Mark your personal boundaries in the workplace to help everyone and yourself avoid the perils of overcommunication, a scourge of modern work.
There is no question that communication is important in the workplace, but the constant barrage of emails, Slack pings, phone calls, Teams meetings, webinars, round tables and town halls means it is all too easy to get the balance wrong – and that’s when workers get overwhelmed.
It’s not so easy to draw the line at where we should stop the communication, because it is an important part of the work that many of us do. But sometimes there can be too much chat and too many notifications and not enough action.
Productivity losses and stress gains are not things to aspire to, but these are exactly what could be affecting modern workers. They find themselves locked into an ‘always-on’ culture in which they feel pressure to be contactable online even during hours when they are not working.
Things like hybrid work, remote work and async working practices are also a factor in overcommunication. When you can’t see your colleagues you might be more inclined to need to communicate with them, but on the flip side, you might not communicate enough which also leads to problems.
There is no desired balance or right way when it comes to communication and different people have different preferences. Some colleagues love Slack, whereas others see it and other online platforms as a nuisance. For others, email is a scourge and they want all in-person meetings.
In figuring out the perfect internal comms strategy, employers have a lot to consider. So, what to do? For a start, they can trim the fat and cut out time-wasting messages by being clear about what they need to get done. “Reducing hours spent communicating starts with setting expectations with the receiver,” says Christina Nguyen White, head of product design and research at Loom.
The maker of a video communication platform, Loom did an online survey of 1,500 US desk-based workers in the period from January 27 to February 7. The survey found that the average worker spends three hours and 43 minutes a day communicating via emails, messaging, video or phone calls. This could be costing some companies billions per week.
Nguyen White says, “Our research has taught us that the receiver simply wants to know three things before they read a message or watch a Loom: who sent it; why they sent it; and what they need to do.”
“Setting expectations on what they need to do gives the receiver more control and agency of when and how to respond,” she says, adding by way of example that things like labelling deadlines or labelling requests with priorities can help save time.
It’s not just about saving time, but about saving people’s sanity. According to Loom’s study, 45pc of employees said communicating is the most mentally taxing part of their job. And 78pc said that when they notice a co-worker typing a message, they become unproductive and cannot focus on their tasks because they are anticipating what will be said. More than half (54pc) said that including read receipts causes anxiety for employees and 55pc said that they need a mental break during the workday because the strain of communicating is too much.
‘The flexibility of working anytime and anywhere has actually spiked a different type of unproductivity: waiting by our computers. This puts more burden on ourselves as individuals to find focus time and manage our personal boundaries’
As Nguyen White points out, “Feeling overwhelmed from work communication is not new, but the pandemic and distributed work has simply exacerbated the problem.” With async working practices, workers are finding that the “natural breaks” they had in the office when they stepped away from their screens are removed.
“The flexibility of working anytime and anywhere has actually spiked a different type of unproductivity: waiting by our computers. This puts more burden on ourselves as individuals to find focus time and manage our personal boundaries.”
Nguyen White says that it is okay to mark your personal boundaries around workplace communication. It can actually be refreshing. “Communication is deeply personal and our literal human expression of who we are as individuals. But we are spending a lot of time ensuring that the receiver or viewer is understanding us clearly. People simply want to be understood….with less effort.”
While 88pc of those surveyed have preferences about how they communicate at work, 83pc said they cater to others’ communications preferences and 42pc said nobody has ever asked them what their communications preferences are.
“Start by asking a colleague or team how they prefer to communicate,” Nguyen White recommends. “Listen first and then agree to norms that work for both the sender and the receiver.”
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