Internal communicators, HR and managers alike are continually working to get us better connected and communicating more. The truth is, it’s doing us more harm than good. Should we be hitting the mute button?

silence is golden - the value of hitting mute

If you work in any role in which you’re managing people or information, getting the conversation flowing is absolutely crucial to, well, do your job.

We need to be providing each other with updates, sharing ideas, asking questions, passing along information, brainstorming challenges. We need to handover that customer from the sales guys to the project management team and the account manager after that. When people talk, tasks are accomplished, projects progress, stuff gets done. Without communication, organizations would simply be dead in the water. Non-existent.

So, it sounds like a complete contradiction to say communicators (and, indeed, organizations as a whole) should be working to get us talking less – but bear with me here.

Thanks to a whole host of developments in workplace technology, remote working, social media, and indeed an overall awareness of the value and importance of communication, we’ve actually swung the pendulum too far. We’re constantly communicating. It’s all we do.

The trouble is, it comes at a significant cost – individually, to organizations, even to society as a whole. And the responsibility of setting boundaries and managing this communications crisis in the workplace needs to fall to those currently charged with creating it: managers and internal comms. Here’s why.

#1: Downtime is not a bug

In April 2007, Ariana Huffington – the founder of ‘The Huffington Post’ – collapsed.

She had ironically just received news that she had been picked as one of “Time’s 100 most influential people” when she passed out, breaking her cheekbone and waking in a pool of her own blood. Speaking to Adam Grant on his podcast Worklife, she described a rush to ER and a round of tests, only to be told she had “civilization’s disease”: burnout.

“The thing about machines, and the same thing about software, is that the goal is to minimize downtime,” Ariana tells Adam.

“I mean, Salesforce has an ad out about a new product and they’re saying they have 99.9 percent uptime. That’s fantastic for software and it’s fantastic for machinery – but the human operating system is different. Downtime for the human operating system is not a bug, it’s a feature.”

Exhaustion can result due to poor worklife balance

Ariana’s experience may be the extreme, but incidences of burnout are increasingly common. Digital communication is convenient, instant, easy – but that also means we’re almost permanently contactable.

The resulting ‘always on’ mentality blurs the lines between work and home life, costing us – and our staff – the much-needed downtime we physically require to recharge and function. The cost to mental and physical health can be extreme.

#2: Interrupting my flow

If you were to ask me how I slept last night, and I replied, “it was OK, I got 8 hours in – but I woke every 15 – 20 minutes,” would you class that as a ‘good’ night’s sleep?

My guess is not.

Work is similar to sleep. You naturally have different phases of work, spurts of productivity; and just like that all-important REM sleep, where the magic happens, it takes a while to get to those creative stages. To get work done and be truly productive, we need uninterrupted stretches of time to zone in and focus.

The trouble is, our digital workplaces are set up to interrupt us. Constantly. Alerts popping up whenever we get email; instant messages on Slack or Skype; notifications when documents are updated or an event is added to the company calendar. People spend an average of 11 minutes on any given project before they’re interrupted. I’ve been interrupted 3 times writing this one point.

An interruption averaging 2.8 seconds – say, one of those blinking notifications in the corner of your computer screen – can double the risk of error, a study by researchers at Michigan State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory found.

The scary thing is, it takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus ourselves once we’re interrupted. Quite frankly, it’s amazing we get any work done.

In a physical office, it would be considered unacceptable for a colleague to walk over and interrupt us every 10, 15 minutes. The idea that whatever they have to say or ask is more important than what you’re working on in that given moment is fundamentally flawed. But somehow, behind the safety of our screens, it’s considered normal behaviour.

#3: Quality, not quantity

We’ve already established that communication is crucial for organizations to function – but in a world of IMing and emoticons, of WhatsApp and Snapchat, Tweets, Yammer and more, we’re seeing a shift towards disposable messaging. We accept that those messages we send are point-in-time, instantaneous, part of a colossal virtual world of digital noise.

emails dominate our lives

The trouble is, we’re not only responding to an expectation that communication be real-time – placing us in a state of constant readiness to hit ‘Reply’ as soon as a notification pops up – we’re not affording time to our responses. The most common email response time is just two minutes; for instant messaging, it’s an estimated 90 seconds or less. That’s a trend that’s accelerating, resulting in a surge in the volume of messages sent.

In the workplace, that’s not necessarily a benefit. Yes, we can get information more quickly; critical in a situation where you may be dealing with a customer on the phone and need a solution, for example. But faster responses also leave us more vulnerable to errors, typos, misunderstandings.

In 2016, the UK National Health Service (NHS) suffered perhaps the worst ‘reply allpocalypse’ ever seen, when a technician accidentally sent a ‘test’ message to all 1.2 million employees of the NHS.

To add fuel to the fire, plenty of staff instantly hit the ‘reply all’ button to the thread, followed by others ‘replying all’ asking to be removed from the distribution list, and so on. The resulting 186 million emails brought down email servers and caused chaos for the entire health service.

They also don’t allow time, space, and distance to consider what we reply.

Taking time to contemplate a problem, question, to research or brainstorm around a challenge makes for better and considered solutions. It reduces incidences of error or fault, making our organizations more resilient and successful. If our staff are not only responding but reacting on their feet, in line with an expectation of instant and fast-paced communication, they’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to miss things.

We need to shift the focus from speed and quantity of communication, to quality interactions that contribute positively to the organization and the people within it.

#4: I can’t say ‘no’

Technology is designed to keep us hooked.

There’s instant response and reward; behind every app, device, platform, there’s a team of engineers looking to capture and retain our attention. The result is a lack of ‘stopping cues’ – indicators that it’s time to move onto something else, natural gaps or pauses in activity.

Now, it’s an endless feed of updates on your timeline. Netflix and YouTube auto-play the next episode or video, and powerful algorithms couple targeted marketing to push relevant content or links to you as soon as you get to the bottom of your blog or article. We can barely lift our heads up from our cellphones.

Technology is designed to steal our attention

With this constant stimulation, our attention spans are decreasing. We’re now in a state where we’re actually self-interrupting on average every 3.5 minutes. I’m as bad as anyone. In the time I’ve written 5 sentences, I’ve checked my email, browsed 3 different websites, and grabbed a coffee.

In one experiment, researchers found that just having a smartphone on the desk – even if it was in airplane mode and face down – reduced working memory by 10 percent. Those in the experiment also performed five percent worse on an intelligence test. Just having the phone there was enough to send minds wandering: the results were on par with the effects of lacking sleep.

What’s more, the ‘always on’ and ‘instant reply’ trend is now embedded into business culture. Even if we’re conscious enough to know when to cut off from the bombardment of communication coming our way, we’re likely to be a lone wolf. How can we be the ones saying ‘no’, when all around us are saying ‘yes’?

Simply telling employees to focus isn’t going to cut it. The compulsion to check social media, email, instantly respond to messages, task switch constantly and be readily available at the drop of a hat, is akin to battling addiction for many. Workplaces need to be supporting staff and making it clear – it’s not only OK, but beneficial to say ‘no’.

How do we fix it?

The argument here isn’t to eliminate communication or uninstall Yammer from every employee device.

However, the ‘always on’ and instant nature of communication is creating an unsustainable and unhealthy culture. We need boundaries – and employees struggle to set these for themselves.

Employers have a responsibility as well as an incentive to reduce the overload of communication in the workplace. Less interruptions, fewer disposable messages and more quality interactions make for happier, more productive employees. So, how can we dial down the virtual noise?

  • Consider virtual ‘quiet zones’ to give staff the space for focus without interruption. In one instance, a Fortune 500 software company rolled out a quiet time policy to stop interruptions for its engineers between 8 – 11am, and 3 – 5pm. Productivity increased 59% in the morning interruption-free zone and 65% in the afternoon. It doesn’t even need to be this extreme; the Happiness Research Institute instilled daily ‘creative zones’ of just an hour or two, and saw a resulting spike in productivity.

Digital do not disturb

  • Set an example at management level: when your manager or CEO is sending out emails at all hours, you’re going to feel both pressure to respond, and believe that emulating this example is how to ‘get ahead’ in your career. When managers set boundaries, it’s far easier for staff to follow suit.
  • Group non-essential communications and set a routine: company updates, intranet blogs, staff birthdays, upcoming events: these are all non-urgent communications that don’t require individual pop-up notifications that could disrupt your staff. Consider collating your internal comms into a weekly roundup or virtual newsletter, distributed at the same time each week, so staff know when to expect them.
  • Make use of the proverbial ‘Do Not Disturb’: there are some great examples of companies going outside the box on this one; the famous example of Daimler, who auto-delete emails for employees on annual leave, is just one. Another Dutch design firm actually lifts office furniture on cables at 6pm, making a physical boundary between work and home life.

Communication is key to success – but let’s strive to make our interactions purposeful, meaningful, and worthwhile. Maybe by communicating less, we can actually achieve a great deal more.