24 August 2011

The (unexpected) blessing of Chat

I remember back when my work first switch to our current email service, Google Apps, from the old antiquated one, a private offering. The old service provided basic email services, 100mb of space and no calendaring or document sharing support. For its time it was normal, compared to now it was dismal. As I was proposing the switch from the old service (which we paid for) to the new service (which was free at the time) I was explaining the benefits of Google Apps: Gmail was a smarter email system, shared calendaring, Docs and Spreadsheets that have only got better with time, Chat to allow instant communication, and of course, Free. I think it was the word "free" that won out in the end, but I remember that Chat was of particular concern. Mostly, the management was concerned that employees would abuse it.

Fast forward four years to yesterday: My work just announced the opening a new location. While the new store will not be open for several weeks (the actual opening date has not been announce) the announcement alone has caused a fervor of activity. There are computers to get ready, inventory to order, people to hire and plans to put down. I, being a remote worker, do not have the normal luxury of roaming in and out of offices to get the answers to questions I have about the opening. How many computer terminals do we need? Who is the store manager? What dates have been announced? How will the new store effect back end staffing? Each of these is a pressing question that needs to be answered sooner rather than later: they each effect a series of other choices that need to be made.

Features such as a live shared calendar are good to be able to track dates on a unified calendar; we are using a Google Spreadsheet to track assignments, record progress notes and completion of tasks. But it is Chat, the Google instant messaging service built into Gmail, that is proving to be most helpful with getting quick responses to simple, but important questions. The one service that we feared would be damaging is invaluable. Unlike email, Chat has a more immediate and pressing presence and allows for quicker back and forth communication and the resolution of additional questions that arise.

This instant communication is good for handling questions, but there is more to it than just question answering. Chat allows remote workers, whether it is me several hundred miles away from the company or the Customer Service Office just a few miles away from the Corporate Office, that help us feel closer together. Close enough to vent our frustrations, tell jokes and even share pictures all the while remaining productive and active in our respective offices. In some ways, I think Chat allows us the benefit of both worlds: distance brings us more productivity because it puts us closer to what each of us manages (the Customer Service people are closer to the warehouse people they work closely with, the Admin people are closer to their records, the merchandiser are closer to their catalogs and I am closer to my phone) while also allowing us to feel a sense of connectedness and camaraderie that improves moral and binds us together.

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