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The unexpected consequence of too much communication at work

Incessant chatting and interaction with technology may be why your productivity has taken a dive.

The unexpected consequence of too much communication at work
[Source images: Pavel Bezkorovainyi/iStock; daboost/iStock]

Last year, Americans checked their phone an average of 96 times a day, according to an Asurion survey.

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If that number blows your mind, think of how often you’ve checked your phone today, alone. Don’t worry—no judgment on my end! As a result of the current crisis we’re living in, I think it’s fair to say we won’t be kicking that habit anytime soon.

More than ever before, we’re using technology to connect with the outside world. And with so many of us now working from home, we’re relying on our phones to stay updated with colleagues and clients. However, when you’re receiving endless Zoom calls and emails, pings on Slack, and notifications from everywhere else, it begins to hinder productivity and focus.

“Digital overload may be the defining problem of today’s workplace,” Larry Rosen and Alexandra Samuel wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2015—though it rings just as true in 2020. “We waste time, attention, and energy on relatively unimportant information and interactions,” they note, “staying busy but producing little of value.”

In the transition to remote work, many companies adopted new communication platforms to keep teams connected, but now that we’re many months into the pandemic, we have to consider whether all of this hyperconnectivity is doing more harm than good. According to research, it can be counterproductive when it comes to engagement and productivity levels.

So, what are we to do? Getting rid of these platforms altogether isn’t a plausible solution. Instead, as leaders we need to counterbalance these unwanted effects by fostering a positive digital culture.

Here are a few research-backed strategies I’ve implemented over the years, with my own team, to restore attention and balance.

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Ease up on check-ins

Let me put this simply: There’s no way to build a culture of trust if you aren’t giving your team more autonomy. What does this mean, exactly? No more 2 a.m. emails, no more hourly requests for updates.

All of this is to say, be considerate in the way you’re using communication platforms. If you had an evening Zoom meeting, for instance, don’t immediately follow that up with a lengthy Slack. Give people some mental breathing space to restore their attention on more critical tasks.

Set clear communication policies

With our home and work lives now enmeshed because of the pandemic, we need to start putting healthy communication policies in place so that we’re not inadvertently promoting 24/7 connectivity.

Avoid falling into the trap of micromanaging by creating clear expectations around communication. If your employees seem to be breathlessly responding to your messages, try to change their idea of response times. As Amy Blankson, a leadership consultant, writes for HBR, setting precedent is key, especially if your workforce “feels compelled to respond immediately […] even if communication comes after work, over the weekend, or . . . on vacation.”

At my company, my team and I delete Slack from our phones over the holidays. We don’t respond to emails after hours either. This is something I established long before the current crisis and have taken even more seriously since. I also model boundaries by letting my team know the exact times they can reach me, and when I am no longer available.

For me, recovery is the key to building resilience, in both our personal and professional lives, and this begins with communicating clear policies to reflect that value.

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Encourage pockets for focus

A 2017 study found that while smartphones have immense potential to improve our lives, their persistent presence may cost us cognitively. In other words, having our phones within reach undercuts our performance.

To combat the impulse to grab our devices, one strategy recommended by The New York Times is to keep our phone locked inside a drawer as a way to increase focus. Another technique involves using software such as RescueTime to help with tracking productivity and blocking off distracting sites (especially social media).

While many of us will continue using platforms such as Zoom and Slack as our primary way of communicating, we can still encourage employees to turn off their notifications, tuck their phones away, and use special apps to help block out distractions during a set time.

Prioritize mental recharges

“Our phones have become compulsions, rather than tools of efficiency,” writes Blankson. “Despite workers’ desire to get away from their devices, more than half turn to their smartphones during downtime.”

It’s ultimately out of our hands how employees use technology in their spare time, but we can always promote smarter and more focused ways of spending their breaks. I regularly practice and encourage my team to try mindfulness techniques throughout the day when feeling overwhelmed. For myself and my team, we’ve found it a powerful way to decrease stress.

In his book Hit Refresh, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, emphasizes the importance of recharging. “Sure, in this age of continuous updates and always-on technologies, hitting refresh may sound quaint, but still when it’s done right, when people and cultures re-create and refresh, a renaissance can be the result.”

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As I said before, we won’t be quitting our phone habit anytime soon. Many of us are buying groceries, checking in with loved ones, coordinating our children’s school activities, and keeping ourselves entertained from the monotony of living during a stressful period of time.

Our job as leaders, then, isn’t to go backward and do away with communication platforms but to create a positive digital culture that allows people to leave work at work.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.

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