a minute?’ when seeing someone in a hallway or walking by an office. To be very clear - this doesn’t mean we should be interrupt driven by everyone around us. Folks need to know that we’re already in a conversation (you can see I’m talking with someone), focusing on work (my door is closed) or have stepped away.
- Decide that you’re not going to use chat for conversations, agree on new social norms with your team and turn off those chat alerts.
- Set another social norm for what good chat messages actually look like. What information does it contain? What level of thought are you expecting?
- Have conversations, not meetings - whether it’s LexGo Work or some other tool, get in, talk the issue through and get out. Don’t add yet another meeting to your calendar if you can avoid it.