Have you ever found yourself on a phone call talking to your best friend (for me, that’s my mom, obviously), only to have a child relentlessly tapping on your arm, urgently saying your name? It’s an overwhelming situation!
It’s impossible to process multiple people talking at once, both simultaneously requiring attention. You have to stop your phone conversation, help the kid, get back on the call and backtrack to pick up where you left off.
Alternatively, have you texted a family member at noon on Sunday to invite them to dinner only to get a response at 3 a.m. the following Wednesday, several full days after the dinner? To be perfectly honest, I’m usually the guilty party in this situation. Sorry, Mom!
As in these examples, we often rely on other people as sources of information in our day-to-day lives, creating an exchange that makes at least one person reliant on another. In both scenarios, each party is either waiting for a response or interrupted to provide information.
At DORIS, we have been exploring the deficiencies of remote work—one being delays in communication. When you send an email, how long does it take to get a response? It can be frustrating to sit around, waiting to hear back. However, as we explored this problem space, we quickly realized the alternative was, interestingly enough, just as bad.
Waiting for a response creates delays, which can waste precious time and sometimes result in an irrelevant, outdated ask. Alternatively, interruptions break concentration, which, funny enough, can also waste precious time. In the same way that delays can cause problems in communication, the interruption that might take place in order to obtain that information quickly might cause problems with focus. Both can hurt productivity overall.
I recall one of my first jobs after college, at which I had a LOT of questions. All day, I would ask the person sitting next to me questions. This was charming at first. She would pause her work to answer question after question, happy to be a mentor.
After about a week of this, I realized the charm was fading, and I figured it was time to problem-solve on my own. I wanted information quickly and conveniently. I could have looked this information up in a cumbersome book. Instead, I overused my co-worker as a resource, much like a 5-year-old who wants a snack while his or her parent is on the phone.
Imagine if I had started that job between April 2020 and now. Working from home, all my questions are answered asynchronously—through something like Microsoft Teams or Slack. In this scenario, my colleague would have complete control over the interaction. After a series of longer and longer delays, as she became tired of my questions, I might have learned the same lesson. Eventually, I’d start finding the information on my own, and it would have been less disruptive for her along the way.
Questions aren’t inherently bad, and, in fact, it’s conversations and questions that push business forward. Think about all your learnings, strategy, creative and innovative moments at work that began with a simple question or conversation. Questions and conversations are so important, and yet some people find them annoying at best and disruptive to overall productivity at worst.
In the past nine months, as a society, we have changed the way conversations are happening. We use the word asynchronous more than we ever have. It will be several months, maybe even several years, before we will fully know the effects of the changing dynamic between what people used to see as interruptions and now see as delays.
Is giving more control to the person with the knowledge shifting power away from the knowledge seeker? Will this cause individuals to stop relying on others and become more resourceful? Is the delay the new interruption? Or is the delay causing something else altogether—closing up the mere possibility for creative and innovative thinking to occur?
Please hold while we seek the answers. Over.•
Julka is founder of Indianapolis-based DORIS Research, which uses design thinking to organize workspaces.