productive online communication

Principles for Productive Online Communication

March 19, 2020

Rewind 20 years and you would be hard-pressed to find sufficient tools for productive online communication. Today, most have the opposite problem. The abundance of work-related communication platforms creates confusion, redundancy, and of course, endless interruptions. As a manager at a well-known tech company shared in a recent group training, “If someone needs something from me after normal work hours, they’ll first ping me on Slack. If I don’t respond within minutes, then I’ll receive a Gchat message. If I still don’t respond, I’m likely to get a text or direct message.”

As COVID-19 pushes many in-office workers into remote work, many are compensating for the lack of physical interaction by leaning fully into all forms of online communication. This may help ease the transition, but ultimately, it will exacerbate the over-communication challenges that already plague most workplaces.

To find out how to manage the increasing channels of communication, let’s start by understanding how we got where we are.

The Rapid Increase in Ways to Communicate at Work

Email entered the workplace in mass in the 1990s, offering an efficient way to communicate with people near and far and yielding tremendous savings. As the Internet became widespread and stable, email use ballooned, turning its strength into a weakness. The flood of messages became too much to handle on top of “normal” work as professionals grew to expect responses more and more immediately.

Perhaps, to satisfy people’s desire for greater responsivity, instant messaging emerged in the early 2000s as a second mode of online communication workers could use. Instant messaging simulated more real-time conversation and eliminated much of the hassle of managing an inbox. Last year, an average of 13.9 billion instant messages (personal and professional) were sent each day, according to a study by computer-industry analysts at the Radicati Group.

In hopes of getting people out of their overwhelmed inboxes while providing more structure and functionality than instant messaging, Slack emerged as a team collaboration application in 2013 and grew rapidly. Today, employees at large companies each send more than 200 Slack messages per week and receive 45 Slack messages per day, according to Time Is Ltd., a productivity-analytics company. Power users – of which there are many – send out more than 1,000 messages every day.

Since 2013, Slack has been joined by Google’s Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, Facebook’s Workplace, and Microsoft’s Teams. This type of workplace software is part of a $3.5 billion global “team collaborative applications” market, according to research firm IDC, forecasted to grow nearly 70 percent in the next three years. These applications have transformed chat from an insignificant part of the workday to the second most common computer activity behind email, according to data from RescueTime.

This means that most professionals are expected to manage communications on at least four platforms and generally more:

  1. Email
  2. Instant messaging application (e.g., Gchat (which is going away), Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter)
  3. Team-based messaging applications (e.g., Slack, Teams, Workplace)
  4. Text message
  5. Phone call

Are All These Communication Channels Boosting Your Productivity?

In 2012, McKinsey predicted that Slack and other team messaging apps could save companies 25% of their working hours by reducing time spent on email and finding information. Researchers expected Slack and its peers to correct the inefficiencies created by email.

Ironically, it was only years earlier that professionals had expected email to offer similar benefits to professionals. A 2011 study published in Organization Science asserted that email gives people “flexibility and control by enabling them to communicate from anywhere at any time.” However, the researchers also explained what you know too well: email had become a “growing source of stress in people’s lives… Although, in theory, email’s asynchrony should have granted recipients the leeway to respond at a time that was convenient for them, our informants described strong cultural expectations about not keeping senders waiting.”

In short, the technology offered real benefits, but the way people interacted with the technology was and is leading to significant downsides. Could Slack and Teams correct this? Possibly.

To determine if team collaboration apps boost or sap your productivity, you need to answer two questions:

  1. Does an hour spent on a team collaboration app produce better results than an hour in your email?
  2. Does your team collaboration app enable you to spend less time communicating overall?

The first question is debatable and hard to measure. An article by the New York Times tells two stories of companies that derive real benefit from Slack:

Scaleworks, a Texas-based tech fund, uses Slack to manage its portfolio of companies, but also to let them share with one another. “The C.E.O.s work collaboratively on hard problems,” said Drew Olanoff, a company spokesman. “Slack plays a big part there.”

Searchable, real-time chat has been a boon to smaller, non-tech companies too. Matt Lien, a producer at Flag Family Media, which operates a pair of AM radio stations in North Dakota, said Slack has improved his daily work experience. “Having a place to put audio files, random phone numbers, breaking news or even memes from our listeners has made all of our jobs easier,” he said. “Not to mention being able to search for a guest phone number if we lose it.”

Yet, in the research for the article, the New York Times found that the most common reaction to team collaboration apps is “mixed feelings.” For example, in an interview with Vox, Sarah Peck, founder and executive director of Startup Pregnant, complains that “We’re just moving email to another place and it’s less searchable.”

Team collaboration apps make communicating easier, making it both more plentiful and lower quality (on average) than email. For companies trying to be agile, this can offer advantages. Yet, rapid and low-quality communication can lead to confusion, resulting in the need for additional communication. Further, most team collaboration apps end up proliferated with messages not at all related to work – which is not all bad but is time-consuming.

For the second question of whether team collaboration apps reduce overall time spent on communication, fortunately, there is good data from RescueTime, which automatically tracks how users spend their time. As the chart below reveals, Slack has simply replaced time spent on email, increasing the total time spent on e-communication by 1% between 2013 and 2019 (note the combined height of the red and yellow areas).

Lacey Berrien, who works at marketing start-up Drift, affirms what this data shows: “We’ve had to consciously discuss using Slack less often.”

While it’s difficult to say whether team collaboration apps have solved email’s problems, what is clear is that they haven’t solved professionals’ over-communication problem. How then do you address the problem of over-communication and engage in productive communication?

How to Achieve Productive Communication in Our Over-Communicative Culture

It would be impossible and unwise for us to make a blanket recommendation about which communication platforms you and your company should use without knowing the nuances of your context. Instead, we’ll offer a series of principles that can guide your individual, team, and corporate decisions about how you communicate:

Prioritize quality of communication over quantity

Cal Newport, neuroscientist and author of two iconic books on modern work, Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, challenges the typical notion of what a successful workplace looks and sounds like:

“When it comes to the world of work, more connectivity and more communication is not necessarily better. In fact, it often makes things worse… [W]hen I encounter a typical knowledge economy office, with its hive mind buzz of constant unstructured conversation, I don’t see a super-connected, fast-moving and agile organization. I instead see a poorly designed distributed system. A well-designed distributed algorithm sends just enough of the right information to allow all parties to efficiently complete the task.”

High-quality communication is efficient, and it creates deeper and stronger bonds. For example, scheduling a 30-minute casual conversation with a coworker is more likely to strengthen and deepen your relationship than sporadic banter on Slack.

Have clear guidelines about when and how to use each platform

Software programmer, Alicia Liu explains that Slack, by its design, becomes a wild conglomeration of all communication topics and types: “Applied to Slack, its greatest strength: amazing ease-of-use, is also its weakness: making it far too easy for everyone to default to using Slack for communicating, even for all the myriad things that don’t make sense to use Slack to communicate.”

This happens because companies and teams rarely give their people any guidance or policies around how they expect them to use team collaboration apps and other communication platforms. According to a recent survey done by the Northeast Human Resources Association, 85 percent of companies do not have a policy in place regarding the use of instant messaging in the workplace.

Avoid redundancy

As you and your coworkers have become more and more conditioned to expect immediate responses, fewer professionals are willing to settle for unresponsiveness. Rather than wait for you to reply in the timing that makes sense for you, they jump from one communication channel to the next, hoping that one will breakthrough your focus and prompt a response. The empowerment people feel when pinging anyone at any time overwhelms their intrinsic sense of respect for others’ boundaries.

In addition to being disrespectful, redundant communication sends the message that you must be connected at all times and respond immediately, which research clearly links to burnout. It also reduces people’s value for messages they receive. If they know that some of the messages on Slack are messages they have already responded to on other platforms, they will be less likely to manage Slack closely.

Use the minimum number of communication channels

It may seem more effective to use a wide variety of communication tools in order to account for the diversity of types of communications that happen in your workplace and the diversity of communication styles among your workforce. However, it’s far more effective to choose the minimum number of communication channels that offer the greatest versatility. In an interview with Vox Recode, productivity blogger Darius Foroux explained that “where there are so many channels and people involved, it gets cluttered. If our brains are too cluttered and we’re processing too much information, our productivity and focus decreases.” Research from Time Ltd. Shows that most large companies have more Slack channels than they have employees.

Each communication tool and channel/inbox within the tool represents another thing that you have to manage. Instead of having one inbox to manage, most professionals now have the equivalent of over 10 and even over 100 (when you count Slack channels). On the basis of the second law of thermodynamics alone, communication channels will naturally increase and move toward greater disorder. To combat this, you must regularly review your communication tools and see which you can cut.

Reserve one communication channel for a hotline

A hotline is an important tool for the modern worker who is committed to making time for deep, uninterrupted work. To engage in cognitively demanding work, you, by definition, must shut off or silence all sources of external interruption. The thought of this is frightening to many, particularly managers and leaders, because they feel obligated to be accessible to their teams.

To preserve time for deep work while remaining somewhat accessible to the limited set of people who could truly need you in an urgent scenario, you need to have a hotline. A hotline is a communication channel that is only made available to a handful of your VIPs for use in the case of truly urgent or emergency scenarios. You must reserve a hotline for this purpose and these few people so that you know that if communication comes through that channel, you need to answer it immediately. Then you can leave your hotline “on” when doing deep work.

If, instead, you make all of your communication tools accessible to everyone at any time, then you won’t have a communication channel left to make into a hotline. Reserve one to two communication channels to serve as a hotline.

Avoid a virtual facetime culture

The stereotype of remote workers wasting away their workdays watching TV or napping has caused many remote workers to “feel a lot of pressure to show they’re working and at their desk,” says Sarah Lacy, founder of tech site Pando and Chairman Mom. Remote workers feel the need to prove they’re working so they remain available on all communication platforms at all times. They respond quickly to messages to prevent coworkers from assuming that they decided to complete a personal errand in place of accomplishing their work priorities. The irony of this behavior is that in the attempt to prove they’re working, such professionals actually get less done.

Managers and leaders can counter this by proactively reminding their team members that it’s fine for them to be unavailable on team collaboration apps during the workday in order to do their most important work. If necessary, teams and companies can use specific statuses in these apps to convey that they are working but don’t want to be interrupted. Managers and leaders can also sap this fear of its power by recognizing and rewarding employees for the work they deliver instead of their accessibility.

While it’s natural to assume that conditions of lack present the most challenging scenarios, in many cases abundance presents equally vexing issues. Much has changed in the three decades since email became ubiquitous, and the number of ways to communicate virtually will likely only increase. Without a plan for managing these channels, you and your company will end up spending most of your time talking back and forth rather than getting important work done.

The previously mentioned principles offer a starting point for your work. If you need help moving toward greater specificity, please let us know.