Illustration depicting prehistoric communication by Skinkeape
Illustration by Skinkeape

Work Culture

Prehistoric communication still rules the office, but it doesn’t have to

By

Published on April 29, 2019

Illustration by Skinkeape

In 1943, with the Second World War raging, MIT needed a new building to house its radar development program.

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Planners selected an empty site on Vassar Street and hastily assembled a makeshift structure out of plywood. Its walls were thin, its roof leaked and the only reason the fire department didn’t condemn it was because the university promised they’d tear it down. The temporary structure was named Building 20, and it would eventually revolutionize the way teams communicated.

After the war, MIT quietly repurposed the building to house an eclectic collection of offices, including the cosmic ray group (part of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science), the linguistics department, a particle accelerator and even a piano repair shop.

What made Building 20 special was an accidental mix of communication and solitude. In all its glorious disorganization, Building 20 created countless opportunities for what urban theorist Jane Jacobs later called ‘knowledge spillover’ opportunities in her book The Economy of Cities.

Knowledge spillovers occur when ideas migrate across disciplines through accidental conversations. Since Building 20 was so haphazardly designed, even longtime residents found themselves aimlessly wandering the halls looking for rooms and staircases that seemed not to exist. And in Building 20, a five-minute stroll could commonly take you past a dozen different disciplines and, therefore, a dozen different conversations.

But Building 20 also had individual offices, to which their occupants could retreat and work in isolation. Plus, due to its reputation as a temporary building, it fell outside the auspices of the university. Scientists and researchers were able to design their offices as they wished—even if it violated a few building codes.

Over the years, Building 20 became a hotbed for innovation, delivering the first commercial atomic clock, gravitational wave detectors, cognitive science and some of the very first video games. In its short 20-year lifespan, nine Nobel Prize winners passed through its ramshackle doors.

Building 20 could have—indeed, some argue it should have—provided a model for workplace communication and collaboration. But throughout the 20th century, we moved towards shared spaces, open plan offices and always-available communication styles. While there is some value in this "modern" take on communication, it misses the opportunities that a place like Building 20 allowed for.

A hyperactive, highline workflow worked for our prehistoric ancestors because their interactions were constrained by technology—or, more precisely, the lack of it.

Paleolithic Communication

In April 2014, I landed my first job at a creative agency. I remember walking through the doors for the first time into an incoherent wall of noise. Phones were ringing, music was blaring, teams huddled around desks having impromptu meetings and two account executives were yelling to each other from opposite ends of the office.

I quickly learned this kind of frenzied communication was normal. Every day I worked there, I was regularly pulled off my task by managers and colleagues who needed assistance or input into some other project. My days became a mess of fractured concentration, and I learned to work in furtive ten-minute bursts.

Productivity author Cal Newport calls this the hyperactive, highline workflow. “If you need something, let me know. It's this flexible, unstructured way of communicating,” he explains. And according to Newport, humans have practiced this communication model for thousands of years.

When our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors wanted to hunt a deer, their communication strategy was simple: they gathered fellow tribe members, pointed in the direction of the deer and off they went, planning their attack as they walked. 

What’s amazing is that this prehistoric model of communication—planning, coordinating and communicating on the fly—isn’t all that different from the systems in place at many modern companies. In my first job, if I needed some advice from my manager, I walked over to their desk and asked them. Likewise, if they needed something from me, they came over, interrupted my work and we talked it through.

A hyperactive, highline workflow worked for our prehistoric ancestors because their interactions were constrained by technology—or, more precisely, the lack of it. If you wanted something, you had to walk to your fellow tribe member and interact with them face-to-face. This form of communication is resource intensive (you actually have to physically walk somewhere) and synchronous (you and your co-communicator both need to be present in real-time). 

As technology developed, that cost of interaction declined. The written letter was the first major development, allowing people to communicate without being physically near one another. The invention of the telephone was the next great leap, allowing people to communicate in real-time over great distances.

Technological advancements caused a massive increase in communication. According to Bain & Company partner Michael Mankins, in the 1970s, the average executive received 1,000 communications per year—roughly one communication every one hour and 47 minutes. At this time, most communications were written notes and telephone calls, with a few face-to-face meetings thrown in too.

Over the next 40 years, we developed a huge array of new communication tools that eclipsed both letters and phone. Email, beepers and text messaging arrived in the 1990s and fully proliferated in the 2000s, allowing individuals and businesses to instantly send any written thought they had. By the 2010s, we had developed a raft of other messaging apps like Slack and had squeezed them, along with emails and phone calls, into our pockets. By the 2010s, the average executive was receiving 30,000 communications per year—roughly one every 3.5 minutes.

Newport believes the combination of hyperactive, highline workflows and the proliferation of modern technology poses a real threat to productivity—and the figures back him up. While the rate of communication has increased exponentially, productivity growth has lagged behind. Indeed, we are only getting 1.4 percent more productive per year—the lowest growth rate in 30 years.

The impact of interruptions is huge. In 2010, US knowledge workers lost 28% of their day—two hours and six minutes—to interruptions. 

The Danger of the Interruption

During my first job, I stumbled on a TEDx talk from Jason Fried, CEO of project management software Basecamp, called Why work doesn't happen at work. As a project management company, I assumed Basecamp would have a highly optimized communication system. But it didn’t.

“You walk in and your day is shredded to bits,” said Fried, “because you have 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, and something else happens, you're pulled off your work, then you have 20 minutes, then it's lunch, then you have something else to do. Then you've got 15 minutes, and someone pulls you aside and asks you a question, and before you know it, it's 5 p.m., and you look back on the day, and you realize that you didn't get anything done.”

As Fried’s example shows, the hyperactive, highline workflow is incredibly disruptive. Part of the problem is that human brains are not built for task switching. When we interrupt our current task for an interruption, it takes a long time to get back into the flow. According to Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, it takes us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to a task after an interruption. So a two-minute interruption from a colleague doesn’t really take two minutes—it takes 25 minutes and 15 seconds.

The impact of interruptions is huge. In 2010, US knowledge workers lost 28% of their day—two hours and six minutes—to interruptions. If the problem of interruptions is left unchecked, researchers predict that interruptions will occupy the entirety of our days by 2031, although it’s unlikely that organisations and businesses will ever reach this point in practice.

our organisations and businesses are likely to collapse long before we reach a state of constant distraction.

Improving on Prehistoric Communication

The benefits of an open office and constant communication are immense: random encounters can lead to unexpected ideas, and the ability to overhear your coworkers—while distracting—can help everyone stay on the same page and contribute to what's going on. But we need to be sure that our communication style is evolving, and we can do so by looking at some alternatives to what we're calling prehistoric communication.

The daily standup

I didn’t stay in my first job very long. I knew it wasn’t for me within the first few days and I jumped ship as early as I could. I landed at a marketing agency and learned on my first day that they used an Agile project management methodology called Scrum. Instead of planning a full project in one go, Scrum breaks down a project into lots of small components. Each component is designed, produced and delivered in a fixed period called a sprint.

“Communication is important in Agile,” explained the marketing director on my first day as she showed me around the strangely serene office. “But how you communicate is almost more important.”

The next day, I learned what she meant. Every morning at precisely 9:05 a.m., my new team met in the break room to hold a short meeting called the daily standup. During the meeting, everyone answered the same three questions. First, what did you do yesterday? Second, what are you going to do today? Third, what do you need from anyone else?

By the end of the meeting, my team had woven a complex web of dependencies. Kevin needs sign off from the client before he can start work; can Emily chase our point of contact for a decision? Gavin needs graphics for his article; does Naomi have time to produce them? Will never received the updated ad copy; can Ross send it over? In ten minutes, we’d covered a full day’s worth of potential interruptions. Immediately after the meeting, the office was a flurry of activity as people worked to clear the logjams. From about 10:30 a.m. onwards, everyone just got on with their work. We had condensed a full day of interruptions into a concentrated hour-long burst.

With daily standups, there’s a tacit agreement to batch communication and that’s what makes it so effective. If you hit a problem, you don’t immediately Slack your colleague and ask for help. Instead, you hold onto the issue until the next standup. It’s a pretty big behavioral shift but it’s incredibly effective at reducing interruptions and safeguarding time for deep work.

While standups are often associated with engineering teams, they're an excellent strategy for any team looking to condense communication into one part of the day. They still allow for an exchange of ideas and ensure that no one is held up by someone else's work, but they also allow for a solid chunk of time—most of the work day—for people to get into focus mode and avoid those damaging interruptions.

Asynchronous communication

When you talk to someone face-to-face or call them on the phone, you're speaking to them synchronously. That is, if one of you isn't there, the conversation can't happen. But when you write an email or send a Slack message, it's (usually) asynchronous: you can send a message and receive a response minutes, hours, or even days later.

Zach Holman summed up the benefit of asynchronous brilliantly in an article he wrote back in 2011. “Asynchronous communication means I can take a step out for lunch and catch up on transcripts when I get back,” wrote Holman. “Asynchronous communication means I can ask my coworker a question in-chat and not worry about bothering her since she’ll get back to me when she’s available.”

Holman's point is nuanced: it's both parties that benefit from asynchronous communication. The initiator can ask for help or start a conversation anytime, without worrying about interrupting the other person or people. That means they can get things going while the ideas are fresh in their mind. Then, of course, it benefits the person who's receiving the communication. Even if they see the communication, they can finish what they're doing before responding.

Part of the reason asynchronous communication works is technology. Imagine how it would feel if someone walked over to your desk and asked you a question, and you just ignored them. Even if you were doing it to preserve your productivity, it would create a hostile work environment—not to mention being uncomfortable for everyone involved. But if that same person sends you an email or a Slack message, you can stay productive and maintain your working relationships.

But the tools and technologies we use are far from simple. Slack, for example, can be used either asynchronously (I leave you a message and you respond later) or synchronously (I write you a message and you respond immediately). This can produce tension on platforms as it can look like an asynchronous user is ignoring his or her colleagues.

It might feel uncomfortable or unnecessary but clarifying your rules of communication is immensely helpful for teams. By saying, “We’re all going to use this platform asynchronously,” you ensure everyone is on the same page and reduce the likelihood of a frustrated colleague down the line.

More generally, asynchronous communication does have some downsides. What if someone's on a tight deadline and needs to respond to a client now, but you have your notifications snoozed? What if the delay in conversation makes certain points moot before they're addressed? For that reason, completely asynchronous communication isn’t sufficient on its own. All teams require some synchronous communication channels like video or phone calls in place as a fall back.

As with asynchronous technologies, you should codify the use of synchronous channels too. If you specify the exact use cases of synchronous channels, colleagues won’t start using them as the default channel, which protects the benefits of asynchronous communication.

 

The Work Foundation predicts that over 70% of the workforce will either partially or wholly operate without an office by 2020.

Remote work

An interesting thing happens when you pivot to asynchronous communication. All of a sudden, the office as an entity becomes much less important. If you don’t need your colleague to reply to your message immediately, then you don’t really need to work at the same time. In fact, you don’t really need to work in the same place.

That conclusion has driven a meteoric rise in remote working over the past five years—and the trend looks to be continuing. The Work Foundation predicts that over 70% of the workforce will either partially or wholly operate without an office by 2020.

And the benefits of remote working are immense. Zapier co-founders Wade Foster and Mike Knoop were wary of traditional office environments when founding their startup in 2011. “Non-remote work defaults to the highest distraction communication first, which is in-person. Remote work defaults to the lowest, which is no communication," said Zapier co-founder Mike Knoop in an interview on the company’s blog.

While remote workers still have to contend with some disruptions and interruptions, they experience far fewer than their office-bound counterparts. “I don't get sucked into side conversations,” says Foster. “No one plays crappy music really loud. I don't get hit in the head with a Nerf ball."

With remote work, people must choose to be distracted, instead of having it thrust upon them. They must choose to browse Facebook or engage in a conversation on Slack, which leads to significantly fewer distractions and interruptions.

And as Knoop so succinctly puts it: “Less distractions lead to faster work.”

Of course, that default to lack of communication can be detrimental. That's why Zapier, for example, instituted a core team value of "default to transparency." By instilling this value in all their employees, the founders are able to ensure that all necessary communication still happens, even if it's asynchronous. And, of course, Zapier employees regularly have video meetings, phone calls, and synchronous Slack conversations. Again, it's all about balance.

No meeting Wednesdays

In his TEDx talk, Fried proposes a more radical strategy to safeguard productive time in modern offices: ban talking.

“First Thursday of the month, just the afternoon, nobody in the office can talk to each other,” said Fried. “Just silence, that's it. And what you'll find is that a tremendous amount of work gets done when no one talks to each other. This is when people actually get stuff done, is when no one's bothering them or interrupting them. Giving someone four hours of uninterrupted time is the best gift you can give anybody at work.”

I recently spoke to Alexander Moore, Dropbox's Global Head of Content about how some teams at Dropbox take a similar approach, implementing “no meeting” days to safeguard long stretches of time for isolated deep work.

"It can be interesting how difficult it is to defend this time and keep people from scheduling over it," says Moore. In response, his team has started scheduling out of office calendar events for time dedicated to deep work. If someone tries to schedule a meeting over that time, their Google Calendars will automatically reject it, leaving them time to focus.

“‘No Meeting Wednesdays,’ as they’re known at Dropbox, are encouraged for teams that want to implement it and where it makes sense,” says Moore. “I think people find that time for focus really fulfilling and look forward to it. Of course, almost all work is ultimately collaborative so that time inevitably yields more conversations, whether they take place in Dropbox Paper comments or in-person meetings.”

Recreating Building 20

The level of innovation, discovery and invention that came out of MIT’s Building 20 ought to be the goal for every team and organisation. I asked Moore what he thought we could learn from the success of Building 20 and how we can apply it to our current workplaces. He says it’s about balance. If left unchecked, chaotic prehistoric communication will overwhelm teams and decimate personal productivity. But too strictly limiting communication will hurt your organization as well. After all, a team that doesn’t communicate at all is a team bereft of ideas and creativity. 

Moore believes there’s a happy medium somewhere in the middle. He describes it as a state of “productive tension” where people balance access and focus. It’s a place where we safeguard enough time for concentration-intensive cognitive functions but also feed our brains the interpersonal communication they need for innovation and creativity.