A few days ago while re-reading some parts of The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size I tweeted the following:
Is it possible that the problem isn’t too much information, but not enough info going into our subconscious to help us maintain context?
When I wrote that, I was thinking of the lack of in-person human contact that comes with a heavy reliance on social media and other technology based communications. With those tools, all you get is the message; you are limited, for the most part, to the throughput capability of language and your ability to consciously process it. Compare this to all of the information your brain receives, and processes, unconsciously when you communicate face-to-face.
Earlier today, Aaron DeVries (@adevries) tweeted a story on MSNBC.com titled Why telecommuting doesn’t work. Author Jonathan Weber’s reasoning for saying this echoes some of what I had in mind in terms of “not enough info”:
The reasons for this have nothing to do with checking that people are actually working. It’s about efficient communications, building company culture and camaraderie, and sharing the daily bits of work and personal experiences that create a shared sense of purpose.
For starters, all the telecommunications tools and document-sharing systems in the world are no substitute for the simple act of walking over to someone’s desk and pointing to something on a screen or asking a question. It’s almost always quicker than any technological alternative, and there’s little room for confusion.
This issue increases when more people participate in a task. Coordinating input from three or four or five people via e-mail is a recipe for errors and misunderstanding. And conference calls are so far inferior to face-to-face meetings that I barely bother with them at all. Rather than the collective engagement of a good meeting, you end up with people half-listening while they catch up on e-mail. Plus lots of awkward silences.
When telecommuting, it is easy to miss out on the dynamics inherent in an office. (This is where the “not enough info” thoughts come in.) You can’t really judge what kind of mood individuals are in, or the overall feeling in an office in a time of stress or excitement, from e-mail, IM, or tweets. Easy to miss out, but not inevitable. Just because you aren’t physically located with someone, doesn’t mean it is not possible to keep up. Of course, this does require a whole different set of skills than you might need to work in an office.
As someone who telecommutes on occasion, I can attest to some of the challenges. But not all of them are exclusive to telecommuting. (How many meetings have you been in where most of the people’s attention is on their Blackberry and not the meeting?) And I don’t think these challenges mean that telecommuting doesn’t work.
Telecommuting doesn’t work for some people, in some industries? Sure. But in general, it is like anything else – appropriate for some, not for others. As long as you understand the limitations and challenges, and are willing to overcome them, telecommuting can be an effective tool for any business or worker. At least that’s my opinion.
What do you think?