Reminding someone they’re behind on a project can be awkward. Reminding someone they’re behind on a project during an all-hands meeting, in front of the entire company, is worse.
This is an extreme example of a subtle point: The context in which you say a thing changes how people experience the thing, and the meaning of the thing. Call someone out for being behind during an all-hands meeting, and your employees will inevitably wonder why you did that in front of so many people. Everyone will question your motives—and they’ll be right to.
Zapier is an entirely remote company, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still learning how to work remotely. One of the values we have for making it work is “default to transparency.” The idea is that you should do most of your work in public channels so that everyone else can contribute ideas if they want to—it’s a way to replicate the serendipitous interactions that happen in physical offices. It’s a great ideal, but there’s a reason we say transparency should be the default instead of mandatory.
Public messages can feel like calling people out
Zapier is full of extremely talented writers who don’t write for a living, and the best part of my job here is helping turn posts written for our internal blog into posts here on our public blog.
The challenge: The people I’m collaborating with are all busy. This is a large company, with a lot of projects on the go—writing blog posts is going to be a side project for most of the engineering or support staff. I understand this, but I want to regularly remind people that I’m around if they need help. For this reason, I like to message my collaborators, once a week, just to see how it’s going.
I could do this in a public channel, in front of the rest of my coworkers. I don’t.
Doing that would feel like I’m publicly calling someone out for being behind on a project, and that’s not the case—these articles aren’t time-sensitive. So I always send these prompts privately, in a tone that makes it clear I’m here to support them however they need.
Private messages, in this context, are less confrontational. I try to be downright casual, maybe even referencing the fact that I’m following up in a jokey way.
This is just one example, of course. There are other situations you might want to keep private, even if you’re mostly committed to transparency. If you’re offering constructive feedback, for example, it’s probably kindest to do that in private, because suggesting improvements is delicate enough without an audience. Even small talk is different in public than it is in private.
The observer effect
What it comes down to is that observing things changes them. In physics, there’s a name for this: the observer effect.
To oversimplify, the tools you use to measure something can actually change it. You do this every time you check the tire pressure on your car; for example, the gauge works by releasing just a little bit of air. In that case, the observer effect is so small that it barely makes a difference, but for some physics experiments, the tools measuring something can completely change the results.
I think this is an interesting framework for thinking about communicating in public. Saying something in front of a group of people doesn’t just change how many people hear it—it can also change the meaning. Imagine if I’d sent Katie the above message in a public channel—would it feel like I was just offering a friendly reminder? Or would it feel like I was intentionally trying to make her feel bad?
This doesn’t mean every conversation should happen in private—transparency can still be the default. It just means you need to be aware.
Context collapse versus collaboration
I, like a lot of people, stopped posting my thoughts openly on a certain social media site when my parents and in-laws got accounts. Talking casually with friends, only for your mom to comment on how much profanity you use, simply isn’t a great way to relax. It’s called context collapse, and it’s stressful.
There’s a similar reality at work. Posting something in a public channel means anyone in the organization can comment on it. At Zapier, we think this is great in most contexts because it allows all kinds of ideas to percolate—particularly when it comes to brainstorming. At some stages, though, you and your direct collaborators need to focus on the task at hand, and that might mean taking the conversation to private messages or a meeting. It’s not that you don’t value feedback—it’s just that constant feedback from everyone can be overwhelming, and right now you need to focus on the task at hand.
My editor and I, for example, switch contexts multiple times while working on an article. The initial pitch will happen in a public Slack channel, #blog, allowing anyone in the company to offer a few ideas—which people do, quite often.
I then submit my first draft in a public channel that far fewer people use—not because I’m trying to hide the editing process and more because it is very boring.
We’ll then talk out a few more details over private messages, usually because it’s quicker than finding the original thread.
It’s a workflow that works for us—we get the benefits of broader collaboration when it’s helpful, toward the beginning of the process, but allow ourselves to focus on direct collaboration in the later stages.
Working out what should and shouldn’t be public is tricky. This is why it’s worth regularly asking your coworkers whether a conversation should happen in a private or public channel, or whether anyone else should be brought into the private conversation. Remember: You’re not trying to hide anything. You’re just trying to get things done.
Communication is hard, particularly online. Emojis don’t always mean what you think, and you might not know when to mute. But it’s worth thinking about how your words impact other people because ultimately, that’s how you can make sure you’re understood. That matters—in work and the rest of your life.