JTHE PANDEMIC has given a big boost to all forms of digital communication. Video conferencing platforms have become verbs. Venture capitalists make their bets after watching virtual slots. Products like Loom and mmhmm help workers send pre-recorded video messages to co-workers. Every week, more than a third of Slack users “huddle up” using the product’s new audio feature to talk to each other. And all this before the metaverse turns everyone into an avatar.
A workplace dominated by screen time may seem compelled to favor newer, faster and more visual means of transmitting information. But an ancient form of communication, writing, is also flourishing. And not just emails and dashed entries on virtual whiteboards, but slow, time-consuming writing. The strengths of the written word have not been diminished by the pandemic era. In some ways, they’re perfectly suited for it.*
The value of writing is an essential part of managerial thinking. “The discipline to write something is the first step to getting there,” said Lee Iacocca, a titan of the American auto industry. Jeff Bezos banned slides from Amazon executive meetings in 2004, in favor of well-structured memos. “PowerPoint-style presentations kind of gloss over ideas,” he wrote.
Some executives write for themselves. Andrew Bosworth, a Meta (formerly Facebook) bigwig, has a blog in which he reflects in an interesting way on many topics, including the writing itself: “In my experience, the discussion expands the space of possibilities while writing reduces it to its most essential components. “Others do it to reach an audience. Shareholder letters from Larry Fink and Warren Buffett are the corporate equivalent of a blockbuster book launch.
But the shift to remote working has reinforced the value of writing for the entire organization, not just the corner office. When tasks are assigned to colleagues in other locations or people are working on a project “asynchronously”, i.e. at a time of their choosing, thorough documentation is crucial. When new employees start working on something, they want to know the story. When veterans leave an organization, they must leave their knowledge behind. Writing everything down feels like an almighty pain. But the same goes for showing up to a meeting and not having any fogginess about what was decided last time.
Software developers have already calculated the value of the written word. A Google research program on the ingredients of successful technology projects found that teams with high-quality documentation deliver software faster and more reliably. Gitlab, a code-hosting platform with an all-remote workforce, defines the secret to successful asynchronous work thus: “How could I convey this message, present this work, or move this project forward right now if no one else on my team (or in my company) were awake?” Gitlab’s answer is “text-based communication.” Its gospel is a publicly available manual, spanning over 3,000 pages and exposes all its internal processes.
The deliberation and discipline required by writing is also useful in other contexts. “Brainwriting” is a brainstorming technique, used among others by Slack, in which participants have time to pose their ideas before the discussion begins. Corporate values lists can make greeting cards seem impactful. But a thoughtful codification of a company’s culture makes more sense in hybrid and remote workplaces, where newcomers are less likely to meet and observe their colleagues.
Purists will sniff that none of this counts as writing. But good prose and useful prose share the same essential qualities: brevity, structure, clear theme. Cormac McCarthy, an award-winning novelist, edits scientific papers for fun. Ted Chiang says his science fiction short stories and his technical writing are both inspired by a desire to explain an idea clearly.
Writing isn’t always the best way to communicate at work. Video is more memorable; a phone call is faster; even PowerPoint has its place. But for the structured thinking it demands and the ease with which it can be shared and edited, writing is made for remote work.
*Cynical readers may question a hymn written in a publication that sells a polished style guide and runs courses on business writing. They are invited to write.
Learn more from Bartleby, our management and labor columnist:
The rise of performative work (January 8, 2022)
A Note from the Boss on Apology Inflation (January 1, 2022)
The Beatles and the Art of Teamwork (December 18, 2021)
This article appeared in the Business section of the paper edition under the title “From remote work and writing”