Email, instant messenger, video calls, meetings, message boards – the “always on, always available” approach isn’t working. Instead of making collaboration easier, a sum of different communication tools interrupt our focus and pull us away from meaningful work on a daily basis.
But the problem doesn’t just lie with our tools. There is a right time and place for communication; effective communication in the workplace simply requires a little structure. Here’s where most of us are going wrong and how a simple communication framework can help.
Communication is central to almost everything we do, and yet most of us barely give it a second thought. We fall into habits of using tools without ever really understanding their value, and in doing so perpetuate huge daily time drains.
Take email for example. How much time do you think you spend on it each day? Well, research by The Economist suggests that email accounts for approximately 23% of your workday, and that the average employee check their email 36 times an hour.
Now factor in your weekly and monthly meetings. Approximately 15% of an organization’s time is spent on meetings, and the US economy alone wastes $25 million per day on ones that are completely unnecessary.
Add to that all other communications that crop up throughout your day – like phone calls, stand-ups, video conferencing, work tool message boards and colleagues dropping by your desk. Teams are increasingly using instant messenger-style platforms like Slack for daily project communication, but their “immediacy” can actually lead to chronic interruption. Given that it takes about 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction, the cumulative impact of incessant internal communication is frightening.
The Economist has lovingly represented it in this communications hell grid:
Want to know how you're doing? Track internal communication to know how much time you actually spend on it.
Beyond the unreasonable amounts of time we spend on workplace communication, the distraction it creates can massively limit our individual productivity. But why are we so bad at communicating exactly?
Well, in part it’s down to our tools. The disruptive potential of our tools is undeniable – they interrupt us with notifications, phone pushes, sound effects and vibrations. Part of the reason Slack is seen as so “dangerous”, is because it’s so easy to use. A harmless “quick” ping can see you sucked into solving a much heftier problem.
That’s partly a human problem – we’re using the wrong tool for the wrong type of query – but it’s also an unhappy consequence of having a highly social design that mimics the ease and immediacy of personal instant messenger apps. Our tools simply make every communication seem urgent.
But even if you haven’t got your Slack or email app open, you know it could be quietly updating in the background at every moment. Without boundaries or “off” buttons, we’ve essentially developed a form of communications anxiety – needing to see if anything has arrived in our inbox while our attention was elsewhere, before being able to continue whatever we’re doing.
To a degree that’s socially programmed; you don’t want to ignore people or leave someone hanging in the email ether. But it’s also the result of a lack of distinct boundaries. Without knowing how to interact with our tools, or even what sorts of communications go where, we end up with a free-for-all approach.
And it’s a powerful cocktail: people push information on inappropriate platforms, different communications “get lost” and require you to painfully comb to hunt them down, and – worse still – things are miscommunicated.
Ultimately, to make team communication more meaningful, we need to put more thought into what we’re saying from the very start. Laying out a simple structure for communication can go a huge way towards improving its quality.
And it really doesn’t have to be heavy. Start your own communications framework by just clarifying these key points:
Just as email is not the right place for group project communication, Slack is not the right place for high-level discussions and making major decisions. To avoid miscommunication, pulling people out of their deep work zone for something inappropriate, or losing messages to the wrong platform, make sure you lay out what each of your channels is for. If you use one more than others, consider setting up user guidelines to keep everything structured and logical – see these great Slack guidelines for inspiration!
Set productive boundaries for how you will engage with communicationthey. “Availability hours” have proven to be extremely productive (especially for email), and structure when different team members will check their communication apps. It’s essential if you’re a chronic “checker”.
We often end up using the wrong communication platform for the job because the main one our team uses doesn’t serve our purposes. Never settle into using a tool that over-complicates or confuses your communication. Keep testing the appropriateness of your tools and discard those that aren’t working.
Requiring preparation, physical organization, follow-ups and several people around the table – meetings are extremely resource intensive. So always consider if it’s the most appropriate medium for solving your problem. Use video conferencing where possible to mitigate the impact of travelling for meetings, and consider using an opt-in policy so only those who actually need to contribute attend.
Sometimes, notifications can be useful. Often, they’re just purely disruptive – especially if someone pings you in the evening from another time zone. Get familiar with how to set notification preferences for your tools – like how to mute Slack notifications and turn off phone pushes. Control what you see when.
Meaningful communication is considered. Don’t just flood colleagues with a stream of disjointed requests. Instead, consider how you can make your communication more useful and productive. Can you group several queries into one? Can you reduce back-and-forth by providing context and linking to resources? Does your question require urgent attention, or can it wait? Qualify your requests and consider whether the colleague you’re contacting has enough information to know what you’re asking.
This is essential if you work in an office. You need ways to signal when you’re available and when you’re not to be disturbed. Headphone rules, blocking time in a public calendar, moving work to a meeting room, or working remotely to focus on big tasks – there are a ton of ways of approaching this.