When work communication tools distract from the actual work
Nov 16, 2023

When work communication tools distract from the actual work

Programs like Slack, Zoom and Teams, among others, connected us all during the work-from-home and hybrid era. But Marketplace's senior reporter Kristin Schwab talks about how those tools have impacted employees' productivity.

The soundtrack to the modern workplace sounds a lot like a cacophony of familiar pings and notification sounds from digital communication tools like email, Slack, Zoom and Teams — all of which are supposed to make us more productive.

But all too often they can feel overwhelming, interfering with, you know, actual work.

Marketplace’s Matt Levin spoke with “Marketplace” reporter Kristin Schwab about how a small business owner in Nevada who was struggling to keep up with all those pings, dealt with her situation.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kristin Schwab: So Susan Hoy owns a guardianship company in Las Vegas, so she’s talking with doctors, lawyers, family members, lots of people, all day, all night. And she told me about how when things started to go hybrid, she just became overwhelmed with pings. She got into this habit of like waking up at 4:30 in the morning, and just scrolling through all of the emails and chats that she had. And she noticed that her employees were starting to feel this kind of anxiety, too. Here’s what she said about that.

Susan Hoy: Like, literally, I had a staff member who would come into my office and say, “did you see that email I just sent you?” Like, no, I did not! You know, there was this lack of like this trust.

Schwab: So she was just feeling this anxiety spread around her office, and she decided she really needed to figure out some way to manage it.

Matt Levin: Obviously, these tools are supposed to be helping us, not hindering us. Why is this such a nightmare?

Schwab: Well, yeah, so these tools were created to help manage our time, but they’ve almost created more tasks for us to do. You have emails to go through, slacks to answer, the average worker gets about 120 emails a day is what a researcher I talked to told me. And part of the reason why it’s ramping up is because we’re going through this adjustment period where we’re still figuring out how to behave in a hybrid world.

Levin: On that note, how have remote and hybrid work changed this dynamic?

Schwab: You know, we’re at work, sometimes we’re at home, sometimes, sometimes we’re doing the funny thing where we’re at work in a Zoom meeting to accommodate the people who are also at home.

Levin: Yes, that’s always lovely.

Schwab: Everyone’s favorite. And so now we kind of just bother people and communicate when it’s convenient. For us, it’s sort of an information dump. And we also have this urge to prove to other people like, “hey, I’m home, hey, I’m in my pajamas but I am working and here are all the things I’m getting done.” And that lends to over communicating.

Levin: How are people supposed to cut through all this noise?

Schwab: Well, you can’t really control how your boss communicates. But the biggest thing you can control is how you communicate and take stock of how you use these tools. So one productivity consultant told me that, for instance, instead of incrementally pinging people throughout the day to update them on what you’ve got done, or what needs to happen, make a list and either wait to update them when you have your meeting, or at the end of the day in one slack or one email. And this really does have a ripple effect on the teams you work with and your other coworkers, they’ll start to mirror that behavior.

Levin: Okay, let’s go back to Susan Hoy, that poor Nevada business owner looking at emails at 4:30 in the morning, how did she end up cutting through this noise?

Schwab: So she actually saw a productivity coach, maybe that’s not for everyone. But she does own a business and she felt the anxiety of everybody else around her. And part of what she decided was that, because they have to communicate with outside parties so much, they just they started a no internal email policy, except for very important, you know, boss approval, vacation type of things. No updates about projects, about who’s picking up somebody where and when. Internally, they only use their Slack or whatever chat platform they use to do that. And she instituted her own personal, no emails from her bed at 4:30am (policy) because who is looking at them at that point, they can wait. And it also creates a sort of expectation for other people to answer you.

Levin: I’m very curious how you manage the deluge of communications that comes at you in your job. Maybe there’s some tip I can pick up here because I just, I guess, drown in it. That’s my strategy. What do you do?

Schwab: I’m an inbox zero person. But that often ends in me clicking through emails just to mark them as read. And then if it’s really important, if I can’t get to it, I mark it as read. But I don’t really pay attention to a ton of — PR people aren’t gonna like this — a ton of emails if they aren’t sort of internal. I think that’s sort of unique to our jobs as reporters, and we mostly deal with our editors. I don’t feel like we communicate with a ton of people all day, except the people we need to. And then I definitely silence a lot of big Slack channels, mute them during certain weeks that they’re not as important or if I’m working on a certain team one week, then I’ll unmute them. That’s kind of helped me a little bit.

More on this

You can read Kristin’s fantastic story on the subject here.

I also suggest you Google Cal Newport, he’s a Georgetown professor who has written extensively about what he calls the hyperactive hivemind of modern work

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer