When I first joined the Flowdock team, my natural tendency was to start a 1-to-1 chat when I wanted to discuss a topic that was mostly relevant to one person. More often than not, their reply was: “Why not discuss this in the team’s flow?”. It took quite a few of these responses before I understood what the other person was trying to say: we create more value by having conversations in public instead of behind closed doors.

It turned out that my reasons for turning to 1-to-1 conversation were based on false assumptions:

  1. Ideas should be developed in private. While this can sometimes be necessary, more often than not, input from others helps you view ideas from a different perspective, resulting in a more fully formed end result.

  2. Others aren’t interested in it. As a sender of information, who are you to decide what others are interested in? Shouldn’t it be the listener’s right to decide if they can add value to a conversation? Even if you don’t have anything to contribute, you can still learn from listening to a conversation. Getting an answer or piece of insight from someone you didn’t expect is common when you start moving your discussions out into the open.

  3. I’m distracting others. While this would have been true with previous communication channels, Flowdock has a built-in feature that allows people to follow – and most importantly, mentally filter out – specific discussions in a chat context: conversation threads.

Conversation threads

If you’re like most people, the majority of your messages in a chat room are replies or comments to a previous message. When replying in Flowdock, you can point out the message you’re replying to by clicking on the speech bubble next to the original message.

Start a thread with a reply

This will open the conversation thread on top of the team inbox. By replying on the left-hand side of Flowdock, you’re adding your message to that conversation. This is indicated by the colored message bubbles that appear next to the messages in the chat column. Hovering over a chat message will also highlight the other messages that belong to that conversation.

Even though this requires one extra step, the benefits are huge:

  1. Readers understand context. By clicking on the chat bubble next to your chat message, the whole conversation (and thus context) opens up with a single click. Readers understand what you are commenting on. And you don’t always have to explicitly say what you’re commenting on.

  2. Reading a conversation is easy. If someone wants to read a conversation from beginning to end, they can do so without having to see unrelated messages.

  3. No need to parse each message. Whenever you encounter a new message, the colored chat bubble tells you what the message is about. This helps you answer the question: “Is this message relevant to me?”.

  4. You can have multiple simultaneous conversations. With the help of a few colors, you can now have many conversations going on at once without losing the ability to follow (or ignore) them easily.

Many simultaneous threads

The most important benefit, however, is that you no longer need to fear distracting your teammates, and can start more conversations out in the open. By being able to quickly understand the context of a message, team members won’t be overloaded by messages that (mostly) don’t concern them.

Pro tip: If you want to cycle through discussions in a flow, just press Shift + Up/Down when you have the chat entry box focused. When you’re chatting, replying to the latest message is only a Shift + Up away.

Making work visible

Changing my habit of defaulting to 1-to-1 communication has taken concentrated effort. It’s a habit that has been partly learned from email, where “best practices” include having as few people as possible in the ‘To’ field so as to not fill recipients’ inboxes unnecessarily. But learning this new habit didn’t take long, since the value was clear: I was getting higher quality responses to my comments faster. And since everyone was doing this, the whole team had a better understanding of what was going on.

When teams start moving from siloed, behind-closed-doors conversations to public ones, the teams themselves aren’t the only ones that benefit. You no longer have to be a part of a team to understand what they are doing. By joining their flow, the team inbox communicates what the team is working on, and the chat acts as a transcript of what has been discussed – i.e. the problems, solutions, questions and answers of daily work. Outsiders can join to be observers, or even take part in the work.

The ability for outsiders to have access to the team and the team’s information removes the need for at least two wasteful activities inside organizations: status meetings and reporting. With transparency towards work (through the team inbox) and towards discussions (threaded, public conversations), what the team is working on and how they are progressing becomes apparent.

Changing an organization to be open and transparent is a huge undertaking, but one that has tremendous benefits. Luckily, kickstarting the change can be as easy as moving your own conversations out into the open.