Slack less and work more: How too much communication can be a productivity killer

Experts say that while instant messaging can improve communications between remote workers, there are pitfalls to be aware of, including non-work-related conversations that can become a time suck.

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Image: iStockphoto/oatawa

Companies may not have set rules and regulations regarding how to and how much to use office messaging apps--notably the very popular Slack--but it might be time businesses established some restrictions or, at least, some strongly worded suggestions to cut some of the irrelevant chatter. When coworkers respond to Slack messages with just an emoji and one is returned to them, and so on … is it increasing connectivity and productivity or preventing it? 

We asked experts to weigh in: Are we Slacking too much and not working enough, or more efficiently?

"Instant messaging tools help employees communicate right away, rather than waiting for an email response, but can also be distracting at the wrong times," said Jesse McHargue, senior solutions engineer at Nintex, a management and workflow automation company. "Teams can also stay connected by creating team channels rather than messaging one-to-one. This not only helps eliminate untimely disruptions and lengthy response times, but boosts productivity as everyone on the team gains insight from the question or conversation that occurs."

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In the new normal, where telecommuting is common, and making an actual phone call seems archaic, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and the like are essential and for many, familiar. "Emojis are now becoming a standard part of the vernacular," said Robert Cruz, vice president, information governance solutions at Smarsh, a communications software company. "Younger generations have been raised with their own language and symbols of expression, whether emojis, embedded gifs, or shorthand. For those accustomed to communicating this way, it can be useful in conveying emotions or sentiment, while retaining the immediacy of asynchronous communications. It's another component of tools that provide immediacy in communications, higher response-rates, and faster decision-making. It adds to connectivity and productivity by giving users tools they're comfortable and familiar with."

But responding with an emoji or a series of emojis isn't only stymieing productivity, said Amanda Greenberg, co-founder and CEO of Balloon, a collaboration platform. "Emoji reactions on Slack are set up to maintain harmful and costly group dynamics, like groupthink and anchoring bias, and intensifies them. There are instances in which emojis are appropriate and fun, but leaders should recognize emojis are implicitly ageist: Understanding them requires a degree of context around youth culture, like how, these days, the skull emoji actually means something's funny, not bad. Decoding emojis takes time, and can lead to miscommunications, both of which reduce productivity, weaken the effectiveness of online communication, and create a culture of exclusion."

When is it too much, and how do you separate the proverbial wheat from chaff? "In the era of always-on communication, it's critical we encourage downtime away from chat and Zoom calls," said Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer at 15Five, an employee engagement company. "Asynchronous communication is more valuable than ever, and [helps people] think a little more strategically."

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There are abundant communication tools to consider and to determine which method is most appropriate for the conversation they want to facilitate. "Workers need to be careful with their use of IM tools," said Denise Broady, chief operating officer at Workforce Software, a cloud workforce management company. "If something does not need a quick response, it's always better to send an email or schedule a call. People should weigh the impact of interrupting someone else's work with the urgency of needing to get an answer to a question. If the topic is complex, it is probably not efficient to work it out over instant messaging. Instant messaging is best used for interactions that need a quick, easy response, but it should be limited."

Slack--and other similar services--provide a way to update team leaders and fellow members on your status, as well as, if it's an appropriate time to contact you. "If you're working on a project where you need 'heads-down' focus for a while, update your status to 'busy' so they understand your response time may be slower," said Rhiannon Staples, CMO at Hibob, an HR management company. " If productivity has been disrupted due to overuse of IM or Slack, turn off your Slack notifications or set status as 'away' or 'in a meeting' and close the application for a set amount of time."

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"When organizations put too much into these messaging platforms, it starts to get really difficult to find things," said Bobby Beckmann, CTO at Lifesize, a video conferencing company. "Finding information or conversations from the last few hours, or even days of messaging is reasonably doable, but starts to break down soon thereafter. Teams need to consider when and how they should record, archive and make collaborative interactions searchable, which often requires shifting or escalating to a different channel or medium."

And as is the case with tech tools and apps, consideration should be given to the recipients. "Slack, G-Chat, Jira and Zoom are all great tools," said Rishon Blumberg, co-founder of tech recruiters 10x Management and author of Game Changer: How to be 10X in the Talent Economy. "[But] they can be misused. It's important to use these tools to convey information that doesn't require a phone call. With more complex items, it's important to push to either email or a call (or today, possibly a Zoom). Teams should have specific channels set up for non-work or non-urgent items, but overall the practice of 'less is more,' is imperative. Between IMs, text messages, DMs, email, phone, etc., there are a million ways to get distracted. As an organization, it's important to set clear guidelines about best practices, and as an individual, it's important to set boundaries--both personally and professionally for how you use these tools."

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