Messaging: The Productivity Killer?

Messaging apps are a great way to enable rapid communication on a team.

The problem is:

Messaging apps are distracting.

While it is easy to communicate on chat tools, the constant stream of messages they create seem to make it impossible to get real work done.

Well, it turns out, that making messaging helpful is all about implementation. With just a little understanding of human psychology, teams can set up processes that make messaging actually enhance productivity (by as much as 25%).

In this post, we are first going to dig into the research on the impact of interruption on productivity. Based on that research and our experience, we’ll then provide 5 actionable steps for making messaging useful for your team.

Ready to get started?

Messaging -> Interruptions -> Distraction -> ZERO PRODUCTIVITY

Did you know that humans have a shorter attention span than a goldfish?

Since 2000, the human attention span has fallen from 12 to eight seconds. A goldfish has an attention span of nine.

It is incredibly easy to distract people, and the cost is high.

Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, found that a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.

When you receive several messages a day, you find yourself constantly switching tasks to respond. After a certain point, you end up in a state of continuous partial attention unable to concentrate on important work.

These distractions spell disaster for your team’s productivity, especially when 20% of messages are Giphys.

That doesn’t sound like the recipe for a productive day.

As Samuel Hulick describes, it becomes:

“something of a black hole for attention, sucking discourse and activity alike in with [its] massive (and very charming!) gravitational pull.”

Also, if all decisions are made in an instant messaging group, you feel obligated to constantly monitor it. Otherwise, you will miss out on opportunities to give input into important decisions.

Jason Fried describes this as:

“being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.”

Yikes. And you thought your weekly staff meeting was bad.

On the other hand:

Let’s imagine your team at work wasn’t allowed to communicate with each other.

How would you figure out what to start working on? How would get input on your work from others? What if you discovered a problem that affected the whole group?

Interruption is necessary for collaboration on a team.

So, the answer isn’t to eliminate interruption.

It’s all about how you structure work to minimize them without losing necessary communication.
And the problem with instant messaging isn’t that it causes interruption. It’s that the way people use it. Besides, it’s not as if it’s the only tool that does this (cough cough email).

Bottom line. Instant messaging can be a pernicious source of interruption. But, it cannot (and should not) be eliminated entirely.

So what’s the trick?

The answer is in effective implementation.

Making it right (and increase performance by over 25%)

How do business leaders implement instant messaging effectively?

It is all about setting up norms and processes that prevent distraction.

Here are four key procedures that can make instant messaging work:

1. Require everyone on the team to block off time every day for concentrated work

Have you ever had that feeling when you are completely immersed in what you are doing?

Minutes pass by without you noticing and you are able to achieve a lot in a short amount of time. According to positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is called the flow state.

Flow has been associated with improved performance and innovation in a variety of fields. When many in an organization experience flow, those organizations have higher productivity and lower turnover.

One of the key conditions for making flow is having uninterrupted time to concentrate. Thus, it can’t happen when employees interrupting each other every five minutes.

One way to create these optimal conditions is for organizations to allow employees to block off time in the schedule for concentrated work.

To implement this:

Require every team member block off time where they can’t be reached. The amount of time will vary based on your organization, but we recommend about 1–3 hours a day.

They can signal this by blocking time on their calendar or by putting on the busy status in the instant messaging app (maybe both). The key here is that everyone communicates clearly what times they aren’t going to be available. Otherwise, Sally in finance is going to freak out when she can’t reach you (and you know you don’t want to piss her off).

The image below shows an example of how this time blocking technique could work.

Also, it is important that everyone blocks off their time in a way such that there are windows of time when everyone is available. In other words, this new system shouldn’t make it impossible to schedule a team meeting.

To ensure that this time blocking is respected, management needs to set an example and not interrupt their employees during their blocked time. Otherwise, team members won’t take it seriously.

2. Have team members move all urgent requests out of the instant messaging app and email.

We can all relate to that anxiety you feel when you haven’t checked your instant messaging app in while. That fear of opening it and finding that you’ve missed something truly important.

No one wants to be the person who derailed an important project because they didn’t respond to a message in time.

When you know you can’t be reached, you might become even more worried about missing something important.

At the same time, it isn’t reasonable to expect employees to constantly monitor chat and email while simultaneously completing a full day of productive work.

How do you fix this?

Require that any urgent request must be handled with a phone call, text 0r in person. That way, team members don’t have to worry about missing something truly urgent. They know that the most urgent requests will be brought to their attention. Everything else they can deal with at a convenient time for them.

Although phone conversations may seem to take longer than shooting off a quick message, it actually streamlines communication by filtering out what is important.

Before they pick up the phone, people will have to ask themselves:

is this really so important it couldn’t wait the two hours until this person is available?

It is easy to get swept up in an ASAP culture where everything is defined as urgent until the term loses its meaning. Very few things are actually that important. Sometimes, taking a step back and changing the way you communicate can provide a little perspective.

A good example of this occurred at Rarely impossible, a UK IT consulting firm.

They were tired of the constant hassle caused by email. So their founder, Lee Mallon, made a bold choice: he got rid of email for the company. Under the new policy, urgent requests were all handled in person or on the phone. For knowledge sharing and project management, they adopted an instant messaging tool and Dropbox.

The results?

“My team communicates much better,” said Mallon, who estimates they’ve saved about 20% of the workday by getting rid of email. “Now issues get solved right away.”

So it worked for Rarely Impossible. Could it work for your team?

3. Limit notifications on messaging tools to only the most relevant information.

Did you know that the average worker spends nearly 20 percent of their time looking for internal information?

Collaboration tools can be a great way to share knowledge across large organizations.

When employees have one place they can go to find internal information, it becomes a lot easier to find what they need. Because you know that if you have a question, someone has probably asked it before. All they have to do is open their app and search the relevant group or channel.

It is estimated that this type of searchable record can reduce time spent looking for information by as much as 35 percent.

The problem is that this knowledge sharing in a collaboration tool can create notifications. As we’ve covered, notifications lead to distraction and kill productivity.

That is why it is important that knowledge sharing groups or channels have notifications turned off. That way people can read and contribute when they want to, not when a notification pulls them in.

The easiest way to handle this is to set up these knowledge sharing groups so that the default setting is notifications off. That way people aren’t bothered from the beginning.

4. Clearly define the purpose of instant messaging: a place for rapid, ephemeral, synchronous conversations.

Instant messaging tools can resolve issues very quickly when both people have a quick back and forth discussion.

Simple and easy. This is what instant messaging does best.

The longer and more complex the discussion, the less useful instant messaging tools can be.

Joe is making things complicated.

Lengthy paragraph long discussions don’t work for instant messaging. They are hard to read and slow conversations down.

Instant messaging should be all about making communication faster and easier.

Phone calls, video conferencing, or an in-person discussion are better when you have a lot to communicate or the issues are more complex.

Thus, it is important that an organization define these norms clearly to all personnel. Perhaps, they could add discussion of instant messaging etiquette to new hire training.

Management also needs to set the example of using instant messaging in the right way. They should encourage others to intervene when their chats are getting out of control.

Another way to help curb the chaos of group chat it to limit the number of people in a conversation as much as possible. Just like with conference calls, instant messaging chats quickly become disorganized and chaotic when more than three people are involved. As such, it is better to try to limit the number of people as much as possible.

5. Perform an assessment of current workflow and identify opportunities to automate

Another way to reduce the noise is to automate processes so that certain conversations don’t need to happen. Tools like Zapier allow you to connect your apps so that they can talk to each other and perform processes on their own.

You can just sit back and let it happen. No need to chase down Sarah in Marketing.

To implement this:

First, you need to put together a team to do an assessment of the conversations happening in the instant messaging app. They will seek to identify conversations related to processes that 1) occur frequently and 2) can be automated. Once those have been identified, they can set up integrations with a tool like Zapier so that these process now happen automatically.

At Hive, we connect our Hive workspace with our customer service software platform, Intercom. When a customer sends us a message in Intercom, we get a message in Hive in our Customer group (but not a notification). The customer team checks it a few times a day and comments on what messages they are handling. That way, we all know that our customers are being taken care of without having to open up the Intercom app or coordinate with each other.

Using a streamlined process

Before, we would all go into the intercom app at the same time and often we would send each other messages to coordinate who was handling what request. Now, the process is much more streamlined.

Another place where communication could be more efficient is setting up meetings. We all know the endless messages that can be involved in trying to get a together with someone for a meeting. When you have to do it with a large group of people, it becomes impossible.

Scheduling tools like Calendly make it a lot easier to set up meetings and indicate your availability. All you have to do is share the link to your scheduler and the other person can pick the time that works for them. Simple.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, instant messaging is a tool. Like any tool, it can be great for one purpose, but completely useless in another. For example, just as you wouldn’t use a spoon to cut a steak, you wouldn’t waste time with lengthy chats when talking in person would be quicker.

It isn’t about what a tool does, it truly is about how you use it. Thus, how an organization defines norms around instant messaging determine how useful it will be.