The Folly of Real Time Chat

Real time chat clients like Slack, Hipchat and Skype are becoming very common place in most work places. They let you communicate quickly with your co-workers and ask questions as soon as they come up in your work day.

That all sounds great but it means yet another pervasive distraction in your work environment. However, unlike email, real time chat still has the expectation of a near immediate response. This is the problem. Even the smallest distractions have a switching cost – the time it takes to bring your mind back to where you were before the distraction.

Such requests are almost always not urgent (if they are, they are usually followed up by other means like a phone call). They serve the requester well, in that they can get assistance with a problem they are facing in real time. But they have a high cost to whoever gets distracted by the request. Multiply this by the people in a group or channel for a group request and it becomes clear they are clear and present danger to productivity. A group/channel request is basically like walking through an office with a loudspeaker shouting out your problem. Is what you are asking really important enough to be doing that?

The usually quoted time to refocus after a distraction is around 15 mins. A few trivial real time requests can quickly build up to hours of distraction across the entire organisation because they are much more difficult to ignore (and the expectation is for them to be answered immediately).

Like all tools, real time chat, is just a way to communicate. It is up to the user to use the tools well. The first thing in adopting such tools is to drop the stigma associated with not responding immediately to a real time chat message. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The second thing, is awareness. Realise what it costs to make such requests. Make it clear they aren’t urgent (they never are). Set the expectation to receive a message when the other party is ready which could and probably should be many hours after your request.