This post is Inspired by a recent blog post on GlowForge, “Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might Be the Worst Idea in Tech”
When I first started working in a tech company, one of the things I most liked about being there was the smart, strongly opinionated people who always had something to say… about everything. From the receptionist to the CEO, people voiced off all the time. It made for a lively atmosphere where debate happened at the drop of a hat. Best place to get a burrito? Boca Grande on First Street or...? The right number of digits of precision for calculating a numerical integral? Was it between 4 and 6? Never or always use Haskell? In our small, tight knit company, where we socialized almost as much as we worked, we argued a lot; but it was spirited, energizing, and fun.
We were also all co-located, working in person, on site. If someone disagreed with your point of view, you could see their expression of impatience, exasperation, or doubt. If you needed to confront someone on a difficult topic, that conversation happened face to face. A colleague once yelled at me for forgetting something minor but important. I walked away, not wanting to have a *that* kind of argument. A few hours later, he came to my office, apologized, and went on to become one of my closest colleagues at the company. We actively sought out dissenting opinions — better to be confronted with a difficult truth from a respected colleague than an angry customer. And, more often than not, interactions were positive and constructive. We were colleagues helping each other tackle thorny problems and collaboratively working toward the same goals. If our frequent current work reunions are any guide — now more than 10 years after we all stopped working together — people really loved it.
We had then what is now known as a “speak up culture” — a place where people were rewarded not just for sharing opinions, but for inviting them. The most influential people were not the loudest, the most verbose, or the first to speak up. But the culture encouraged and rewarded their right to be themselves and still be heard. Speak up cultures are healthy cultures; they are places where ideas thrive and people do, too. Much has been written about this, especially the idea of creating psychological safety at work, where people listen, show empathy, respect others’ ideas, etc.
Our company even passed along this value in our interactions with customers. We ran a threaded discussion area called the “Collaboratory”, a quaint, pre-Reddit era tool that allowed our customers to ask about the deep recesses of our software. We often had debates that went on for months and somehow (more or less) managed to keep it organized and on point. Intent on both sides was genuine — this is a place where we respect your ideas, if you respect ours. It was a low-risk environment, but a vibrant community arose.
Today, most online modes of interaction create significant barriers for how we interact with one another that we did not have to deal with in my early days in the software industry. The speak up culture is particularly hard to emulate when mediated by email, text/chat, phone, and video. Energetic debates become a fight for the mic. People don’t share their video and they multi-task instead of being engaged. Email and text “signals” are weak and result in poor translation of ideas. People use meetings to broadcast information that can be shared in other ways. And we are all bogged down in the sheer volume of communication data, such that it ceases to be informative. In 2018, an estimated 280 billion emails were sent. Some days it feels like they all went to my inbox.
The fix is not an easy one. People have become accustomed to the convenience of working online — from home, in an airport, on the beach. And for many reasons, we should not retreat to insisting that everyone start working in offices full time again. The genie is out of the bottle. You’ll remember Marissa Mayer’s 2013 blunder when we she tried to institute a new no-work-from-home policy at Yahoo (the memo recounted here). The solution is to make working online together better by focusing on how we communicate and interact.
However, the tools for communicating online aren’t great yet — that’s part of what we’re working on at Riff. Data privacy is paramount; employees do not want to be surveilled and they don’t have to be. Instead, you can discover a lot about how people interact by looking at online communications data streams. How balanced are conversations? Is there evidence of bias? Is there a culture of dominating behaviors or deference and respect? To what degree are teams able to be effective online? Are meetings energetic with most participants able to meaningfully contribute? Are any populations being marginalized?
It would be great if online meetings, whether ad-hoc or scheduled, could look and feel like in-person interactions and better emulate the culture that people would want to have if they were all in an office together. They probably aren’t going to feel like a so-called “water cooler” conversation any time soon. But, the old adage applies — you can’t change what you don’t measure. People need to be in the loop, at its center, and able to learn from and interact with these insights directly. If we can discover and surface these insights for individuals and teams, working online has an opportunity to get a whole lot better.