Less Talk, More Action: How to Solve the Problem of Communication Overload

Less Talk, More Action: How to Solve the Problem of Communication Overload

It’s impossible to hide from your coworkers. Whether you work in the office, from home, or at a coffee shop, any of your colleagues can instantly interrupt (and perhaps ruin) your day with a “tap on the shoulder” thanks to a plethora of communication technologies. At Bloomberg BNA Last week, Genevieve Douglas highlighted some new data illustrating the negative impact this constant onslaught of communication is having on a growing number of employees. Many are either missing critical information they need, or are considering changing employers to get away from the deluge of chatter and information.

Douglas points to a survey published in March by the communications software provider Dynamic Signal, in which half of respondents said they felt overwhelmed by the proliferation of these tools and pressured to use multiple platforms. A third of the employees surveyed said they were so stressed out by the state of communication in their workplace that they were ready to quit because of it.

Having personally tracked the reasons why employees quit with my colleague Brian Kropp for over a decade, I’m skeptical that employees will really quit because of poor communication alone. However, our latest research does substantiate the claim that providing employees with “on demand access” to information and HR solutions through more channels and new technology platforms really does hinder their performance.

Business leaders are aware of this problem of communication overload and looking to address it proactively, Natalie McCullough, general manager of MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics at Microsoft, told Douglas. When it comes to enabling employee collaboration through technology, our new research points to a useful rule of thumb: If you want to improve employees’ performance and experience at the same time, focus less on providing new ways for them to communicate and more on enabling them to act.

Adding a communication channel should not lead to more communications, but rather better communications that are ‘effortless’ to process and use. This, paradoxically, requires employers to restrict the sharing of information and communicate in ways that nudge employees to act. We call this “guided action.”

Douglas looks at a couple of interesting examples of companies moving in this direction, including Macy’s “Time Is Money” program, which trains employees in using their time and energy more efficiently, with the help of analytics tools from Microsoft. This training helped employees gain an additional four hours of “focus time” each week, McCullough said.

These sorts of initiatives are a great first step toward helping employees get their time back. The key is to supplement and sustain training through nudges that prompt employees to take action at the right time. One company we’ve profiled has gotten managers to triple the time they spend on employee development by creating a platform that makes it easy for them to see how they are doing relative to their peers, based on the data the company collects to measure their performance against six key competencies.

One of those competencies is “innovation.” Instead of sharing reams of data and reports on all the innovation-related metrics the company tracks, the HR function decided to only show managers the innovation metrics they can control, such as the number of innovative ideas the team generates—as opposed to, say, the number of innovation awards the team has received. The company communicates this specific information to managers, then nudges them with personalized recommendations of quick actions they can take to influence their team’s ability to innovate.

The beauty of an approach like this is that it only gives managers information they can use right away and presents it in a way that motivates managers to want to do something different, rather than just issuing automated reports or email blasts and hoping managers read the relevant data and act on it. That doesn’t happen very often.

So before you go out and purchase the hot new thing in workplace communication technology, ask yourself: “Will this product enable us to better guide employees to act on the information we give them?” If it won’t, it might not be worth the investment.