THE PANDEMIC has given a big shove to all forms of digital communication. Video-conferencing platforms are now a common verb. After watching virtual pitches, venture capitalists place their bets. Loom and mmhmm allow workers to send prerecorded video messages directly to their coworkers. Slack’s audio feature allows users to communicate with each other by “huddling”. This is more than a third the number of Slack users who use it each week. All this happens before the metaverse transforms everyone into an avatar.
A workplace dominated by time on screens may seem bound to favour newer, faster and more visual ways of transmitting information. But an old form of communication–writing–is also flourishing. Not just quick emails or entries on virtual whiteboards. Slow, laborious writing is also flourishing. The pandemic has not diminished the strengths of the written word. They are in some ways ideally suited for it. *
The value of writing is a staple in management thinking. Lee Iacocca, an American auto industry titan, said that “The discipline of writing down is the first step towards making it happen.” Jeff Bezos banned slide decks from meetings of senior Amazon executives back in 2004, in favour of well-structured memos. He wrote that PowerPoint-style presentations “give permission to gloss over ideas.”
Some executives write for themselves. Andrew Bosworth is a Meta (previously Facebook) executive who has a blog where he writes interestingly about a variety of topics. Warren Buffett and Larry Fink have sharedholder letters that are the corporate equivalent to a blockbuster novel launch.
But the move to remote working has enhanced the value of writing to the entire organisation, not just the corner office. Comprehensive documentation is essential when tasks are being given to colleagues from other locations or people work on a project “asynchronously”. This means at their own time. New employees want to know the background before they start working on something. Veteran employees should not leave behind knowledge when they leave an organization. It can be a great pain to write everything down. It’s not easy to show up at a meeting without knowing what was agreed upon the last time.
Software developers have already worked out the value of the written word. Google conducted a research program to determine the components of successful technology projects. It found that software delivered by teams with high-quality documentation is more reliable and faster. Gitlab is a code-hosting site whose workers are remote. It asks: “How could I communicate this message, present this work or make this project move forward right now if nobody on my team (or my company) was awake?” The answer is textual communication. Its gospel is a handbook that is publicly available, stretches to more than 3,000 pages and lays out all of its internal processes.
The deliberation and discipline required by writing is helpful in other contexts, too. Slack uses Brainwriting, a brainstorming technique that allows participants to take their time before the discussion starts. It can be difficult to make greeting cards with a list of corporate values. But thoughtful codification of a firm’s cult