Has collaboration software wrought perilous communication overload?

A new generation of collaborative software, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, could prove a knowledge management boon. But does it have a dark side of communication overload?

The collaboration tool Slack now counts eight million daily users, whilst Microsoft’s Team chat app is used in over 200,000 organisations. Popular as such tools are, do they really improve productivity as much as is claimed?

Three years ago, it was reported that an email epidemic was killing UK productivity. An over-reliance on email meant that employees were being swamped with unnecessary messages, distracting them from their projects and thereby damaging an organisation’s productivity.

There has since been significant research conducted on how emails are affecting people’s mental and social wellbeing, with a whole new field of psychology called “Technostress” being formed.

“Emails are the most pernicious,” observes Sir Cary Cooper CBE, Professor of Organisational Psychology & Health at the University of Manchester. “They interfere with [peoples’] private life and social time and holidays and are having a major impact on their productivity.”

Since then, we have witnessed the rise of collaborative tools in the work place. There are now many online tools for companies to choose from; from business messaging apps such as Slack and Skype for Business to project collaboration tools like GitHub and Asana.

“Over the course of my career I’ve seen online collaboration tools develop from something novel into something vitally useful,” says Chris Brind, Software Engineer at DuckDuckGo.

Information overload

Whilst such tools reduce the frequency of emails, the total number of messages being sent has not been reduced. Rather, messages are now spread across multiple messaging and collaborative applications. “Volume has now moved over into a variety of tools. It becomes difficult to keep everything merged together,” says David Goulden, product director at Clarizen.

A survey about collaboration technology published by Clarizen last year revealed, amongst other things, that despite 81% of respondents taking steps to improve communication, they still lacked a way to keep projects on track and provide management oversight.

Although designed to mitigate the loss of productivity, inappropriate use of collaboration tools can inadvertently cause a further reduction in productivity. In short, a multitude of incoming messages from a number of channels can be a serious distraction.

“I have no doubt productivity is falling through the floor due to these socially collaborative tools,” says Ian Armstrong, co-founder of Glass Onion. “I've seen them used in product development, company mergers and fully distributed businesses, and I've been around long enough to know of a world before they were available.”

Enabling collaboration and knowledge sharing

However, collaboration tools are not without their benefits, as they allow users to check colleague availability at a glance, collaborate with others regardless of distance and obtain a swift answer to a brief question.

“Slack has helped us to effectively separate communication between team members from external communications,” says Dr Zubair Ahmed, CEO of MedicSpot. “The informal nature of Slack allows the team to get important points across without wasting time on email etiquette.”

Collaborative tools also allow geographically diverse teams to collaborate effectively. Projects were previously more constrained by the locally available talent pool, whereas now organisations are able to recruit on a world-wide basis and have their employees connected via collaboration tools.

“Slack and other collaborative tools such as GitHub, Trello, and Asana are redefining the way we work,” says David Hanson, Co-CEO of Ultra. “For the first time, teams can be spread all over the globe and still operate as a team.”

This sentiment is shared by Claire Elbrow of Blue Lizard Marketing; “We use Timecamp for time tracking and invoicing, and Trello for project management. We use OneDrive for filing and file sharing. Without them I would not be able to run my business in the way I do.”

Distractions and disruptions

However, people are naturally reactive. Our preconditioned behaviour dictates that we respond to incoming stimuli. For example, if the phone rings, we answer it.

With incoming messages – and their notifications – employees are distracted from projects. They feel compelled to read the message and respond if necessary. Some people cannot help but watch the animated notifications that indicate someone is typing, and after the conversation they have to regain their original focus. All this takes up valuable time.

Collaborative tools can also saturate employees with information, further distracting them from what they are working on. If employees are constantly bombarded with unfiltered information about everything happening within a company, it can be difficult for people to discern what is important and what can wait – or even be ignored.

“There is a danger of information overload when too many channels are in use,” says Sherry Bevan, a women's leadership coach. “It's important to set boundaries, because you cannot possibly respond to every channel with the same level of responsiveness.”

Information shared in this way often becomes hard to find, as many collaboration tools store everything in long threads. Finding what was shared a few weeks or months ago becomes a time-consuming endeavour.

“There is a plethora of communication [tools] and keeping those aligned is increasingly difficult,” says Goulden. “If information is not channelled through a shared repository, then those communications can be lost.”

Productivity boosts

From the outset, companies should determine who requires access to which chat channels and collaboration tools. For example, much like the rule of not CCing everyone into an email, it is important to understand that not everyone requires access to all the information all of the time. Information overload leads to a highly distracted – and confused – workforce.

Instead, access to each communication channel should be on a need-to-know basis, with the information transparently available for employees to find as and when they require it.

“At first, we found we were getting distracted by different channels, with multiple notifications and conversations sometimes starting on one channel and finishing on another,” says Ahmed. “We [then] created specific private channels within Slack, inviting only those who needed to be involved in those conversations.”

Limiting employees’ access to chat channels will diminish the distractions this brings. This can be further mitigated by switching off certain notifications, such as the employee only being notified when they are specifically mentioned in a comment. If users find themselves distracted by every message, this can lead to them switching off the application altogether.

Whilst an induction seminar about collaboration tools seems somewhat obsolete in this digitally connected age, it does allow companies to stipulate the expected level of professional behaviour when using such tools. These seminars can also highlight that messages on the corporate network should not to be considered private.

Read more about new generation collaborative software

Managers can lead by example, by setting the expected tone for using chat tools. This encourages professional dialogue and helps to prevent conversations going off topic.

An option worth considering is adopting asynchronous collaboration/communication tools. Unlike synchronous tools, which notify employees as soon as a message has been delivered, asynchronous tools only deliver messages when the employee is ready.

This may delay a message by, at most, a few hours. However, asynchronous tools are not intended to replace tools designed for immediate dissemination of information and should therefore not be used as such.  In such as cases, a telephone call or face-to-face meeting would be better suited.

“Asynchronous communication apps allow people to share updates or ask for feedback and get responses or simply others’ attention when their attention is free from important work,” says Martynas Jocius, co-founder and product engineer at Tipi. “That simple principle is a big productivity booster.”

Maximising productivity, minimising distractions

Collaboration and communication tools are here to stay, whether we like it or not. They can enhance an organisation’s productivity and interconnectedness, allowing company-wide project collaboration, regardless of how geographically diverse an organisation may be. However, this is only when they are used appropriately.

Awareness of the damage that collaboration tools can cause – and the wider impacts of always being digitally connected - are being recognised.  The French government have passed a law saying that no manager in the public or private sector can send an email – including any messaging apps – to their staff members out of office hours. “It is utterly unenforceable,” says Cooper. “But it is sending a big message.”

Rather than simply deploying any new collaborative technologies across their network as is, companies need to consider the impact that this new technology will have on work flow and ensure all staff are briefed on appropriate use. Time should be taken to consider how to best connect their employees without unduly distracting them.

“I couldn’t do my job without collaboration tools,” says Brind. “They can be distracting, but the thing to remember is that you’re in control.”

This was last published in July 2018

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This is a good start on a conversation about "Best of Breed" apps like Slack and Asana, but the conversation will eventually move toward a comparison against "All in One" apps that bring multiple collaborative functions under one roof.
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