One of the things that fascinates me about dotcom-esque companies is the balance between being a fun little gang and a serious grown-up company. At some point during the journey from being three people in a cupboard to an Aeron-chaired corporation with a swanky board room a certain amount of “growing up” takes place. The UpMyStreet senior management, for example, were hell bent on wrenching the company into what passes for adulthood while many employees were content with a state of easy-going adolescence. In my limited experience there is always one rite of passage that marks this painful growth: the sanitisation of the company-wide email list.
Start-ups generally have a mailing list to which everyone in the company is subscribed, handy for news of website updates, mentions in the press and company announcements. Of course, in a laid-back company of, say, a dozen people, the list will also be home to plenty of amusing URLs, jokes and argument over the evening’s pub. Inevitably, there comes a point where management decides the list should host only official company business and all the incidental chatter should, as if by magic, disappear.
This may well seem like a sensible and simple rule; after all, what would investors or board members think if it seemed the workers spent all their time exchanging rude jokes? However, an outright ban on such behaviour is not only pointless — chat will always find another home — but can also drastically harm relations in the company. This management decree is effectively saying to workers, “Your conversation is not important to this company and we don’t want to hear it.” Not a message an enlightened dotcom management would ever put down in so many words. Handling this inevitable situation can be tricky and will only ever sweep the chatter out of sight, rather than eradicate it.
The firstname.lastname@example.org list remained intact for several months before the Wired UK management decided it should be serious and work-only, lest the Americans watching over our shoulders read something they shouldn’t. The alternative Haddock mailing list was born for the “fun stuff” and, perhaps unusually, friends outside the company were invited; perhaps this is why the list survives six years after Wired UK folded.
At Syzygy the company-wide list survived unharmed for longer but eventually this too had to be tamed, so an alternative and unofficial list was created for general chat away from the watchful eyes of senior management.
The way in which UpMyStreet handled a similar situation is a textbook case of how not to do it. There were two mailing lists: one typical list through which anyone could send an email to the rest of the company, and an announcement-only list for important messages from a handful of authorised people. (The announcement list was born so those who hated the chatter had a way of only reading company business.) How was the conventional company-wide list tamed? By simply shutting it down without warning and declaring its demise on the announcement list.
Within minutes confused heads began popping up from behind monitors as everyone looked around them for an explanation. Emails bounced around the office, dragged by lengthy CC headers, looking for rumours and reasons. Before long a Yahoo! Group was set up and is still going today. Eventually a new company-wide list was born, solely for official business. (When senior management were made redundant by the administrators this list enjoyed a week of happy anarchy as it was reclaimed by remaining staff.)
Handling this corporate rite of passage in an insensitive manner will create unwelcome features of an adult company: an “us and them” attitude for example. In UpMyStreet’s case it suddenly changed (in my eyes, and I suspect, others’) from an inclusive and friendly place to a company in which management was only interested in broadcasting to the workers, rather than engaging in a conversation. Banning chat on a company-wide mailing list may ease the load on a management Inbox but it’s also a great way to demotivate everyone else.
Unless you’re planning to read all email sent within your company there’s no way to eradicate chatter; it will always find a way. So I’d imagine the best tactic would be to provide a compulsory “work only” list and an optional “anything goes” list from the beginning. But I’ve yet to see it done this way. I’d be fascinated to hear how other companies handled this particular growing pain…