Recently, our company asked for suggestions about improving communication between coworkers. I thought this could be a good opportunity to improve the way we work and had some deeper thoughts into this topic. There already are some articles and threads about specific tools but I wasn’t able to find a good comparison of different tools. That’s why I decided to write my own version.
Personal Meetings are often the easiest way to discuss problems, but the focus of these articles lies on digital communication tools.
As most companies with computer-based workspaces we’re mainly using Email and Telephone. These technologies are not replacable because they aren’t only used for internal communication, they’re the interface to the outside world too. It would not be possible to tell our customers that from now on they should use Facebook Messenger to stay in contact with us.
Using the telephone
Calling a coworker interrupts him from what he is currently doing. So one could simply say that if I have a problem which needs to be solved as soon as possible and which is more important then what the coworker is doing, I should call him. If my boss calls me to discuss some architectural changes on the product, it is more important than me writing code for that project. However if he just calls me to ask where we want to go to lunch today while I’m fixing a project which is due to release, he hinders me on working productively.
There are some problems coming up here:
- How does the caller know what the callee is doing right now? Usually he could just guess what I’m doing and hope not to interrupt me while doing something more important.
- How does the callee know if the incoming call is important? This is especially true if the callee does not know who’s calling him (no display phone). There aren’t many situations where you would blindly ignore a ringing telephone.
- If you forget something which has been said during the call, you’ll have no protocol.
- If you want to discuss a problem with more then one person you must use conference calls (which aren’t possible on every phone), loud speaker or retell what has been said during the call.
What about Email?
Writing a mail is in some way the counter-part of a phone call: You send a specific question or information to someone else and wait until the other person decides to answer it. Of course this allows the other person to just check the inbox if he got his work done. This at first sounds good, but there are some disadvantages too:
- What if you just mailed someone that a feature is not needed anymore while he is implementing it? He perhaps reads the mail afterwards and all his work is wasted.
- The other person could just ignore incoming mails totally.
- You probably do not need the answer directly, but it would be too late if you do not get it by tomorrow.
There also is a problem when a single question evolves into a discussion:
- Email is not ‘instant’ in terms of instant messaging. It is more like sending a letter each time you want to say something.
- Each email usually contains the entire history. If not, it would be hard to follow who is answering whose mails.
- You’re inbox fills up with unwanted mails if there are a lot of people discussing and you’re not interested in the conversation.
How to solve these problems?
The above problems could almost entirely be solved by knowing when to use Email, Telephone and Personal Meetings. However there are some tools out there seeming to solve the problems in a more convenient way. They often are settled anywhere between Telephone and Mail, allowing the users to communicate in a more direct way without interrupting the other person if there is something more important ongoing.
To give some guidance, I’ll take the following requirements as a basis:
- Security: Data is owned by the company, no thirdparty should have insight into internal communication
- Portability: There are various systems used, ranging from different Windows versions to various Linux distributions
- Acceptance Factor: There are a lot of coworkers who are used to communicate via mail and phone. They need to see the advantages of the new system.
- Logging/Backup: You don’t want to loose important information after the discussion ends.
- Mobile access: Via internal Wifi. It should be possible for people to communicate even if they’re not at their workspace. We’re doing a lot of work in labs etc
- Grouping: It should be possible to not just communicate with single persons. Often there is more then one person involved.