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How Slack, email and Zoom are making us less productive and more overwhelmed

Kristin Schwab Nov 1, 2023
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While digital platforms like email, Microsoft Teams and Slack have increased productivity in some ways, they also mean more time responding to messages and less time accomplishing work tasks. Getty Images

How Slack, email and Zoom are making us less productive and more overwhelmed

Kristin Schwab Nov 1, 2023
Heard on:
While digital platforms like email, Microsoft Teams and Slack have increased productivity in some ways, they also mean more time responding to messages and less time accomplishing work tasks. Getty Images
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At some point a couple years ago, Susan Hoy felt like she was being buried under a pile of texts, emails and chats. Every morning, she’d wake up at 4:30 a.m., open her eyes, grab her phone and — from her bed, while it was still dark — scroll through the messages.

“I had a lot coming at me all the time,” she said. “Between emails and chatting on the team channel and our software program, I just couldn’t get through all of it in a day.”

Hoy owns Nevada Guardian Services in Las Vegas, an agency that helps manage the lives of people who are sick, dealing with memory loss or, for one reason or another, just can’t manage their own lives or assets. It means she’s constantly juggling conversations with attorneys, physicians, family members and employees.

“Most of our job is communication,” said Hoy. “It absolutely is.”

But ever since her workplace went hybrid, the number of messages grew, and were coming at her from a bunch of different platforms. It created a lot of anxiety for both her and her employees.

“Literally I have a staff member who would come into my office and say, ‘Did you see that email I just sent you?'” said Hoy. “Like, no! I did not! You know, there was this lack of, like, trust.”

Nearly half of workers say they’ve missed important deadlines and meetings because they don’t pay enough attention to their inboxes, according to Slack. The statistic touches on something bigger happening in the workplace, especially as work becomes increasingly digital and remote. In the search for streamlined communication, it’s possible we’ve created chaos. 

One example: In the last 20 years, our attention span at work has drastically shrunk, from two-and-a-half minutes to less than 50 seconds as we bounce from spreadsheets to Zoom to Slack, according to research by Gloria Mark, author of “Attention Span,” a book about work in the digital age. While these platforms have increased productivity, they’ve also gotten in our way.

“Electronic communications have expanded the scope of work,” she said. “So it’s given us additional work above and beyond other duties that we have.”

More messages means more time responding and less time doing important tasks. And it’s become an exponentially bigger problem with remote work because when you need to talk to someone you can’t see them. There aren’t physical cues, like someone closing their office door or wearing headphones, to signal they’re busy. 

“You never know when to interrupt people and so we interrupt others at a time that suits us,” Mark said.

It might be because we’re not aware of the moment or because we’re sort of information dumping, so we can check to-dos off our lists. Or it might be because, since no one sees us working, we want to let people know we are.

“And this might be manifested by sending additional emails or additional Slack messages,” said Mark.

Of course, these platforms aren’t going anywhere. So how do we get from that meme, “This meeting could have been an email,” to actual efficiency?

“Put your phone across the room, turn off your email, turn off all your notifications,” said Ellen Faye, a productivity coach in Florida. 

She acknowledges that you might not be able to control the fact that your boss is a chaotic communicator. But you don’t have to be one. For instance, instead of impulsively Slacking a coworker, keep a list of updates to give them all at once.

“And then what I have seen,” said Faye, “is once one person does that in the organization it kind of has a ripple effect.”

That’s how things worked for Hoy. She started a no interoffice email policy. Inboxes are now only for communicating with people outside the business and everything else happens in Microsoft Teams.

“I had to really retrain my thought process that nobody needs a response from me on an email while I’m laying in bed,” she said.

She said it’s cut her inbox down to 40 emails a day. The average worker gets around 120.

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