Technological innovation has driven human progress for hundreds of years, with the pace of advancement continuously increasing. In the last two centuries we’ve gone from steam-powered machines and the industrial revolution to the internet and the information age, with the worldwide web now connecting nearly every corner of the globe.
Thanks to this period of rapid technological advancement, our workplaces have evolved virtually beyond all recognition in the last century alone. How and where we work is now vastly different – and so are the tools we use to communicate with our colleagues.
First, computers transformed the workplace and the way we worked. Then, the internet took things a step further, enabling real-time collaboration between workers in every corner of the world. Today, smartphones and 4G LTE mean that we can work from anywhere, at any time, in what has become known as the always-on economy.
Naturally, these advancements have created some challenges for effective communication. Workplaces have become more dispersed, for example, leading to the development of real-time collaboration tools that help teams work better together.
So, when we look back at the history of workplace communication, we see a story of technology reshaping the way we work together. Here are some of the highlights:
It all started with a memo
At the turn of the nineteenth century, letters had already been a staple of human communication for a few centuries. In the business world, letters were formal, descriptive messages with little to no technical jargon that were primarily used to communicate with external parties – i.e. clients and customers.
However, as letters weren’t the most efficient method of communication, memos became commonplace in the workplace by the 1920s. Memo is a shorter form of the word memorandum, whose Latin origin translates to ‘something to be noted’ or ‘something to be brought to mind.’ This means they were shorter and more informal than letters, and the use of jargon was acceptable – making them ideal for internal use. They were used to create a “paper trail” for future reference, primarily for actions such as requesting specific information from colleagues, responding to previous questions, sharing new information, or providing instructions.
Memos were typically written and sealed into “routing envelopes” to be picked up, processed, sorted, and delivered by mailroom clerks and postmasters – signifying an era of direct instruction, rather than casual dialogue.
Despite all their benefits, the limitations of memos soon became clear. For example, they were rarely used to deliver positive, uplifting information, and were largely associated with passive-aggressive office rants. More importantly, memos were still a slow means of communication and required businesses to operate mailrooms at every office.
You’ve got mail
It might sound strange, but email actually appeared before the advent of the internet, with the earliest forms of electronic messaging first being developed in the 1960s for time-sharing systems like the DTSS.
Skipping ahead through the PC revolution, the birth of the internet and Ray Tomlinson’s “clever hack” helped email become the primary means of workplace communication. Businesses saved money on paper, stationeries, and mail rooms. Employees could now send and receive information to one or many people instantly and emails could still be printed and shared physically if needed.
Several decades later, email is still the king of workplace communication. According to a 2018 study, more than 3.8 billion people now use email – more than half the world’s population – exchanging over 293 billion emails a day. In the modern workplace, the average employee receives around 121 emails and sends out 40 business emails every day.
However, even email is too slow for modern business. An email today is fundamentally the same as a memo or letter from the 1960s (except for the faster delivery), and threads with multiple people sending replies every few minutes to discuss a project can quickly become confusing and long-winded. But, thanks to technology, we’ve been able to take things a step further.
Enter the era of instant messaging
Driven by team chat tools like Flock, Slack and Microsoft Teams, businesses are now able to communicate in real-time from any corner of the world. While they were previously seen as too informal and distracting, workplace collaboration tools that enable instant messaging are now the order of the day, enabling efficient business communication and fostering learning-friendly cultures.
The reality is that team chat platforms have made modern workplaces happier, more open, and more productive by removing all barriers to effective and instant communication. With one-to-one chats, group conversations in channels, video calls, and file sharing, modern team chat tools offer almost everything employees need to communicate and collaborate effectively. The best ones also integrate with other business apps and services, enabling employees to have all their work in one place.
So, does this mean that email is dead? Not at all. Email still has a vital role to play, especially when it comes to more extended discussions where context-setting is essential.
The reality is that team chat and email can coexist perfectly well to enable effective real-time and asynchronous workplace communication. Looking forward, a key aspect of using these communication technologies as we become a deeper part of hyper-connected workplaces will be our ability to integrate them into our lives without them becoming overly intrusive.
That’s why features that enable users to provide presence information are so important. This lets us know when co-workers are away, with enabling ‘Do Not Disturb’ being one way to make time for deep work, and to separate work hours from time with our loved ones.
As we look back through history, it’s clear that workplace communication has come an incredibly long way, and technology has helped to greatly expand our possibilities at work. The right tools are out there for any business that is ready to have meaningful and productive conversations with their team – and they’re only going to become more intuitive over the years to come.
Bhavin Turakhia, Founder and CEO of Flock