Workplace Chatter Is Really About People Trying to Be Heard
Pings, dings, chimes, vibrations, banners, badges, flashing lights. We feel pressured to be always-on, always available. And we expect others to do the same.
Freedom from our work desks was supposed to improve work-life balance, but for many it seems we've traded down on the culture of work by creating other dependencies. To find answers, we ran a survey of 1,264 chat users to better understand behavior, usage, and attitudes towards instant messaging at work. The results were surprising and revealing.
Beyond the chat-pocalypse: deeper connectedness.
The first thing we discovered: while the noisy, always-on element of workplace communication tools like chat is a problem for some, for others it was appreciated. For remote workers especially, the "noise" was interpreted as a welcome replacement for the missing hustle and bustle of workplaces. In other words, the activity gives them a feeling of connectedness.
And that feeling, that connectedness, is what everybody's after. Connectedness is what most of our survey respondents said they craved, regardless of their individual situation.
This was a Eureka! moment, because we realized what people really want in workplace communication is the ability to express their individuality, their working styles, and more of their authentic selves. This creates a foundation for deeper connectedness, which in turn creates better working relationships and better work.
Our survey revealed that users whose colleagues know their working preferences feel more connected to their coworkers, as well as more productive and highly engaged at work. Another 39 percent said they get more work done in a typical day by having their working style known, and 20 percent feel less stress and anxiety about missing a message.
This kind of communication is as simple as declaring to teammates, "If my status says available, ping me anytime" or "I'll be in focus mode for two hours every morning this week." But it also means that workers want more expressiveness in their tools.
Users whose colleagues know their chat style feel more connected to their coworkers (54 percent), more productive (51 percent), and highly engaged at work (41 percent).
More communication about how we work, especially when respected, adds to the feeling of connectedness, which naturally leads to opening up more about our true selves. Which is exactly what more and more people want from their workplace interactions. More than a third (35 percent) of respondents said they wanted their coworkers to share more about their true selves at work. We quickly discovered that solving the problem of all this communication noise was about something deeper than what's usually talked about.
Sending signals and setting boundaries.
Our survey also clarified the need to set effective boundaries. The norms of response windows and times are shifting in ways that mean workers have to guard their personal time more wisely.
Of those surveyed, 42 percent said they're constantly checking their tool for new messages. About 55 percent reported feeling some pressure to always be available to colleagues and clients in chat, and another 23 percent said they felt significant or even extreme pressure.
At the same time, 40 percent said their use of chat at work has significantly increased their colleagues’ expectations that they're available. And when it comes to messages received after hours, six of ten people said they'd respond to them.
The expectation of immediacy means users should establish boundaries around availability at work, and after work, because the definition of normal working hours has changed. Responding after hours might be exactly when it's convenient for some.
The idea is to work the way you want and need to work. A night owl Millennial may prefer to sign on midmorning, since she was cranking out designs at her favorite focus time: midnight. A GenXer dad who doubles as after-school shuttle driver may happily sign back on once his kids are doing their homework quietly or finally in bed at 8:30 p.m. This kind of flexibility can keep workers happier and more productive.
But perhaps even more important is to realize there is no perfect way. Individuals and teams are unique, and they work in different ways. That's why tools need to be expressive, and give people the ways, means, and support to express themselves.
Build your own culture.
Companies should consider offering guidelines to help lay the groundwork for their own homegrown communications cultures. We discovered that just as learning about individual working styles allows users to feel more at ease and connected, specific guidelines may remove other uncertainties. Most chat users (81 percent) are at least somewhat interested in receiving clear guidelines from their company on how, when, and why to use their workplace communication tools.
Remember that implementing new practices takes, well, practice. Adopt a growth mindset, experiment, and try new things. Engage with your teammates and have open conversations about working and communication styles. With the right tool, used with consistent and reliable practices, co-located and distributed teams alike can experience the promise of today's workplace communication.