There used to be two ways to tell someone something, in person or in writing. Writing was a more formal way of communicating that was always “on the record.” Talking was more informal, and was usually off the record. Even if someone asked about your conversation later, memories are imperfect and you could always deny it.
Now there are many different ways to communicate-email, text, twitter, facebook, linkedin, google voice, youtube, chat. You can broadcast to many people at once, or send direct messages to one or a few people. Each channel has its own level of formality attached based on your relationship with the other person, how the connection was made, whether the communication is scheduled or unscheduled, and how fast the sender expects or needs a response.
When fax, and then email, became primary business tools, the speed of written communication changed dramatically. No letters had to be mailed and delivered, no memos had to be distributed by hand. For awhile, the way to really get to someone was to fax bomb them late Friday afternoon with something that would require them to work over the weekend. For awhile, it was possible to stop the flood of communication to focus on the work at hand. Now you have to turn your phones and computers off and become a digital hermit. Many people would never consider it.
I just got back from TRU London and HR Tech Europe conferences. Travel on airplanes where I had to turn off “electronic devices,” long international flights without WiFi, and complex or expensive cell phone availability disrupted my normal routines. Instead of texting my kids on my cell phone, I opened up Google Voice and sent them text messages through the internet. Instead of calling my partner to make arrangements on where to meet, we sent each other tweets.
I also sat in on sessions where people talked about how you can’t reach younger employees through email because they consider it spam. We discussed how your choice of communication channel affects both the message and how it’s perceived.
Quick, informal communications like chat, DM or internal systems like Yammer are seen as a natural part of doing the work. Longer and more formal communications like email or “on the record” chats are seen as more threatening, or as administrative (and therefore useless).
In person communications like meetings and phone calls are more disruptive than a written note. Both people have to stop what they are doing to talk. Discussion requires immediate response. So while it’s still a great way to get quick decisions, answers or feedback, in-person conversations are often scheduled in advance and tend to be more formal.
Our new ways of communicating have added nuance and changed to our views. So it’s really important to consider what tool you use to communicate and what message you send along with the words.
It’s also important to understand that there is no such thing as “off the record.” Every digital communication is either directly recorded or there is a record of it. Anything you type into a device can be retrieved, even if you delete it. The person next to you probably has several different devices that can take your picture, record your conversation and send it to someone else instantly.
This will become even more important as new HR Tech tools collect and analyze data about how you work and who you connect with. There are tools to crowd-source performance reviews based on reviews and endorsements from everyone you work with, not just your manager. There are tools to find the experts in your company to ask them for help. And there are companies looking for and analyzing everything you do online to see your digital exhaust to understand what you are interested in and good at, so they can find you or sell that information to someone else.
I’m skeptical about the usefulness of a lot of this stuff. To me, it just looks like Facebook with infographics for work. Many of the “new” tools I saw are just another system or program to distract people from doing their actual work. Even the vendors don’t really understand what they will learn or how it can or should be used. But it is crystal clear that everyone is focused on collecting every little digital crumb, while encouraging everyone to make more.
So before you send the next message or schedule that meeting, think about how much you are interrupting someone, the level of formality you want to convey, and the true urgency of the issue. And remember, everything is on the record.