By Romeo Bellon
Last update on Jul 21, 2022 · 3 min read
The tools in the workplace
"Unmanageable workload" is one of the leading causes of employee burnout at the workplace, second only to "unfair treatment at work." According to research from Gallup, 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, mainly influenced by how people experience their workloads.
Arguably, our broad spectrum of workplace communication and messaging tools holds a significant chunk of the responsibility. Whether in a thread in Slack, in a comment in Notion, or via email, unstructured and unprioritized requests come our way continuously and from various sources. We keep exposing ourselves to more unplanned work than we can account for. We might be masters at planning and organizing our time to the minute. Still, because these tools allow it, we frequently get requests from above or from other teams, pretending we should work on the newest, most urgent, and critical thing. Often, we might just be asked silly questions by coworkers who are too sluggish to look for the answer themselves.
Whatever the scenario, this forces us into a vicious cycle of bad communication practices that regularly haunt us at a personal and organizational level. Some feel stressed due to accumulated unplanned work, and others fear missing out on information sent across channels and groups. Broadly, it creates social frictions, and inefficiencies across the board, with knowledge getting lost.
I talked to more than 40 people working at companies of all sizes, from a handful of employees to the heights of Uber, Spotify, Stripe, Binance, and others. In this article, I highlight the good and harmful patterns, the key takeaways, and a solution I'm building to address these issues. Specifically, it will help teams and individuals engage in a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle of better communication techniques.
The main tools in question are Slack, Microsoft Team, and similar. They are primarily used to:
- Ask for help.
- Collaborate, discuss, and ideate.
- Subscribe to updates on the status of somebody's work.
- Schedule and coordinate.
While they help people ultimately get answers to their queries, they create various adverse side effects.
Armful Pattern #1: They interrupt your flow
Whether on a makers' or managers' schedule, still, we are running on a schedule. Any incoming message we receive breaks what takes 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus time to reach: a state of flow. Assuming we care about the quality and quantity of our work, allowing people to contact us effortlessly and without filters is detrimental to deep focus. By being frequently interrupted and forced into switching contexts, we drastically prolong the time of whatever we are doing.
It is common for people to receive messages from everywhere and be forced to reply to avoid hard feelings. It happens to most people I've talked to. It seems to be manageable in companies with less than 400 employees. Still, it comes down to one's organizational skills in bigger organizations. Some try to block time on their calendar as "Focus time," but most don't act on it, considering it part of the job.
Armful Pattern #2: They are too easy and unformal
Slack became popular because, compared to email, it allows for faster communication and has a playful user experience. Email's perceived "formality" implies that authors write more thoughtful, self-contained arguments. Slack chats and threads, on the other hand, allow for chatty comments that create useless noise that make reading along worse. In addition, information tends to flow with less dense context and without filters.
These tools make it so easy to forget that we sacrifice other people's flow for a few moments saved in thinking time. They make us fail to recognize the cost of dropping what one is doing. And the worst thing is that, when it happens to us, there's no way to make people realize that, unless replying to them, still interrupting the flow. Wrap up the work, onboard to the new task, and then resume where we left off later. That's what it takes to switch context, not to mention the hit on morale for a sudden change!
A friend of mine working at Uber told me about some hectic times at the company when there were urgent matters to do ASAP, like a regulation change threatening the company from operating in a region if not building something. Before anything else, she asked, "What's the impact of your demands?" Just by asking this question, she made the requester think twice about the urgency of the concern. If unclear, she wouldn't consider it. Why would she? Even in such circumstances, most "urgent" things turned out to be noise.