Think about the number of communication tools you use in a workday. In addition to checking email, you may be logging on to an instant messaging platform, as well as using a project management platform, content management system, or another collaboration platform. You probably are asking colleagues and clients whether they prefer phone calls or video chats. So it’s no wonder that when it comes to tracking down a document, or an exchange you had with your direct report last week, you find yourself searching your inbox, Slack DMs, and three different Google Docs.
All of this interaction is starting to get to us. A recent survey found that 75% of respondents agree that working from home has increased their sense of digital overload as messaging, emailing, and videoconferencing have become the primary means of communication. And 74% of workers polled say they now spend most of their day looking at a computer, tablet, or phone. And a 2015 study published in the Journal of Business Economics found that so-called techno-stressors can lead to reduced work satisfaction and burnout.
We know that too much digital communication can sap our productivity and ultimately lead to burnout. So, while that constant stream of information seems like it’s a nuisance, it could actually be hurting your organization, says Mary Lynn Carver, founder and CEO of MLC Strategy Advisors, a consulting firm specializing in communications and corporate affairs strategy. “Air traffic control of content and some hierarchy and strategy related to these channels is critical,” she says.
Putting such controls in place to deal with digital and information overload starts with a few key steps:
Look at what’s being used
It’s a good idea to start with an audit of what your employees are using to communicate—and what’s working for them, Carver says. Do they need all of the features on each platform? Some software companies create bundled programs with many bells and whistles. Those can be overwhelming, she says, with some employees using features regularly and some not at all. Take a look at what your team is using to communicate and collaborate most effectively. You need to find out what’s going on in the “nooks and crannies of your organization,” she says.
Once you dig into the platforms your team is using, you might be surprised at what you find, says internal communications adviser Johnna Lacey. If you have an enterprise license for one tool and employees find they like something else, they may have adopted it on their own.
That’s a problem, Carver says, because suddenly, your data, proprietary information, and other communication may be shared in a platform your team has not vetted. Worse, if the employees using that tool don’t disclose that they are doing so, you have a silo of information only available to a few people. So, ask your team to come clean about what they’re using and why they find those tools effective. With such feedback, you can make good decisions about the tools to use going forward.
Examine the best use for each
Once you create a shortlist of the tools you and/or your team needs, look at how they’re using them versus what the tool’s strengths are, Carver says. If you have people sharing design collaborations over IM, for example, you might need a more comprehensive tool to manage that function. Typically, these tools are best suited for certain types of communication, she says.
- IM or text: Effective for simple questions and to get very specific information relatively quickly.
- Email: Good for longer communication that may require more detail than appropriate for a text or IM. Also effective for forwarding documents and providing links for context.
- Collaboration platforms: These can be general, such as Slack or Trello, or specific to a work function, such as a project or performance management system along the lines of Wrike or 15Five. They are meant for information and project sharing among many people, as well as gathering feedback. Such platforms may have varied features, but not all of those features may be appropriate or necessary for your team.
- Phone and videoconferencing: Better for fluid communication, brainstorming, and short-circuiting rounds and rounds of email or IM messages.
Build a channel strategy
Once you align the tools you and your team need with their strengths, you can start to create a strategy for communicating and transferring information. “It’s a fine line between giving people choices and creating efficient systems and universals where you actually are all in sync. I think that it’s really important that you do have a few universal channels of communication that everyone is reliably tapped into,” says Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer at 15Five.
Giving your team guidelines about what information to share where and what the expectations are around how and when to respond can help keep your data and projects in the appropriate places, avoid silos, and help people more efficiently find what they’re looking for, Carver adds. Such strategies will vary from company to company.
Adapt communication style
Another aspect that is a little more nuanced, but still important, is adapting communication style for various platforms. Have you ever gotten a seemingly terse email that caused your stomach to drop when the same brevity of language wouldn’t have made you blink via text or IM? “You need to really think about your audience,” Lacey says. Think about how they will receive the message, as well as the best platform for communicating it, and adjust your communication style and tone accordingly.
It’s also important to be aware that there are four different generations in the workplace now, and people may have different preferences in their style. Some avoid phone calls at all costs while others like to dial and chat. While those types of individual styles don’t necessarily need to be made into policies, it’s good to remind your team of different preferences.
Be sure to review your guidance periodically to ensure that you’re keeping up with your team’s evolving needs. And stay open to feedback so that you can adapt as needed to help make your team more productive and less subject to the digital onslaught.