Collaborative tools need your control to prevent employee overload

We need deep work to be productive and creative, but digital collaboration tools distract us. Some businesses see it’s time to regain control.

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In centuries past, scholars at England’s older universities had a foolproof system to make sure they could work in peace. Offices had two sets of doors. If only the inner door was closed, visitors were welcome to knock, but shutting the outer oak door (known as sporting the oak) meant do not disturb – and everyone, no matter how senior, was expected to observe.

In 2021 many remote workers would welcome the digital equivalent of that sturdy oak door. Conferencing and workflow platforms like Slack, Zoom and Teams have revolutionized remote working – without these, the COVID-19 pandemic may have seen knowledge-based businesses struggle. But now, some employees find themselves on a carousel of virtual meetings, instant messages and urgent emails with little time for unbroken concentration.

It’s called ‘collaborative overload,’ ‘tyranny of the inbox’ or ‘the collaboration curse.’ Among its most influential commentators is bestselling business author and Georgetown University Professor Cal Newport. He popularized the term ‘deep work:’ Giving a single task undivided attention for an extended time.

The power of deep attention

In Professor Newport’s words, “Deep work makes you better at what you do and provides the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craft, yet most spend their days in a frantic blur of email and social media.”

Emma Birchall is co-managing director of HSM, a future of work research consultancy. She told us, “We all thought the move to remote working would give us time to reflect, and that not sitting next to colleagues would give us space for deep work. But we’ve found most diaries are back-to-back with online meetings and notifications go off all day.”

It’s an issue unlikely to go away as the pandemic recedes. Research commissioned by Kaspersky suggests some remote working will be a permanent fact of life for many, and “hybrid working” will become the new normal. Most (74 percent) don’t want to return to some pre-COVID work practices, with 37 percent hoping for a flexible mix of working at home and in the office.

What collaboration is meant to be like

To get a handle on the problem, it’s useful to identify what collaboration is meant to achieve. Alison Coward founded Bracket, an agency that helps teams work together more effectively. She champions ‘purposeful collaboration:’ Bringing diverse minds and skillsets together to solve complex challenges, but with each person’s contribution developed through deep work.

The most productive teams have periods of individual work alternating with collaborative sessions. Just being on Slack or Zoom doesn’t equal collaboration but can give the illusion of it. It’s a misconception that the tools can solve communication problems.

The most productive teams have periods of individual work alternating with collaborative sessions. Just being on Slack or Zoom doesn’t equal collaboration but can give the illusion of it. It’s a misconception that the tools can solve communication problems.

Alison Coward, Founder, Bracket

One task at a time

Sophie Leroy, Associate Professor of Management at University of Washington studies how technology can foster unhelpful work habits. Central to her work is ‘attention residue:’ When you break off a task to see to something else, your thought process can’t disengage immediately from the old task. It means employees constantly hijacked by online interactions will always work at reduced effectiveness.

She told Secure Futures, “I study different types of interruptions. There are intrusions, like people requesting my attention and making me switch tasks even though I may not want to. Then there are distractions – things more in the background. An email may pop up, for example, and you wonder what’s in it. It starts bothering you.

“Since the pandemic changed how we work, I’ve seen a huge increase in intrusions and distractions, and – perhaps worst of all – in multitasking. You may be in a meeting with many other windows open on your screen and be tempted to check emails and search chats. These things would’ve been rude in face-to-face meetings, but now no one knows you’re doing it.

“Because communication is so much more informal using online platforms, you get into the habit of doing this all the time. It’s a problem because multitasking harms productivity.”

It’s not just a matter of workers being interrupted, but also interrupting others. Leroy says, “Let’s assume you’re working on something and you have a question. Your chat window is open, so it’s easy to pipe up with, ‘do you have any information on this?’ The technology tempts you to do that.

“In an office, you might’ve written down the question for later when you see your colleague, but you don’t get that chance for informal contact when working remotely. And these little interruptions help you feel connected to colleagues, which may motivate more interruptions.”

Taking control of collaboration tech

One way to overcome intrusion from collaboration tools and give employees more chance to work deeply is to set ground rules across the organization, says Harriet Molyneaux, co-managing director at HSM. “Have a communications charter that sets expectations about when people will be online and whether they’re supposed to be checking various channels.”

A company communications charter may limit the number of channels, say which digital platforms are appropriate for which kinds of collaboration or recommend ‘asynchronous’ methods (that can be answered later, like email) be used in place of synchronous ones, like an instant message. It should also include policies for urgent communications.

Molyneaux says, “In our organization, outside normal working hours, we’re not expected to be on instant messaging channels or answer email. Any messages there are picked up the next day. If you need someone urgently, you must use WhatsApp or call them.

“We can all be smart in our use of tools. Most platforms let you set your status. If you’re out for an hour or taking some time for deep thinking, make it ‘please only contact me if urgent and do so by phone.’ It’s about getting team members to take control of tech rather than just thinking, ‘we can contact everyone all day, every day.'”

Organizations should advise employees on managing notification settings, so alerts and pop-ups don’t dice up concentration periods. Recent releases of Windows, for example, have ‘Focus assist’ – a tool to filter out lower priority notifications.

Sticking to the rules

For a communications protocol to work, everyone must follow it. If some managers start arranging interactions outside the agreed framework, a digital presenteeism culture – employees feeling pressure to be always available online – can creep back.

Sophie Leroy says, “You may say we’re going to limit online meetings to 10 to 11 am and 1 to 2 pm each day, and the rest of the time is for focused work. But people may still think, am I going to be monitored and punished if I’m not visible? Will I be considered non-productive? Will I miss out on information if others are online? The organization must be clear about all this.”

It can be difficult to wean people off the habit of always checking messages on different channels. Leroy suggests a gradual approach. “You have to retrain your focus. Start with not checking for 10 minutes, then 15, up to an hour. It’s hard, but people realize it’s good for them and want to do it.”

Technology can help. Time-management methods like the Pomodoro Technique rely on breaking the working day into short, indivisible intervals, each for a single task. There are apps and browser plug-ins to help with this. “They’re useful, but it must be individual choice,” says Alison Coward. “Managers shouldn’t mandate them. Everyone is different. It’s about giving people time and space to find their own productivity techniques.”

Employees need the chance to give their work deep focus, free from interruptions and distractions that unbridled digital collaboration tools can bring. As these tools are suddenly everywhere thanks to the COVID-19 work-from-home shift, leaders must ensure their organization has policies to support deep work and prevent unnecessary intrusion. Most importantly, everyone must follow the protocols, from the newest intern to the C-suite. When we face high-tech problems, we should step back and remember we’ll always need low-tech human values, like establishing and sticking to boundaries based on mutual respect and understanding.

Kaspersky Secure Your Own Future report

Our study of how 8,000 employees in 18 countries see the future of work since the pandemic changed their work lives.

About authors

William Ham Bevan writes and edits for universities, UK national newspapers and government departments. He also enjoys touring France, 1980s junk culture and skiing at a relaxed pace.