Making Remote Work Part 2: Prose, Conversations and the Effectiveness of Remote Work

Alex Wimbush

In Part 1 I proposed that in remote work (and in life generally) we often face a choice: to write or to speak? Send a message or schedule a conversation?  

In this part I want to explore what research tells us about remote work and our choice of communication modes.  As a 40 year old human who’s been working for half my life, I think I have a pretty good sense of what the answers will be. Still, I’d love to be surprised.  

As a starting point, I lazily asked GPT-3, an AI bot that produces quite human-like written responses, to tell me all about the pros and cons of voice and text.  It told me “voice is good for quick back-and-forth and conveying emotion, but can be disruptive. Text is good for written records and avoiding disruption, but can be open to misinterpretation”.  Thanks, GPT-3. 

In Part 4, I’ll post links to more articles, blogs, podcasts I’ve come across on these topics.  For now, let’s focus on one recent study.  After studying the impact of the shift to remote work at Microsoft in the months after the pandemic, the authors noted seemingly unsurprising changes:   that “in-person interactions were not simply replaced with phone or video calls, but rather there was a significant shift across all communication from synchronous to asynchronous modes.”   The conclusion they reach about the potential negative long-term implications of this shift, did shock me. 

Drawing on past research, the authors explain how different modes of communication -  text and voice - affect how well knowledge is transferred within an organization.  Effective knowledge transfer being a precursor to strong team and eventually organizational performance. 

Existing theoretical perspectives and empirical results suggest that knowledge transfer and collaboration are also affected by the modes of communication that workers use to collaborate with one another. On the theoretical front, media richness theory posits that richer communication channels, such as in-person interaction, are best suited to communicating complex information and ideas. Moreover, media synchronicity theory proposes that asynchronous communication channels (such as email) are better suited for conveying information and synchronous channels (such as video calls) are better suited for converging on the meaning of information. 
There is also a rich body of empirical research that documents the myriad implications of communication media choice for organizations. For example, previous research has shown that establishing a rapport, which is an important precursor to knowledge transfer, is impeded by email use, and that in-person and phone/video communication are more strongly associated with positive team performance than email and instant message (IM) communication….

Now the scary part. This shift from synchronous, rich channels (i.e. in person) to asynchronous less-rich channels (i.e. email, chat) should, in the long-term, spell doom for any innovative company that allows it. 

Previous research suggests that these changes in collaboration patterns may impede the transfer of knowledge and reduce the quality of workers’ output. Our results also indicate that the shift to firm-wide remote work caused synchronous communication to decrease and asynchronous communication to increase. Not only were the communication media that workers used less synchronous, but they were also less ‘rich’ (for example, email and IM). These changes in communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information.” 

…We expect that the effects we observe on workers’ collaboration and communication patterns will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation.

I am not as pessimistic.  Their conclusion is based on extrapolating forward a set of prior research and assuming no change in communication paradigms or tools.  It’s a reasonable position, but since when has there never been change?  In addition to a large portion of the workforce making a sudden jump to working remotely, there are other technological and cultural inflection points.  The sophistication, democratization, and ongoing reduction in cost of large language models like GPT-3.  The mainstreaming of podcasts. The growing ubiquity of wireless headphones like AirPods.   Increasing number of audio related features in products like Slack and  Figma.  And then there are the people. 

My colleague Frank and I have talked with dozens of people managers, product managers, analysts, and data scientists across a spectrum of companies who are experimenting with how they communicate.  Some have made the shift to remote or hybrid work themselves, while  others are finding themselves increasingly working with remote, distributed teams.  They are experimenting with how they communicate. These leaders aren’t making the choice.  They are looking for other options.  

What if we could get the best of both worlds, the richness of voice with the convenience and scalability of text?   This is what Nick approached me with earlier this year.  I was intrigued, but skeptical.  After all, isn’t async voice communication just what we used to call voicemail? We’ll dig into why this absolutely isn’t your grandma’s voicemail in Part 3.

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