We’ve all experienced this – checking email, Slack, Facebook, and Linkedin multiple times daily to ensure we don’t miss anything. We want to ensure that requests are answered (no one has patience any longer), and that we don’t appear to be ghosting the company. The urge to stay constantly connected has increased because many of us now work from home and the only validation of our presence is email or instant messaging apps.
I have also found hyper-connectivity opens up new worlds to explore, meaning going down rabbit holes because what someone posted piqued your interest. You discovered that you wasted ten minutes because of your unplanned excursion.
I have thought about how the world functioned (or not) in the early years of my business career. Yes, I am a relic from the age of IBM Selectric II typewriters (whiteout, not a snow storm – correction tape was a god-sent improvement), carbon paper, telex machines, three-part memos, and my favorite, the telephone answering service. I remember standing out on a cold, windy winter day at a payphone, writing down contact names and phone numbers from a live operator who took my calls. Thank goodness for telephone calling cards eliminating the need to haul around a bag of quarters to make all those return calls. Official documents and business letters circulated through the mail and would take days. However, when you called someone on the phone, they answered because voicemail was not that common – instant communication.
I will not appear as a Luddite extolling the virtues of simpler times before we invented the modern communication tools, but things got done, and I did a lot of business. Modern communication has made communicating and staying in touch so much easier. Heck, if I had to print and mail out this blog to my contact list, I would be gamely employed with this task full-time.
In his provocative book entitled “A World Without Email,” Cal Newport argues that the steady flow of distractions disrupts us from achieving any meaningful work, causes undue stress, and is costing businesses millions in the form of untapped productivity. For example, the Harvard Business Review quotes a McKinsey study that the average professional spends 28% of the workday reading and answering emails. The average full-time worker amounts to a staggering 2.6 hours spent and 120 messages received per day.
Modern technology has removed the barriers to communication, making communications ubiquitous. It is so easy to rip off emails or Slack messages that the sender gives little thought about the content or if it is necessary. I have witnessed emails or instant messaging sent to the person in the next office. Every day we are bombarded with new message notifications throughout the day. It is human nature to want to respond when contacted.
When part of my job was to draft complex bids for contracts, I found that the only time I could concentrate for uninterrupted periods was in the early morning or on weekends. Businesses that do not put rules and guardrails on electronic communication are losing countless person-hours of productivity and creativity. This loss is particularly true in the knowledge sector where I work.
There is tremendous value to be gained for a business to set clear guidelines so employees can feel comfortable closing their email client or messaging app. In addition, by controlling their technology, the opportunity exists to concentrate on meaningful work, sometimes called “deep work.”
Here are several things any business can do to manage communication and increase productivity.
- Stop after-hours emails. People need to recharge.
- Allow employees to set designated times to deal with emails once or twice daily.
- Don’t expect instant responses.
- Have a method to deal with urgent issues. Real emergencies rarely happen.
- Don’t give clients access to internal messaging.
- Set up recurring meetings with time limits and standing agendas with teams (in person or electronically) to discuss issues. Many questions can wait for a weekly meeting.
As for me, I use four simple tools. Managing my inbox has freed up countless hours, and I feel much more in control of my time.
- Organize my inbox – I set up folders for emails I want to save and read later, things I need to address right away, and folders for different projects and topics.
- I block time during the day to deal with emails. I am available either by text or on Slack for any urgent issues.
- I use productivity tools such as spam filters to weed out unwanted emails and automated response reminders.
- I use auto responses. Many times a canned response is sufficient. Google’s canned responses anticipate a response based on the content of the email.
Millennials and Gen X have never known a time when you could work all day without interruption because communication had barriers. You either had to meet in person, play phone tag, keep calling, or send a memo or letter that could take days. Most people couldn’t use instant messaging such as a Telex machine. However, things got done, and we were probably more productive. Technology has made instant messaging ubiquitous, dramatically improving efficiency and at the same time killing productivity. Proper communication management can substantially improve productivity while maintaining the efficiency of contacting people.