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Team Chat Apps and the Illusion of Communication

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: November 12, 2015


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

—George Bernard Shaw


I once had a leadership role at a content factory. We were a small remote team and we worked in the digital equivalent of what happens behind the counter at McDonald’s. Instead of standing in a line to blast Big Macs with special sauce, we logged online and blasted word docs into WordPress. Instead of racing to meet customer demand, we raced to be indexed higher in Google Land.

In the beginning, I saw us not like a McDonald’s assembly line (I once worked in one and perhaps tried to bury the memories) but like a bunch of talented chefs in a busy kitchen. Though we each had mastery over a certain part of the dish, we believed in everything we served. Our growing readership bolstered this belief.

But then Facebook changed its algorithm, and just like that a share on our page reached about 30% of what it used to reach.

And then we caught wind of how many articles other publishers were pumping out. Some remained at 20 per day. Others jumped to one article every 30 minutes. Still others had reached over 100 articles a day. “It’s as though quality content doesn’t matter anymore,” one colleague told me. We had to act fast—and though we didn’t all agree on this—we decided that keeping up with the Joneses was the only way to survive. More content.

Eventually a few of us got so overwhelmed just trying to maintain our small part that we lost sight of the dish, or that we were part of a team. We had turned into a bunch of individuals on autopilot, trusting that our team communication was solid because we were essentially doing the same job (just with different editorial sections), and because we had been doing it long enough to know we could trust each other.

As we were swamped with emails (I hit a point where I was receiving about 60 each day from colleagues, and over 100 from contributors), we tried to replace email as our primary team communication with a once-a-week phone call.

And so began our foray into the communication illusion. Rather than airing our concerns on our weekly call, we started privatizing them. Instead of helping a teammate understand an error they made (a photo wasn’t formatted properly, etc.), one of us would jump in and fix it without telling them. Who had the time? The machine had to be fed.

I could see the quality of our content dropping, but it wasn’t until joining the team here at Flow (and seeing what effective communication can look like) that I’ve come to understand how our drop in quality was primarily a result of poor team communication.

What in the world are team chat apps?

In the interim between the content factory and Flow, I took on a variety of jobs. I was an adjunct instructor for universities on-the-ground and online, a freelance journalist covering international issues, and a public speaker. Not once during any of these gigs did I hear about “project management platforms” or “team chat apps.” And then I join Flow, and my first essay is titled Work Email is Dying: What’s Next?

How the hell did that happen?

Because I saw the immense value a team communication tool can provide. Whereas I was receiving about 60 emails a day from colleagues, I’m now receiving maybe 1. Whereas an email meant adding their email address, then a subject line, then an opening line and then what I wanted to say—Flow allowed me to essentially skip those steps and get straight to the what I wanted to say part. And whereas I wasn’t sure where a conversation took place (or who was included on it), I could now jump into Flow chat and find exactly what I was looking for.

However, and although I am damn grateful for Jeremy Goldman of Inc. referring to us as What Might Make Email Obsolete, I have some reservations with team chat apps. Flow is a great product, and so are many other project management and team communication apps out there. But these tools are just that… tools. While they can and do help millions of people around the world work better together (I can’t imagine not using one at this point), they can also present new communication illusions for teams.

The illusion that you are now easier to reach

Chat apps have made communicating with your team easier. This can also mean they’ve made you easier to reach. Receiving an after-hours email isn’t cool, but it also doesn’t carry quite the same expectation of a reply the way a message in a team chat app does. In some apps, your teammates can see when you’re on or when you’ve viewed their message. In this way it’s similar to a text message or even a Facebook direct message—I saw you saw my message, why didn’t you respond?

The tool, of course, isn’t at fault here. To combat this, some have built-in features like away messages or “out of work” mode to let your colleagues know you’re away. But the ultimate way to dismantle this illusion isn’t to wield the tools of the app, it’s to work on your team’s workplace culture. This leads to:

The illusion that your team chat app = your team’s communication

Reliance on team chat apps as the primary mode of communication can create the illusion that the app is synonymous with your team’s communication. This illusion can more easily take hold if your team chat app also handles project management. But the complexity of team communication is vast, and no app can shore up existing and deeply-rooted team communication problems. If communication was terrible to begin with (as ours became at the content factory), then introducing an app may create the same effect—teammates may gradually move from public chat to direct messages, and do so not for project management reasons but because of personal alliances.

The illusion that you can stop organizing your thoughts

It’s easy to hate on internal work email (I did it when I found a better way), but email indirectly demands that the writer compose their thoughts before hitting send. Team chat apps, because they feel closer to WhatsApp or LINE than to email, can create the illusion that it’s okay to send stream-of-consciousness unorganized chaos to your teammates. As Lauren Goode, senior editor at The Verge, put it:


The illusion that you’re being productive

When I first started using Flow, I felt like I was most productive when I was logged in all day and up-to-date on everything everybody was chatting about. After a month or so I realized this was… an illusion. I am actually more productive when I’m out walking and speaking my ideas into a voice memo, or sitting in the bathtub thinking about what topic to write about for TMT. And when I was logged in all the time I felt distracted when I was doing research in other tabs—like I had to switch over to the Flow app in case I missed something. This broke my concentration, repeatedly, and actually made me less productive. In addition, this feeling of productivity led to me believing that I was portraying myself as a productive teammate (rather than letting the results speak for themselves). Of course it’s important to have synchronous communication with your teammates, but there are far better ways to do this (through setting notifications or scheduling time) than through waiting for synchronicity to happen.

The illusion that your team chat app will be embraced evenly

When communication started to break down at the content factory, certain teammates began to send text messages to those teammates they felt alliances with. That was the way some colleagues wanted to express what they were feeling. For me, because I didn’t feel my voice mattered on our team-wide calls, a 1-1 call with a teammate who I knew respected my thoughts helped alleviate some of my struggles. Still others wanted to rant via email. So keep this in mind as you discover which team chat app works best for your team:

Beyond the challenge of choosing, there is the challenge of using.

Teammates will embrace the app at different rates, and may use it in different ways. It’s important to understand each teammate’s communication preferences, and keep top of mind that the app is a tool and not the way.

Shaping your team’s recipe

David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi explores the life and work of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, a sushi chef considered by many to be the greatest in the world. Ono’s life schedule in Tokyo is and has always been like clockwork—he gets the train at precisely the same minute each day, he arrives at work at precisely the same time, and he prepares each dish with the same rhythmic pattern he’s been using since he started the craft. While the feature is of course on Ono, it’s equally fascinating to watch the others with him in the kitchen. Their movements are just as flawless. The Japanese sushi tradition demands that chefs master each of the parts before they are able to deliver the whole dish. The result is a team that understands what each other is doing, consistently delivers a quality product and, underpinning it all, recognizes when and how to communicate with each other.

Your team’s recipe will be different than any others, but your avoiding the illusions of communication along the way (whether you use a team chat app or not) will be what allows your team to reach its full potential.

What challenges have you had with team chat apps? Have they caused you or your teammates to experience any illusions of communication?


About the featured photo:

Christopher M. is known as “The Painter of Chefs.” In 2010, he was named Today’s Top Artist by Art Business News. His painting, Chefs in Harmony, seeks to show how chefs “work in unison and with great precision to create culinary masterpieces intended to delight all the senses.”

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