If you’re a knowledge worker, chances are your work days begin by firing up between 6 and 10 tools for digital communications and remote team collaboration. Slack, Zoom, Asana, Calendly, Teams, Google Drive, and a host of other possibilities come alive in their separate windows.
You probably check for urgent messages on one or two platforms, then switch to your project-tracking application. After responding to any immediate needs, you might have a moment before your first video meeting of the day to spend some time on your real work.
Not so fast, though. Even if you do get into some productive work before hopping on that call, the notifications keep rolling in. Your earlier responses have raised a few more questions. And issues that weren’t urgent this morning will be by this afternoon if you don’t get ahead of them.
Sure, your current project is open—but so are all these other windows. And they’re pulling your attention away with every ping.
Why does it feel like all the tools meant to help you and your team stay in touch and work together from anywhere are preventing you from getting work done at all?
Throughout history, we’ve continually developed new ways to communicate and collaborate faster and more efficiently in an effort to increase our productivity at work—but have we hit a wall when it comes to productivity? Are the tools we’re using distracting us and pushing us in the opposite direction?
From productivity to distraction: A history of digital communications
For as long as we humans have engaged in business, we’ve worked to clearly and quickly communicate over distance.
- Egyptian couriers hand-delivered messages for pharaohs as far back as 2400 B.C.
- Inter-office pneumatic tubes delivered everything from telegrams to contracts through the 19th and mid-20th century.
- The telephone finally enabled instantaneous long-distance audio communication in the late 1800s.
- And years later in the 1980s, the fax machine used phone technology to deliver documents faster and further than ever before.
However, as all of these technologies developed, it was still relatively easy to let a call go to voicemail or leave an incoming fax on the machine until the recipient was ready for it. Even when email first entered the workplace, people couldn’t access it at home—let alone on a cell phone.
But oh, how times changed.
Over the last few decades, communication and workplace expectations have shifted dramatically.
- In 1993 , free email became readily available to anyone with a computer and internet connection. And by 1997 , business emails outnumber the amount of all regular mail sent via the postal service.
- Texting also became available for the first time on mobile phones. The technology eventually replaced pagers in the workplace. And in the case of both texting and email, few people—if any—expected immediate replies when sending messages. The technologies added speed to communication without creating pressure for an immediate response.
- In the early 2000s, smartphones with cameras and email capabilities hit the mass market. Now workers could—and increasingly were expected to—check and respond to emails while out of the office. Downtown coffee and lunch spots became filled with business people sitting around tables staring at their phones instead of chatting about work over the soup and sandwich special.
- Skype, Google, and social media also entered the scene. People could easily attend meetings without coming into the office. The volume of digital communications skyrocketed and mobile apps enabled real-time response, regardless of location.
- Meeting leaders everywhere bemoaned the distraction of cell phones in the conference room. Hello, is anyone listening?
- Video communication and remote work have been increasingly normalized over the past decade. By 2018, 18% of people were working remotely full-time thanks to robust digital communications technology.
- However, it also became easier than ever to interrupt coworkers—unintentionally or not—thanks to advances like push notifications . These ping all devices signed into an account from anywhere.
- An abundance of sleek business apps meant many workers also began receiving frequent notifications on their phones outside of work hours.
- And the expectation of immediacy around receiving and responding to work communications had never been so palpable. Until….
- The COVID-19 pandemic forced most office workers to work from home. Much of the technology of the previous decade became essential for business to continue. And huge investments were funneled into digital transformation—a now trillion-dollar industry and still growing.
- The conditions of 2020 pushed many remote workers to their limits, though. The number of meetings, meeting attendees and the length of the average worker’s workday all increased in ways that still persist today, according to research . Workers use more digital communications tools than ever before and spend more time interacting and collaborating on them.
- A quarter of all employees worked remotely full-time by 2021, and 98% of them are being interrupted at least three or four times a day. Many are interrupted so frequently it’s difficult to keep track. These interruptions cost each worker about 90 minutes of distraction and focus-recovery time each day.
While the communication advancements of the last few decades have been impressive, it’s possible they’ve also become too much of a good thing.
- We’ve become so focussed on quickly (over)communicating and responding that more and more work time is necessarily being diverted just to this.
Are we spending all our work time talking about work instead of actually doing work?
The remote communication inundation
Like many people, Timothy Noah is sick of Slack. It’s “the intraoffice texting service that has turned the American workplace into a dystopian micro-Twitterverse,” he writes at The New Republic.
Meant to reduce the friction of scheduling calls or walking to a teammate’s office, Slack seemed revolutionary in its early days. But now, its pings are more akin to a “cry for attention like a squalling newborn babe.”
Noah’s not wrong in feeling this way. Toggling back and forth between your work and Slack, Teams, or some other tool may feel efficient, but studies show that’s not the case. In fact, context switching can kill up to 80% of your productive time in a day.
Even just one hour each workday on these apps eats away at valuable time and attention.
Combined with two to four hours in meetings and the time it takes to refocus after context switching, that really puts a strain on employees’ ability to get meaningful work done.
It’s also incredibly stressful.
Data on digital and remote teamwork productivity is confusing
If context switching is so distracting, why did so many employers report increased productivity in 2020 with the widespread use of remote and digital teamwork collaboration tools like Slack and Teams?
At online learning company Chegg, for example, senior executive Nathan Schults expected a 15-20% dip in productivity when workers went remote in 2020. Instead, employees became more productive after the initial disruption smoothed over.
Cisco and Microsoft also reported increases in productivity.
One explanation, Canadian researcher Linda Duxbury suggests, might be that 70% of employees worked more nights and weekends. Known as the “triple peak day ”, workers went from two productivity peaks a day (before and after lunch) to three in 2020.
It’s the remote work equivalent of avoiding distraction by staying after hours at the office. Some people even ‘come in early’, logging into work platforms as early as 6 a.m. to beat the digital noise of active remote team communication.
Observed from the outside, it looks as if we’re avoiding each other.
We’re mentally checked out during office hours and better able to get our work done when things are quiet.
But how does all the after-hours work meant to combat the distracting noisiness endured during the workday impact people’s balance and well-being?
The initial productivity boom of 2020 later dipped —possibly as burnout set in. Zoom fatigue, extended screen time, and surviving through a pandemic have their effects, after all.
When digital communication becomes unhealthy
When we tested our own team's Slack usage here at Produce8, we found our team members didn’t go more than 15 minutes on average without checking the platform in a workday. Some data suggests the average among workers is more like five minutes .
This continual context switching correlated with mental health effects, too.
Nearly 75% of our team confirmed in a survey that Slack causes them increased stress and anxiety—the opposite of what the platform initially set out to do.
Other research suggests the always-on nature of digital communications causes stress for workers expected to respond to messages outside of work hours. In fact, 70% of employees working under these conditions reported feeling psychological distress and 64% reported emotional exhaustion.
Even for those who aren’t expected to respond 24/7, the urge to maintain ‘inbox zero’ can lead to job stress. A phenomenon known as email urgency bias , where workers overestimate how soon they need to reply to off-hours messages, has been linked to lower feelings of well-being.
But what can we do to regain control?
What can be done about digital communication?
Not all digital communication is bad, of course. We do need to connect and collaborate with our remote team members, after all. Part of the reason why we’re stuck in this communication overwhelm though is that it’s difficult to see where the problems lie.
We may know we feel distracted, disrupted and maybe even overwhelmed by all the digital communication and collaboration—not to mention the pressures to respond without delay. But there’s no clear visibility into where we’re spending our time and how we’re navigating the digital workday.
And even if we have an idea of what needs to be changed, we have no way of measuring the impact of any fixes we implement. So how can we ensure we’re changing how we’re working together for the better?
A work analytics tool like Produce8 gives digital teams greater transparency in their workdays so they can see the real scope of their digital communications and collaboration problems. And with insight and understanding, teams can start to identify appropriate shifts and solutions.
Every company is unique, so the better a picture you can get of your own team’s specific struggles, the easier it is to home in on the habits and patterns that might just need a little tweaking.
With the right digital work data, teams can accomplish the following:
- Pinpoint where collaboration and communication inefficiencies lie for them, such as Slack mis-usage or over-usage, too much time spent in meetings, or too much context switching between collaboration apps and other work apps.
- Start to have necessary conversations about the data they’re seeing and create collective goals to work toward more productive communication habits and work patterns.
- Evolve their digital work habits, patterns, and workflows and measure the outcomes of their changes to ensure positive impact over time.
A new communications model for digital and remote teamwork
All the communication and collaboration technologies aren’t going anywhere. In fact, we’d probably be in trouble if they did. But retraining yourself and your team to use them in more productive ways and in ways that lead to less noisy distraction and less employee burnout can have a huge impact on your team and your company.
Changing the future of digital communications starts with seeing the problems that exist today.
This will enable teams to start adjusting what isn’t working and reclaim some of that hour and a half a day individual knowledge workers are forfeiting to inefficient processes and continual over-communication.
After all, communicating in the digital work world should help move the work forward, not keep it from happening.