“Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.” Unknown
3,000 people across the UK have just embarked on the biggest experiment to assess whether the 4 day working week can elicit the same productivity as our traditional 5 day model. At 4and20Million, we’ve long worked with firms keen to tackle the productivity paradox. Namely, despite the increasing number of hours we spend at work, we are not seeing the expected productivity benefits. Of course, solutions to this conundrum will vary across sectors and businesses. However, the macro trend of frustratingly low productivity is stubborn and undeniable.
Whilst Sugars, Moggs and Musks will likely label these experiments a modern folly, it will be fascinating to see the outcomes. Actual results based on clear metrics, unimpeded by emotion or bias. Can we really get the same amount of work done in four days as we normally do in five? Will the additional rest and the motivation of a healthier work/life balance enable us to make more of our time in work?
Within this complex dynamic, there is a crucial ingredient that could legitimately make or break a company’s ability to retain productivity whilst reducing working hours. Communication. It’s something that is often overlooked in the maelstrom of our day to day. To understand its impact, we can learn a lesson from a late 19th century misunderstanding.
Lost in translation
In 1889, Italy and Ethiopia signed the treaty of Wuchale. Europeans had been carving and colonising Africa for several decades. During the writing of the document, a minor misinterpretation had enormous consequences.
The Ethiopian version of the treaty included a clause agreeing that the Ethiopian Emperor “could” use the Italian embassy to conduct his foreign affairs. The Italian version of the document translated the clause differently. To them, the Emperor had agreed that he “must” use the Italian embassy.
As a result of this difference, the Italians believed that the Ethiopians had decided to surrender without resistance and become a colony. However, as far as the Ethiopians were concerned, they were still completely independent. The result, when the mix-up became clear, was war. For the sake of a verb, the Italians were routed as the Ethiopian Emperor fielded nearly 120,000 men and sent his opponents packing with their superior firepower.
So our choice of words can be pretty important.
In a modern workplace environment, effective communication can hold the key to improved productivity, a happier workforce and reduced ambiguity.
Communication as a productivity catalyst
"We pick out meaning through a combination of listening to what is said, reading physical signals and taking cues from intonation."
For most of the time that office-based work has existed, communication with colleagues has been mostly face to face. We pick out meaning through a combination of listening to what is said, reading physical signals and taking cues from intonation. Being physically present ensured fewer misunderstandings and communicated extra information - subtle elements of communication like hierarchy, approval, vulnerability and so on. We also took in a lot through osmosis - an overheard conversation we were not part of telling us something about how others in our team approached challenges or went about their work.
This is why so many of us have reservations about a hybrid or fully remote working model. Things will get lost in translation. People won’t learn how we do things here. So, the logic goes, businesses won’t function as effectively without staff being physically together regularly.
These fears should not be casually dismissed. In fact, they are entirely valid concerns, particularly in businesses that haven't taken the time to assess and adapt their modes of communication.
However, businesses who enable and encourage smart written communication will find a transition to a hybrid or remote model far easier. At first, this might sound too vague or ambitious an aim. So let’s look at a simple example of how our communication can evolve.
Message 1: Shall we meet to review the document?
Message 2: Yeah, sure. Sounds good to me.
Message 3: Great. How about later this week?
Message 4: Bit busy on Thursday and Friday - might be better to shift it to early next week.
Message 5: Cool. How about Tuesday at 3pm?
Message 6: That can work for me. Where suits you?
Message 7. I’m easy. I can come to you.
Message 8: Ok. There’s a Starbucks by mine - I’ll WhatsApp the address.
Message 9. Great. See you then.
Surely, this time-consuming back and forth has scope for evolution? You may be familiar with Parkinson’s Law. “Work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.” The same principle is true of the way in which we write to one another. With the luxury of instant messaging and response, we don’t really need to hone our messages. Speed supersedes quality and messages have become unnecessarily incessant. In order to become more productive, one solution is to try and collapse our sprawling communication habits. With a little more thought, the previous 9 pings could become:
I think it would be a good idea to review the document together within the next week. Thursday afternoon in Starbucks (by your house) works for me. I’ll send an invitation for you to accept. But if that time isn’t convenient I’m also free on Monday and Tuesday next week, so let me know when would work for you as an alternative. Thanks.
Simple and action-oriented. To badly paraphrase the Spice Girls, 9 can become 1.
Making effective communication a priority
"It seems less comfortable to leave an IM or WhatsApp message unacknowledged for a few minutes than an email, though often for no real reason."
It’s true that a reduction in co-located working can weaken social bonds and hamper learning through osmosis. As a result, many businesses are currently considering the appropriate number of mandated days in the office and how to persuade people to re-engage with the physical workspace. Fewer are asking themselves the question, is our communication style fit for purpose?
As more of our communication has migrated onto email, Skype, Teams and even WhatsApp, we’ve naturally become more reliant on written communication than we ever used to be. But that’s not to say we’ve found the best way of using these platforms. For example, the immediacy of instant messaging systems is frequently confused for urgency, meaning every quick Skype or Teams ping is treated as being more pressing and urgent that whatever else we are working on at the time. It seems less comfortable to leave an IM or WhatsApp message unacknowledged for a few minutes than an email, though often for no real reason. Some of us make liberal use of ‘Do Not Disturb’ settings, while others consider it the ultimate workplace taboo.
These communication considerations become even more relevant as we grapple with the working models of the future. If projects are to become more asynchronous due to remote and flexible working, then the calibre of written communication becomes critical. If your team is dipping in and out of projects at personally convenient times, then it’s crucial that the words they read prompt actions that propel projects forwards. To ignore this is to increase the risk of misinterpretation and lose momentum.
Some fully remote companies are experimenting successfully in this area. In a recent episode of the podcast Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat, Professor Raj Choudhury from Harvard Business School told a story about a business he’d been working with. This company communicates exclusively with written content. However, they also appreciate the need to come together, discuss ideas and have a unifying moment each week. This takes place as part of a raucous company meeting each Friday, where ideas from the week are discussed, people vocalise their thoughts and decisions are made. Their one key rule during these meetings is that ‘no new ideas are introduced in these meetings’. If you have a new idea, it needs to be written, considered and submitted for discussion for the following week’s session. The emphasis is always on thoughtful written work. This allows ideas time to develop, instead of being blown away in a hurricane of breathless half-thoughts.
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”
Writing is a skill we can take for granted. As Heller suggests, even those who’ve mastered their craft can find it infuriating. And now, we are asking people to spend more time and effort writing in order to inspire the right kind of action.
The benefits of emphasising this skill are enormous. Improving written communication can contribute towards greater productive output. If we are to be more productive with less in-person contact, written communication and the way we use technology to communicate are vital factors in the pace and quality of our work.
And as the Italians found out to their cost in 1889, ill-considered use of the written word can have enormous consequences!
Five quick steps to more productive communication:
Consider and agree the role for each communication channel you have, bearing in mind the need for speed of response, security and fidelity of information
Agree appropriate response times by comms channel to avoid the need to check multiple platforms every few minutes
Establish consistent practice - a team Trello board is only effective if everyone keeps it up to date
Quality over quantity - reduce inbox burdens by eliminating unnecessary cc’s and Reply Alls
Don’t attempt delicate conversations via the written word - make time for a call, face to face or even video call if there’s a risk of misinterpretation!