Several People Are Typing

by Megan Reynolds

At my first real office job, I talked to my boss, who sat in the cubicle in front of me, all the time. I could see his gray head over the wall. Even if I wasn’t looking up, I could tell from the tone of his voice if he was talking to his friend in another part of the office on the phone, coordinating a cigarette break, or if he was on the phone with a client reluctant to part ways with their advertising dollars for a full-page, full-color ad for The Garfield Movie. Sometimes, he’d email me, but really, if he wanted anything, he’d peek his head over the wall and ask me, to my face. Occasionally, when he was in his zone, the phone on my desk would ring. We were so close that I could hear him dialing my extension, but I’d pick up anyway. Usually he was whispering, or talking shit. If I ever needed to say something to anyone immediately — without the patience required for them to respond to my email, I would get up and find them. It has not been like this, really, at any other workplace I’ve been at since.

What could be said face-to-face, over coffee, on your way to the bathroom is now relegated to an email, terser than intended, perhaps, but stripped of any of the real bits of humanity present in an actual conversation. Whenever my phone rings now, I stare at it in terror. What could possibly be so urgent — at work, of all places — that required a phone call?

If you work remotely, with the rest of your coworkers in another state, unless you insist on video chats every week, you could go for months without hearing another coworker’s voice. I have been on the occasional conference call with my coworkers, two of whom I’ve never met, and had a hard time differentiating between their voices. I talk to each of them every day, endlessly online, but if one of them walked past me on the street I wouldn’t recognize them. We don’t use phones at work. Sometimes we do a Google hangout, but everyone knows that those are really only good for studying your own angles while someone else talks. I have never met them in person, though I talk to them every single day. We rarely email, because all of our time is spent in Slack, a “team communication platform.”

Slack is a nightmare of a productivity tool that takes the worst parts about communication of any sort and neatly distills it into one monolith of an app that, if given the capacity, would probably attempt to take over your entire life. If you spent any time in AOL chat rooms as a teen, then you understand how Slack works.

One of its features is a small notification in the bottom of the chat window that tells you if someone’s typing. Like BBM and the anxiety inducing blinking ellipses in texting, this is a way to let you know that, hey, someone is saying something. Take your time with your response. Listen to what they have to say. I suppose this is meant to mimic the way that actual, face-to-face conversation goes — a give and take as opposed to two talking heads, blathering in oblivion.

At face value, this isn’t stress-inducing. It’s an easy way to indicate that you should do yourself a favor, sit back and see what everyone else has to say before you say anything at all. You’d think that this functionality would allow for pleasant, measured, calm conversation, discourse that feels productive and furthers your understanding of complicated work issues and allows you to have your questions answered and your concerns heard. But, when you see “several people are typing…” at the bottom of your chat window, it’s understood that you should stand up and walk as far away from your office as possible. No good comes of “several people are typing…”

“Several people are typing” in Slack is akin to being in the middle of a crowded party talking at each other about the election with a group of people you don’t know, with no escape route. What will most likely follow are three to four paragraph long diatribes, speaking not in concert with one another but in a horrible cacophony of opinions and takes. In short, it’s the worst way to communicate.

I understand the necessity for tools like Slack. So many jobs are dependent on the internet which means more people are working remotely and the fact the the app itself is so easy to use is a huge plus. But, sacrificing convenience for human contact feels like the wrong way to go. It feels old-fashioned and almost insane to request a phone call at work when a simple email will do, but sometimes there’s something different and nice about picking up your office phone, dialing a number and hearing someone else’s voice on the other line. If you work exclusively in your home office, with little understanding of who or what or how your coworkers are, the only thing that Slack and other productivity tools create is tension.

Never did I think I’d find myself advocating for picking up the phone, but after years in the workforce, watching communication slowly erode from something that took effort to an activity best done in the breaths between checking your work and your personal emails and eating lunch, all I want is for someone to call me when they have something to say. You have no idea how an email is going to land once you send it, but you know what your intentions were when you wrote it. But, when you say words out loud to another human being, you can easily assess a situation without having to read too much between the lines.

We’ve created a work environment in which bad news and good news are delivered in person. If you’re up for a promotion, your boss may call you into her office for a closed door meeting to tell you you got it. You get laid off in person. When delivering good news, part of the joy is seeing the reaction on the other person’s face, a little kick of unnecessary pride on the giver’s part. Bad news, on the other hand, delivered in person is only respectful. Hearing that you lost your job or that your job is on the line via an email feels disrespectful and rude. In both situations, seeing a human’s face is better for everyone. We want to see the effect of the news and to help the other person manage expectations on how to react. The pernicious thing about communicating via chat and email at work is the ability it gives you to fake it. It’s very easy to sob quietly in your home office in frustration while fielding spicy emails from your boss, but to do so in person would be difficult.

Nothing really gets done at work anyway; this is a largely accepted truth. But, there’s something about speaking face-to-face with someone that makes it feel like accomplishment, even though you could be just talking in circles in a room with someone and then going to lunch. Pick up the phone, if it rings. Walk to someone’s office and knock on the door. Have a meeting that forces you to get up from your desk. Sit in front of the person you’re talking to. It’s better that way, trust me.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

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