Ask In The Channel: Private Messages Considered Harmful

May 26, 2020

This article was originally posted on the Capgemini Engineering blog

Our team have been using instant messaging for a long time. There are a lot of us, working in different parts of the world, and chat can really help us to stay in touch and build connections. We were early adopters of Slack, having previously dabbled with IRC and Skype, and there’s a fairly healthy chat culture among the team. However, recently I’ve noticed something that feels to me like an anti-pattern: too many private messages.

Slack provides statistics on how many messages are sent, and what proportion are in private channels, public channels, and direct messages. When the number of direct messages is higher, that feels like a red flag to me that the team isn’t comfortable sharing with each other.

When someone is unsure of something, or needs help, they’ll often send a private message to ask. Fair enough, you might think. That’s what instant messaging is for, isn’t it? Enabling quick communication between colleagues. The problem is that most of the time, other people are likely to have the same question.

It’s often junior team members asking the question, and I wonder why they’re asking one to one. If they were to ask in our devs channel, there would be a lot more people who might know the answer, and the chances of one of them having the time, energy, and motivation to help would be much higher. Also, it’s quite likely that other members of the team would benefit from seeing the answer to the question.

This might just be a grumpy old man getting fed up with answering the same question again, but it fits with my beliefs about open source, and the value of transparency. I may be echoing something that other people have already said, but I think that it bears repeating.

By asking privately, we’re behaving as if not knowing is something to be ashamed of. It’s only natural that we don’t like to admit our ignorance - there can be a sense of shame in needing to ask for help. But to me, there’s something empowering about feeling secure enough to be able to admit my ignorance, and if we can share knowledge, we all benefit.

Until recent events forced change, we weren’t a fully distributed team - we were a team of hubs, with the majority in either the London, Mumbai or Bangalore office, plus a few outliers like me who mostly work from home, and only come into the office from time to time.

In that scenario, it’s easy for the remote team members to be second class citizens, as the office-based people inevitably have face-to-face conversations, perhaps at lunch or while getting a cup of coffee. Now that we’re all remote, that has changed, but as Dirkjan Bussink has said, when we work remotely we need to be more mindful about how we communicate, and more intentional in cultivating bonds between members of the team.

Recently COVID-19 has brought about an increase in the number of people working remotely, but we need to remember that this isn’t normal remote work - it’s working at home during a crisis, and it’s difficult. In these challenging times, we need to be even more mindful of the fact that we don’t get a full picture of what’s going on at the other end of a chat message.

Chat seems to have become the default method of communication for remote work, but we need to understand when to use asynchronous communication methods (like chat), and when we need the higher bandwidth of synchronous methods.

As with any piece of software, it’s important to think about how we use chat, and to make sure that it’s a tool that we control, rather than allowing it to control us. Rather than permanently having a chat window open, bombarding us with distractions, it’s helpful to open it when we’re ready to communicate, and close it when we need to focus. Similarly, we can turn off incoming messages in Outlook using the “Work offline” setting - this is great, as long as you remember to go back online now and then.

There are problems with instant messaging, but I think that chat brings a lot of value to both distributed and co-located teams, and it’s unlikely to go away any time soon. Besides, chat is a relatively new invention, and humans are still learning and evolving the etiquette of instant messaging. It’s important to strike a balance between under-sharing and spamming - another antipattern in instant messaging is excessive use of @here and @channel. But if we can create conditions of psychological safety in our teams, where we’re more comfortable displaying our weaknesses, then we can grow stronger together.