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Work Week | Focus and Asynchronous Communication

The pandemic is leading people away from endless video meetings

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

I came upon Complish a few months ago and thought I might fool with it before writing it up. However, my time is so limited these days I haven’t had a chance. But I want to draw attention to the founders’ motivation to building a content-centric, asynchronous work management tool:

The first reaction to transitioning to distributed teams is usually to start scheduling more video calls to stay aligned. This works for the first few weeks, but ends up being disruptive, blocking focus and real work. What if we could keep everyone updated on our own time, without interrupting anyone on the team? What if we could replace the “brainstorming” meeting, so allow everyone to think on their own time, and then synthesize together if necessary?

We don’t want to to completely avoid meetings, but we believe your time spent in meetings would be better spent maintaining a social bond with your teammates, or back and forth on strategy.

[…]

If everyone knew what was going on, could we reduce the number of distractions? What if we could make it easy for people and teams to discuss things on their own time, and then only jump into a video call where necessary?

‍Exactly.

The future of work with Google Workspace | Javier Soltero, VP and GM of Google Workspace, makes an announcement about a slew of features for Google Workspace (but not the massive relaunch of Workspace + Sites I’m expecting).

One feature that jumped out: Focus Time.

In the coming weeks, we’re releasing an integrated set of features in Google Workspace that help people easily share their work hours and location, while also finding more time to focus on what matters most. Features like segmentable working hours, recurring out-of-office entries, and location indicators let employees share their availability and location with their colleagues. Meanwhile, a new event type — Focus Time — lets people minimize distractions by limiting notifications during these event windows. All these availability and location indicators will show up seamlessly across Google Workspace, as teams engage with Calendar, Meet, Chat, and Gmail. We’ll also be delivering Time Insights to Google Workspace users (visible to the employee only, not their manager), so that employees can assess how they’re spending their time against their own priorities.

Personally, I think the setup should be the opposite, where people would indicate the times in the day they designate for communication, notifications, and meetings. The rest (hopefully the majority of the time) would be allocated for Focus.

He also uses the term collaboration equity:

We’re especially interested in what we call collaboration equity, or the ability to contribute equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, and device preference.

Very good phrase, very good goal.

Quill is a new messaging app that is designed (so they argue) to decrease some of the negatives that arise in work chat like Slack (although they don’t mention Slack, explicitly). As they state:

Quill is messaging for people that focus.

We love messaging. It’s our favorite way of collaborating, but not if it’s overwhelming and disorganized. We believe there’s a better way.

We grew exhausted having to skim thousands of messages every day to keep up, so we built a way to chat that’s even better than how we already communicate in person. A more deliberate way to chat. That’s what Quill is all about.

I have not used Quill in the real-life, within-a-team context that would be needed to judge if what they claim is the case. Here are two features that support their case:

Passive Mentions

By default, @-mentions are passive; mentions will add someone to a conversation without sending them a notification. Include people in conversations without disrupting them.

Priority Mentions

For urgent messages, use a priority !!-mention. Priority mentions will always send a push notification.

Their motivation to decrease distractions from notifications or the time lost trying to decide what is important to read, and that I completely click with.

In Paradoxes of Engagement: Less Communication Is More, I wrote about the research behind ‘bursty communication’, which is one of the tricks adopted by successful teams:

Christoph Riedle and Alice Williams Woolley take a different slant in recent research, and focus on the communication style of successful teams:

“Human communication is naturally “bursty,” in that it involves periods of high activity followed by periods of little to none. Our research suggests that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams. Those silent periods are when team members often form and develop their ideas — deep work that may generate the next steps in a project or the solution to a challenge faced by the group. Bursts, in turn, help to focus energy, develop ideas, and achieve closure on specific questions, thus enabling team members to move on to the next challenge.”

The researchers point out that with distributed teams, finding times when team members can focus on ‘being bursty together’ can be complicated, but doing so ‘can help smooth out the jagged edges of our Covid-induced remote-work constraints’. This means that other times are dedicated to heads down, individual, deep work.

How to accomplish this? The simplest may be to schedule periods for communication, and block off the rest:

“The old-fashioned way to do this would be to schedule blocks of time when people are open for meetings, and then do a burst of back and forth communication during those blocks.”

Riedle and Woolley offer this as a counter to one of the consistent arguments made against minimum office: serendipity in face-to-face interactions.

“The bottom line: Worry less about sparking creativity and connection through watercooler-style interactions in the physical world, and focus more on facilitating bursty communication.”

Yea, verily.

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

My principal obsession is the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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