Workplace Communication is Disruptive

Communication is essential. It is also one of the most disruptive practices in modern office environments.

Consider how much time you spend at work every day. 8 hours? 10 hours?

That is a long time and should be plenty to accomplish a lot of work. Especially when you consider that you have that much time every, single, day. So where is the time going? Why does the end of the day accomplishments look paltry when compared to the amount of time you have been at work?

Communication as disruptive

Workplace communication is one of the largest obstacles in the modern workplace for… accomplishing work.

We communicate internally in meetings, emails, slack conversations, and walk-bys. We communicate externally through video calls and invited meetings, and group emails.

Beyond the who, there is the when as well. We communicate in real-time, asynchronously, and even cross-platform and through notifications.

Communication is constant, varied, and at times overwhelming.

If proper boundaries are not set, communicating information can replace the actual work and creative output that adds value to our customers.

Every time a person stops in your office to ask a “quick question”, they are essentially saying:

What I have to ask is more important than what you are working on at the moment.

They have set your priorities for you and ranked themselves first. I find this both disruptive and rude.

Setting communication guidelines

There are things that need to be communicated, some of it is important, and some must be communicated and discussed in person. However, setting up some operational boundaries can help mitigate the level of distraction experienced.

One of the things we did was to set a standard approach to communicating with others in the office. This is based on our principles that all work and process should be set up to be remote and asynchronous in nature (though we do work in an office). Below is an excerpt from our manual.

Slack is our preferred method of communication internally. By leaving a message for someone on the Slack, it allows them to answer on their time preference, not yours. While something may be important to you, bursting into someone’s office forces your priorities on them, and prevents productive work. Our internal etiquette in order of escalating time drag is as follows

  • If you have something quick to tell or ask, type a private message in Slack
  • If you have something that requires discussion, start a channel, name it appropriately, and then begin the discussion.
  • Some things are easier to explain quickly with voice. For that use a Slack call. Start by asking if they have a minute for the call. If there is no answer, leave a slack chat asking them to reach out when able.
  • If you have something that requires more than a quick chat, ping the person you would like an audience with and ask them for some time such as “Hey, I need 5 minutes to go over something. Can I stop by in 10?”. A lack of a response is not an invite to barge, but an obligation to wait.
  • If the conversation requires more than a 15 min discussion, be polite and ask them to block some time for you on the calendar by doing a meeting invite.

The above is a general guideline to allow communication while respecting individuals space and more importantly, their time. This allows people to be more focused during the day and to accomplish more. We have found that even the anticipation of being interrupted blocks one’s ability to get work done.

Escalation of Method

It is important to respect not only the individuals but the guidelines that are being observed. What happens is that because someone asks a question, the receiver figures “oh, they must be working on this, I’ll just walk to their office and speak with them about it.”

This is just as, if not more disruptive. When chat applications such as Slack are used this way, expectations move more towards real-time and away from notification.

The next time that person needs to ask a question, they will hesitate knowing it will be read instantly and then someone will walk over. This defeats the purpose of the guidelines as a non-intrusive way to communicate, leave notes, and pass information.

There should never be an escalation of communication method without the sender first inviting the raise. A slack message should be responded to through slack, a meeting request confirmed or negated (with possible follow up over a less intrusive channel such as Slack or email).

Overall, communication methods and guidelines are not usually given much thought within a company, yet it is one of the largest time issues and productivity blocks in many small organizations. Implementing some basic guidelines can have an exponential change on what everyone can get done in those dedicated work hours. Who knows… maybe you won’t have to work weekends anymore!

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