In snail mail and phone calls, we expect a certain amount of privacy: we suppose that only we and our recipients are aware of the communication, or at least of the meaningful content of the information exchanged. Those technologies were built to allow exactly two people to communicate. The idea of unintended individuals snooping on our business, as mundane as it can be, is repulsive.
As soon as we want to share information more broadly or collaborate with an extended team, though, things get very complicated, very fast. For example, Today, we have to use third-party companies, with dedicated phone numbers and passwords, to make a three-person conference call. Clearly, telephony’s standards were designed around one-to-one communication.
The same goes for good old letters. If you want to send the same letter to several people, you can’t — you have to send several letters, with the same content. Twenty-five years ago, researchers from the CERN decided that this issue was too big to ignore: the need to keep track of the work of all their peers was hindered by the shortcomings of paper, information was lost and progress was slowed. Thus was born the World Wide Web.
In an analog world, duplicating and transporting information is hard. In the connected, digital world, it’s trivial. However, the first standard we used for digital communication did not take advantage of the capabilities of digital information. Email, first designed in the 1970s and still in use today, is almost a literal transcription of how snail mail works. It makes for very efficient one-to-one communication, but one-to-many feels cluttered and awkward. Sending an email to 10 people is the same as sending 10 emails to each. A forwarded email is just a new email with, hopefully, some content copied from another e-mail (no guarantee, though). Using the BCC feature is one of the riskiest moves in the Western world. And what’s better: to go for the “reply-all” and make the conversation even more confused, while annoying most of the recipients? Or stick to the “reply-to” and keep everybody else outside the loop? Decisions, decisions…
This trait of email is somewhat unusual because a lot of successful communication channels on the internet were designed around one-to-many conversations. From newsgroups to Twitter, forums, Facebook and reddit, publicity is the default design: whatever you contribute is instantly shared with all your network. A one-to-one feature was eventually added to most of those platforms, but as an afterthought, a convenient bonus, rather than a core part of the software. (If you’ve ever tried to use Twitter’s Direct Messages, you know exactly what I mean.)
Even in this post-Snowden era, the amount of information we publicly share keeps growing. We willfully broadcast parts of our personal life, trading our privacy for something better.
Of course, this publicity by default can be a double-edged sword in the private sphere. But in the professional world, there is a lot to gain. What would be considered “stalking” in the private sphere sometimes simply translates to “keeping people in the loop” at work. And some early pioneers have demonstrated that this transparency is worth a lot.
One reason I’m interested in email, of course, is that my company, Front, aims to make email communication better. We reimagined a new workflow for email, and by default every email is made public to the team. But we are not the only company working on this.
Payments processing company Stripe, for instance, bent the protocol in a way that would fulfill its need for better communication. In this article from February 2013, the company explained in great detail how every email sent and received is made public within the company, why they did it, and the actual outcomes:
- Efficiency: “If everyone automatically knew what was happening, we needed fewer meetings, and our coordination was more fluid and more painless if we could all keep up with the stream.”
- Visibility: “An ambiently open flow of information helps to provide people with the context they need to choose useful things to work on.”
- Trust: “It makes it more likely that controversial issues are addressed as they arise, counteracting inevitable conflict-avoidance tendencies.”
- Happiness: “It also makes everyone happier. Most people at Stripe are information junkies, and are naturally curious about how other parts of the organization work.”
Social media management app Buffer took a different approach when it implemented default email transparency, but experienced similar results. Transparency, Buffer says, builds trust between employees and the company, and enables faster decision-making: “email transparency helps accelerate the process by providing the context and information that are often absent from a closed-loop communication.”
Buffer also upped the ante earlier this year when it disclosed to the outside world all the salaries and compensations of its employees. This bold move got the company them some nice press coverage, but also probably helped its recruiting efforts: if a candidate applies for a position at Buffer, he knows exactly what to expect in terms of compensation. By setting expectations straight, hours are saved in negotiations, the likelihood of a candidate turning down an offer based on salary is lowered, and the headache of trying to benchmark our own salary to our coworkers’ is gone.
Slack, a chat platform for internal communication, is another company that understands the monumental impact that transparency can have on workers and companies. It is truly empowering teams: for every question asked in a Slack ‘room’, and for every answer to that question, a certain amount of value is added for the whole team to tap into later on. Every team member has visibility on what is going on with the company.
These default-to-public communication tools are still in their infancy, but I’m sure this is the future of communication at work.
Mathilde Collin is the co-founder and CEO of Front, an app that improves shared inboxes (e.g. email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) by introducing a new workflow for email. Follow her on Twitter @collinmathilde.