Is Your Work's Communication Channel Turning Your Team Into a Bunch of 'Slack'-ers?
A growing number of organizations are seeking transparency and moving toward flat hierarchies. But to achieve those goals, a new form of communication platform is needed. Enter the workplace communication channel. Platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams have become ubiquitous fixtures in workplaces worldwide.
In a survey of 900 North American and European IT leaders released last month, Spiceworks found that Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams (which comes free with an Office 365 subscription) are overtaking Slack as the leading workplace communication options.
Other tools such as Google Hangouts Chat, Facebook Workplace and Cisco Webex Teams are also in use, but Teams and Slack remain the front-runners. For small, lean teams with shared resources and deliverable overlap, these tools can serve as a bridge, linking project team members no matter where they physically are.
But this ease of user communication has a down side: These channels can be noisy, and the transparency they provide comes at the cost of distraction. In its 2018 Workplace Distraction Report,Udemy found that talkative colleagues were bothersome to 80 percent of the survey respondents, and office noise troubled 70 percent. Meanwhile, smartphones and notifications were a major detractor for the younger part of the workforce.
The same survey found that 74 percent of millennials and Gen-Zers surveyed reported that they were distracted at work and that that problem caused stress for 41 percent of them. Just as open office environments can lead to employees plugging in headphones to tune out their neighbors, some employees opt to mute communication channels, to focus on their work.
How to ensure productivity through communication
Dozens of articles have documented how Slack notifications hamper productivity, including blogger Anaek’s “A Field Guide to Managing Noise on Slack” and Christopher Batts’ take, “Actually, Slack Really Sucks.” Batts, for example, said he found the constant workflow Slack enables a hindrance to teams across time zones or to those working on non-immediate tasks. He said he personally gets more done with Slack closed.
At my company, I emphasize the theme #WorkInPublic, meaning that I encourage as much work-related discussion to happen on public channels as possible. I believe that helps our company to keep business conversations and projects visible and to use other types of channels for less critical messages.
In that context, I've implemented strategies to help my team use our messaging tools effectively. If you're concerned that communication tools detract from your team's productivity and focus -- or even your own -- use these strategies to get back on the right track:
1. Select the right platform.
Choosing the most popular platform of the moment is not the right answer. What’s right for your team may be wrong for another. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, which rely on a network effect, a corporate network is about open communication and productivity, not socializing.
Research conducted by Newsweaver indicated that 76 percent of companies polled hoped to use internal communications to boost employee engagement. But the primary metrics for communication tools for other companies surveyed included enabling change and demonstrating ROI. Every organization has different needs for its communication platform, so select the one that aligns with your company's specifics.
2. Perfect the balance.
Each team needs its own appropriate balance between open and closed groups. So, be moderate in creating open groups to avoid unnecessary noise. Also be sure to provide groups in which people are explicitly allowed to make noise by sharing anything they want. In this way, people who prefer to keep their focus on work will be able to opt not to check these channels unless they want to.
Computerworld recommends having three types of channels within one workspace: public, private and shared channels. These shared channels can allow employees to communicate even with third-party partners. Having delineated channels allows employees to talk about project-specific details, common interests or team topics such as sales or engineering.
3. Make notification options clear.
Educate every user on how to turn on his or her own fine-grained notification preferences. That way employees will be interrupted only by things they want to interrupt their work. While Slack, despite its status as a popular choice of communication channel, does not allow users to block or mute specific people -- according to Slack's own Twitter account -- it does have individual setting options.
And no matter what platform your company uses, your employees should have options. Have a main channel that is for use only during regular business hours. Similarly, devote a separate channel to chatter that’s irrelevant to work matters. Fun GIFs and pictures of kittens don’t need space in the main channel. When possible, tag specific people in messages, rather than a full channel. And make sure everyone is cognizant of your company's communication guidelines.
4. Encourage some time that's untethered.
Even with the best platform, the perfect balance of channels and personalized notification settings, sometimes the best way to beat distractions is to schedule-in some time for them. A study by productivity app company DeskTime identified the ideal work-break balance as 52 minutes of focused work followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes should ideally be spent away from the desk, whether that means talking to co-workers, going for short walks or doing simple exercises.
Being constantly accessible via Slack or Teams can feel like you're in a full-day meeting. But employees should be diligent about taking a break from communication channels when they need one. Encourage your team members to take stock of their own distraction levels and take small breaks during the day to manage them if necessary.
Workplace communication channels are, without a doubt, useful for modern companies, especially in the knowledge economy. But without proper guidelines and restrictions in place, the chatter can be more distracting than helpful. Organizations should ensure that employees feel empowered to do their best work -- without distractions.