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The key to fixing work is culture, not digital tools

REFILE – CORRECTING INFORMATION AND SLUG Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) during the Slack Technologies Inc. direct listing in New York, U.S. June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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The business world has spent decades searching for the right piece of software that would allow workers to communicate with each other quickly, pleasantly, and without getting distracted or losing key pieces of information in labyrinthine archives.

Email promised to improve on the failings of phones, fax machines, and snail mail when it rose to prominence in the 1990s. Slack, the workplace chat company, vowed in 2013 that its software would sweep away the irredeemable failings of email and usher in a happier, more productive age of work. And now the cycle has begun again; today, a new vanguard of startups is making a raft of promises to fix the dysfunction of Slack.

Perhaps the reason we haven’t found the perfect communication tool yet is that the problem isn’t about technology. Melissa Mazmanian, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine with joint appointments in computer science and organization and management, offered an alternate theory. After years spent studying how workers use email, smartphones, and other forms of communication to signal our value at work, Mazmanian concluded the real root of our communication problems lies not in the tools themselves, but in workplace culture.

Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Quartz: Why haven’t the many generations of workplace communication tools we’ve developed turned us into perfect teammates and collaborators?

Mazmanian: We always seem to be forgetting the most central tenet, in my mind, of the effect these technologies have on how we work, and that’s just how people use them. Email is just email as it’s used by a group of people. Text and Slack are just the way that they’ve been used by a group of people. They have different functions. But there’s no clear cause-and-effect relationship between the tool itself and the impact of the tool, if you don’t actually take into account the social dynamics of use.

Every time we develop a new tool, it doesn’t just replace the old one—it adds onto it. So, today we have Slack and email. Then eventually we’ll have something else and Slack and email. Whenever we add a new thing, it just changes the configuration of what kinds of communication we feel like we should have on what channel. So now we have an idea of the kind of communication that makes sense over Slack, and the kind of communication that makes sense over email. But those norms and understandings change over time. So we’ll start doing more and more on Slack and all of a sudden Slack has become unwieldy, whereas before we did more and more on email and then email became unwieldy.

It just becomes more and more complicated as these shifting norms and expectations of what the different channels are “good” for evolve. And so, inevitably, the more we use one, the more overwhelming it’s going to feel, because nowhere in this are we actually reducing the amount of communication or becoming more efficient or strategic about how and when we communicate. We’re just adding more and more. And so it’s not surprising to me at all that we’re going to think the tool is broken or needs to be fixed. It’s really just the way we’re using the tool.

Does that mean the technology we use is irrelevant, and culture determines everything?

I’m not a full cultural determinist, because I do see that the capacities of these tools and the way they work matter. Before smartphones, we didn’t carry email in our pocket. The very size of the thing, the very fact that you can slip it in your pocket, created the assumption that people can have it everywhere. It’s not like our phones are attached to our bodies—which is important because we can tell ourselves, “I choose to carry my smartphone with me everywhere I go, but I could leave it at home.” So it allows us to have this visceral feeling that we have control over the device. But at the same time, we tend to use it in a way—not always, but in a lot of work cultures—that it becomes a tool that allows us to be constantly connected.

Whether it’s a piece of hardware like a smartphone or software platforms like Slack and email, these tools do have different functions or capacities that shape how people use them and how they interact with each other. So I’m not saying it’s fully cultural, but I do think that we—tech designers, tech theorists, and managers who are actually implementing these things in companies—don’t put enough credence into the cultural and social dynamics that shape how a tool is used.

If a company wants to try out a shiny new tech tool, how should they approach it?

I think we need to think more broadly about technological and social changes to communication. I don’t believe that technology is ever going to be a quick fix for problems like information overload and constant interruptions and the amount of time and energy spent just on communicating.

I think it’s all about the degree to which teams are going to implement these things thoughtfully and, basically, do the work. We have to actually make the effort to have conversations with our colleagues about, “Why are we operating the way that we are? How do we want to operate differently? What tools might help us get there? And what do we do if the tool is actually moving us toward a different pattern of interaction we don’t want?” Usually what it requires is not a new tool, but a kind of collective shared norms change. New tools can help with that. But they’re not the answer.

What’s an example of an organization that has done a good job of examining its culture and picking the right technology to improve its communication?

I worked with a consulting company that had created an environment where people were staying up working until 9pm, 10pm, or midnight just waiting for emails to come in, because if they got an email they were supposed to respond to it right away. So they designed a little email interface where every time you tried to send an email after 8pm, it would just give you this little dialog box that said, “Hey, do you want to send this email now or schedule it for the morning?” It was as simple as that. And so, as a result, everyone knew that if you did get an email after 8pm, you’d better look at it. But now 90% of emails weren’t going to show up at night, versus before when everyone just sent the email whenever they felt like it, which created this unnecessary dynamic of constant accessibility. So just a tiny little surgical intervention—asking, ‘Hey, do you want the person to see this now or is it okay if they see it in the morning?’—changed the dynamic entirely.