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.

 

Zoom in, zoom out

It was early on in the lockdown that the daughter participated in her first ever Zoom videoconference. It was an extended family call, with some 25 people across 9 or 10 households.

It was chaotic, to say the least. Family call meant there was no “moderation” of the sort you see in work calls (“mute yourself unless you’re speaking”, etc.). Each location had an entire family, so apart from talking on the call (which was chaotic with so many people anyways), people started talking among themselves. And that made it all the more chaotic.

Soon the daughter was shouting that it was getting too loud, and turned my computer volume down to the minimum (she’s figured out most of my computer controls in the last 2 months). After that, she lost interest and ran away.

A couple of weeks later, the wife was on a zoom call with a big group of her friends, and asked the daughter if she wanted to join. “I hate zoom, it’s too loud”, the daughter exclaimed and ran away.

Since then she has taken part in a couple of zoom calls, organised by her school. She sat with me once when I chatted with a (not very large) group of school friends. But I don’t think she particularly enjoys Zoom, or large video calls. And you need to remember that she is a “video call native“.

The early days of the lockdown were ripe times for people to turn into gurus, and make predictions with the hope that nobody would ever remember them in case they didn’t come through (I indulged in some of this as well). One that made the rounds was that group video calling would become much more popular and even replace group meetings (especially in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic).

I’m not so sure. While the rise of video calling has indeed given me an excuse to catch up “visually” with friends I haven’t seen in ages, I don’t see that much value from group video calls, after having participated in a few. The main problem is that there can, at a time, be only one channel of communication.

A few years back I’d written about the “anti two pizza rule” for organising parties, where I said that if you have a party, you should either have five or fewer guests, or ten or more (or something of the sort). The idea was that five or fewer can indeed have one coherent conversation without anyone being left out. Ten or more means the group naturally splits into multiple smaller groups, with each smaller group able to have conversations that add value to them.

In between (6-9 people) means it gets awkward – the group is too small to split, and too large to have one coherent conversation, and that makes for a bad party.

Now take that online. Because we have only one audio channel, there can only be one conversation for the entire group. This means that for a group of 10 or above, any “cross talk” needs to be necessarily broadcast, and that interferes with the main conversation of the group. So however large the group size of the online conversation, you can’t split the group. And the anti two pizza rule becomes “anti greater than or equal to two pizza rule”.

In other words, for an effective online conversation, you need to have four (or at max five) participants. Else you can risk the group getting unwieldy, some participants feeling left out or bored, or so much cross talk that nobody gets anything out of it.

So Zoom (or any other video chat app) is not going to replace any of our regular in-person communication media. It might to a small extent in the immediate wake of the pandemic, when people are afraid to meet large groups, but it will die out after that. OK, that is one more prediction from my side.

In related news, I swore off lecturing in Webinars some five years ago. Found it really stressful to lecture without the ability to look into the eyes of the “students”. I wonder if teachers worldwide who are being forced to lecture online because of the shut schools feel the way I do.

Hanging out on Hangouts

The covid-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the way we work, and I thikn some things we are not going to get back. For the foreseeable future, at least, even after official lockdowns have been lifted, people will be hesitant to meet each other.

This means that meetings that used to earlier happen in person are now going to happen on video calls. People will say that video calls can never replace the face-to-face meetings, and that they are suboptimal, especially for things like sales, account management, relationship management, etc.

The main reason why face-to-face interactions are generally superior to voice or video calls is that the latter is considered transactional. Let’s say I decide to meet you for some work-related thing. We meet in one of our offices, or a coffee ¬†shop, or a bar, and indulge in pleasantaries. We talk about the traffic, about coffee, about food, do some random gossip, discuss common connects, and basically just hang out with each other for a while before we get down to work.

While these pleasantaries and “hanging out” can be considered to be a sort of transaction cost, it is important that we do it, since it helps in building relationships and getting more comfortable with each other. And once you’ve gotten comfortable with someone you are likely (at the margin) to do more business with them, and have a more fruitful relationship.

This kind of pleasantaries is not common on a phone call (or a video call). Usually phone calls have more well defined start and end boundaries than in-person meetings. It is rather common for people to just get started off on the topic of discussion rather than getting to know one another, cracking jokes, discussing the weather and all that.

If we need video and phone calls to become more effective in the coming months (at least as long as people aren’t stepping out), it is imperative that we learn to “hang out on hangouts”. We need to spend some time in the beginning of meetings with random discussions and gossip. We need to be less transactional. This transaction cost is small compared to the benefit of effectively replicating in-person meetings.

However, hanging out on hangouts doesn’t come easily to us – it’s not “natural”. The way to get around it is through practice.

On Sunday night, on a whim, I got onto a group video call with a bunch of college friends. Midway through the call I wondered what we were doing. Most of the discussion was pointless. But it gave us an opportunity to “hang out” with each other in a way we hadn’t for a long time (because we live in different places).

Overall, it was super fun, and since then I’ve been messaging different groups of friends saying we should do group video chats. Hopefully some of those will fructify. Along with the immediate fun to be had, they will also help me prepare better for “hanging out” at the beginning of my work meetings.

I think you should do them, too.