Why calls are disruptive to work

It is well known in my company that I don’t like phone calls. I mean – they are useful at times, but they have their time and place. For most normal office communication, it is far easier to do it using chat or mail, and less disruptive to your normal work day.

Until recently, I hadn’t been able to really articulate why phone calls (this includes Meet / Zoom / Teams / whatever) are disruptive to work, but recently had an epiphany when I was either drunk or hungover (can’t remember which now) during/after a recent company party.

Earlier that day, during the said party, one colleague (let’s call him C1) had told me about another colleague (let’s call him C2) and his (C2’s) penchant for phone calls. “Sometimes we would have written a long detailed document”, C1 said, “and then C2 will say, ‘I have to make one small point here. Can you please call me?’. He’s just the opposite of you”

I don’t know why after this I started thinking about circuit switching and packet switching. And then I realised why I hate random office calls.

Currently I use a Jio connection for my phone. The thing with Ji0 (and 4G in general, I think) is that it uses packet switching for phone calls – it uses the same data network for calls as well. This is different from earlier 2G (and 3G as well, if I’m not wrong) networks where calls were made on a different voice (circuit switching) network. Back then, if you got a call, your phone’s data connection would get interrupted – no packages could be sent because your phone was connected through a circuit. It was painful.

Now, with packet switching for phone calls as well, the call “packets” and the browsing “packets” can coexist and co-travel on the “pipes” connecting the phone to the tower and the wide world beyond. So you can take phone calls while still using data.

Phone calls in the middle of work disrupt work in exactly the same way.

The thing with chatting with someone while you’re working is that you can multitask. You send a message and by the time they reply you might have written a line of code, or sent another message to someone else. This means chatting doesn’t really disrupt work -it might slow down work (since you’re also doing work in smaller packets now), but your work goes on. Your other chats go on. You don’t put your life on hold because of this call.

A work phone call (especially if it has to be a video call) completely disrupts this network. Suddenly you have to give one person (or persons) at the end of the line your complete undivided attention. Work gets put on hold. Your other conversations get put on hold. The whole world slows down for you.

And once you hang up, you have the issue of gathering the context again on what you were doing and what you were thinking about and the context of different conversations (this is a serious problem for me). Everything gets disrupted. Sometimes it is even difficult to start working again.

I don’t know if this issue is specific to me because of my ADHD (and hence the issues in restarting work). Actually – ADHD leads to another problem. You might be hyper focussing on one thing at work, and when you get a call you are still hyper focussed on the same thing. And that means you can’t really pay attention to the call you are on, and can end up saying some shit. With chat / email, you don’t need to respond to everything immediately, so you can wait until the hyper focus is over!

In any case, I’m happy that I have the reputation I have, that I don’t like doing calls and prefer to do everything through text. The only downside I can think of of this is that you have to put everything in writing.

PSA: Google Calendar now allows you to put “focus time” on your own calendar. So far I haven’t used it too much but plan to use it more in the near future.

 

Missing BRacket

Last night then-classmate now-colleague Baada and I were having a long bitchy conversation, mostly carried over text messages (SMS). As the conversation developed and grew in intricacy, several threads developed. This is not unusual for a conversation with Baada – it usually takes on several dimensions, and it always helps having a mechanism to keep track of all the threads simultaneously.

That’s when we realized how much we miss BRacket, the local instant messaging system we had at IIMB (a version of DBabble). I might have written this before but the beauty of BRacket was that conversation was “offline”. There was no chat window, and you would reply to individual messages, like you would in email. While on one hand this allowed “offline conversation”,i..e. the conversation didn’t die if one person respond immediately like it can happen in Y!M/GTalk, the more important thing was that by having conversation history in each thread, this allowed for some serious multithreaded conversation.

While instant text messaging offers the former feature (you can reply to a message several hours later and still continue the conversation), the latter feature is lost. There’s no way to keep track of threads, and like a bad juggler you soon end up losing track of half the threads and the conversation peters out.

I don’t know if DBabble is still widely used elsewhere but it’s death knell in IIMB was sounded when Sigma (the student IT club) in its infinite wisdom allowed for a “chat mode”. Along with the conventional offline messaging system, it also gave the option of Y!M style chat windows. And having been used to Y!M, batches junior to mine started using this chat feature extensively. The immediate rewards of using it were huge – no need to hit “send” (I’ve even forgotten the keyboard shortcut for that), no need to open a new message each time it arrives, and so on.

While we held up the virtues of “old BRacket” (like i used to refuse to reply when juniors pinged me in chat mode. A notable exception being the famous “Pichai files”) there was no one to do that after we graduated. I’m told that the incoming batch of 2006 exclusively used chat mode. The two major advantages that BRacket offered over “window chat” were gone. GTalk came up sometime around then, and with its better and faster servers (the IIMB network was notoriously slow) it could easily offer as good if not better services than BRacket. It was clear then that BRacket would die.

I’m told that now no one uses BRacket. I don’t even have it installed on my last two computers. Unfortunately no other “offline-messaging” technology has quite caught on since then. And so I miss multithreaded conversation. It’s very sad, I tell you. I wonder if even DBabble is still used extensively.

It’s fascinating how some technology dies. You come up with a purported “improvement” which offers short-term gains, and catches people’s fancy. While people flock to the “improved version” in hordes, it turns out that the features that made ┬áthe original version so popular are now lost. And this new version has competition, and so the technology itself gets killed. All because of some purported “innovation”.