This CEO's Rule: Nothing Important Can Happen Over Chat
"Chats erode work-life balance," says the head of Everlaw.
A few years ago, AJ Shankar kept having the same conversation with fellow CEOs. They were talking about being in “Slack Hell” — where their teams had to constantly look at their chat programs like Slack or Gchat, because they didn’t want to miss important information. “I thought about my own experiences and those of others,” Shankar says, “and came to some realizations.”
Shankar is the CEO and founder of legal tech company Everlaw, and he soon implemented a new rule for his company: Employees can chat all they like, but truly important messages have to happen over email. “Chats should not be used for decision-making, disseminating important information, or requests for work, such as, ‘can you please review X?’” he says. What if someone does post an important message in chat? “It is fine for the recipient of such a message to ignore it,” he says.
He says the rule has been welcome — and helped his company even more as it transitioned into a fully remote workforce recently. Here, he makes the case for chatting less.
What’s the problem with chat?
It’s easy to understand why chat is so seductive: Writing a chat message is easier than writing an email, and you often get an immediate response; and it’s invaluable when real-time distributed communication is required. Sounds great! But the convenience of chat brings with it some major costs in most situations, especially to people who are receiving rather than initiating chats.
Unlike emails, chats are synchronous. They happen, especially with group chats, in real-time, and it’s hard to revive a thread after the fact. That means you have to be responsive to chat if you want to participate in an ongoing discussion, regardless of what else you’re doing. And because you don’t know what you’ve missed, you feel compelled to catch up after every meeting or time away, which can be exhausting and time-consuming.
Furthermore, due to the real-time nature of chat, it’s hard to make substantive decisions in the medium. Instead of careful deliberation, chat conversations are often a race to type out your ideas first, to springboard off the most recent comment before someone else does and takes the chat in a different direction.
Finally, chats erode work-life balance. It is easy and acceptable to ignore all but the most “URGENT!!” email when you’re at home. Due to the real-time nature and expectations around chat, it is simply harder to ignore. What is convenient for the sender is often inconvenient for the recipient.
What happened when you implemented the policy in 2018?
I think the move was pretty seamless — folks didn't stop chatting, which is fine, but also people felt they could step away more easily.
You implemented the policy in a normal working world. Now, everything’s different. How do you think the policy has impacted your team now?
If anything, for the better. In the modern work environment, real-time communication mediums like chat allow for a certain blurring of the line between personal life and work life, an "always-on" mentality. For instance, in many companies it might be considered okay to send someone a chat in the evening and expect a response.
Drawing mental boundaries between work and home, even during normal times, is essential. Now, in our new world, with no physical separation at all between home and work, setting those boundaries is more important than ever, and our chat policy is instrumental in that regard.
Also, with our policy, there is a bias toward face-to-face meetings, which manifest as video calls now. I think that helps maintain a valuable social connection while distancing.
As so many of us settle into a remote-work life, do you think companies should be more closely guiding how employees communicate?
Independent of what’s happening now, I think a thoughtful approach to communication is valuable at any company. Absent guidance, people reasonably default to the most convenient form of communication. That convenience is typically with respect to the sender, not the recipient, which allows asymmetrically convenient mediums like chat to flourish — and frustrate. Secondly, convenience is only one valuable aspect of communication, but depending on the context, you may value efficiency, expressiveness, nuance, durability, or another aspect more, and each of these aspects is more or less present in the various communication mediums. I think providing guidance helps route communication to the best medium for the goal at hand.
Jason Feifer is the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, and host of two podcasts: Build For Tomorrow, a show about the changes that got us here, and how to thrive in a changing world; and Problem Solvers, about entrepreneurs solving unexpected problems in their business. He writes a newsletter about how to find opportunity in change.
Prior to Entrepreneur, Jason has worked as an editor at Men's Health, Fast Company, Maxim, and Boston magazine, and has written about business and technology for the Washington Post, Slate, New York, and others.