My clients often tell me about their rising anxiety as they attempt to zero out their email inboxes each day. Like a horror flick, they describe how they nearly conquer the enemy, when suddenly, their inboxes start to refill.
Worse, they say that while they’re responding to emails, they feel dread. Why? Because they know they are also missing out on discussions in important work chat rooms as well as in text messages.
They tell me that this scene repeats itself again and again, day after day. It’s scary!
I recently reached out to Henry Poydar, the founder of 8012 Labs, a software development firm. I learned of Henry because he coined a term I love and borrow from him often: “communication debt.” I think it’s such a useful term for understanding and dealing with this situation of constant communication.
What is Communication Debt?
Henry adapted the term “communication debt” from a software term called “technical debt.”
Technical debt occurs when an engineer skips over a step in the development process, intending to return to that step later. As the number of skipped steps accrue, engineers often feel their stress levels rise.
Communication debt refers to the state of feeling like you are always owing return communication to someone. It’s the subtle sense of anxiety caused by your backlog of communication.
Henry explains that communication debt is caused by “all of the knowledge-sharing, messages, and notifications that need your attention, and in some cases, a response.” He says that in our 24/7 culture, workers think they need to be always available to everyone all the time. I see this with my clients, who try valiantly to triage their communication by reviewing every message as it arrives, and making constant decisions about which needs an immediate response and which can wait until later.
This approach guarantees constant distraction. And the truth is that no one can be always available to respond to every message, and when we can’t, we stress over the backlog.
Why Team Productivity Decreases as Communication Debt Increases
It’s this effort to triage that often causes knowledge workers to multitask, by switching what they’re doing every few minutes in an effort to stay on top of their communication.
Researcher Gloria Mark explains that people try to compensate for constant interruptions by working faster. However, “this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.” And in another study, she found that it takes us several minutes to refocus after a distraction.
Anyone in today’s workplace knows that a brief notification flitting across the upper corner of our computer screen, or a ping from our smartphones, is enough to distract us from the task at hand.
The amount of energy required to refocus every few minutes makes us feel frazzled, increases our stress, and decreases our overall productivity.
Henry uses the term “communication debt” to sum up the drain on productivity caused by the distraction and the stress.
How To Boost Your Team’s Productivity
Henry calls on managers to protect team members from experiencing communication debt. In this article, he writes:
“There are two main ways you can help your team with this issue: 1) Filtering the noise before it hits them, and 2) Making sure there are explicit expectations for what and when they need to respond to communications. Call these tools force fields and protocols.”
Let’s take a look at each of these protective strategies that you can implement to boost team productivity.
Protective Strategy #1: Create “Force Fields”
In order to create “force fields” around employees, managers should work with HR and IT to put systems in place that limit the volume of communications streaming to their team members. The idea is to filter out the extraneous communication before it even has a chance to distract workers.
An example of this would be limiting internal communications. When a company hires a new employee, the organization’s HR department might add the employee to a variety of internal distribution lists. The manager might add the new employee to the team chat app as well. (Henry is particularly dubious about chat platforms like Slack that have endless scroll capabilities and generate communication debt 24/7.)
I agree. I’m a member of some groups that use Slack to communicate. I get a notification in the app every time someone joins a channel. It’s so annoying, because if the group has 20 channels, I now have 20 “unread messages,” increasing my “debt.” Even though these alerts don’t really require a response (and I don’t really care when someone joins a channel), I have a little notification with “20” on it, which is stressful! You’d think there would be a way to turn off “join the channel” notifications but if there is, I can’t find it.
(Ok, I googled it. Only workspace admins can turn off this feature. That’s dumb. As an aside, on my team, we use Twist instead of Slack. I like it much better. Here’s why.)
A manager who is creating a “force field” around team members might request that HR limit inclusion of employees on various distribution lists to the key people. The manager might also ask other team leaders to send meeting requests through her, so that she can then determine if a particular employee really should attend.
I think these are both excellent ideas. Team members at every level of the organization need to consider the volume of communication being created, and take steps to limit it.
Protective Strategy #2: Develop “Protocols”
This protective strategy requires creating clear guidelines around expectations. The goal is to limit communication debt originating from within the team.
I’ve written quite a bit about the importance of clear communication guidelines. Like Henry, I believe that clear communication guidelines are critical for helping knowledge workers avoid distraction and enabling them to do the deep work you hired them to do in the first place.
Henry talks about establishing what he calls a “run book” which is a team handbook that details very specific ways of handling communication scenarios that might arise within a team. “In effect, you’re training team members to handle communication debt themselves,” he says.
In a “run book,” teams set expectations around when email should be answered. (Within four hours after receipt? Six hours?) The “run book” might also outline what channels will be used for communication in a particular scenario. (If it’s an emergency, we’ll text you.)
Henry says that the “run book” should be a living document and kept on a wiki-type platform, so the team can constantly refine it.
I created an example of guidelines in this article.
Communication Debt in the Pandemic
I was especially curious about how Henry thought that the pandemic might be affecting employee communication debt. He told me:
“During the pandemic, when all communication is remote, communication debt is a bigger problem than ever. Sometimes managers can’t help employees as much as they’d like, so it’s up to every knowledge worker to build their own force fields to protect themselves.”
Boost Team Productivity—and Joy!
So whether you’re a team leader or not, now is the time to develop “force fields” and “protocols” to protect your attention. When you learn to protect and manage your attention, you can be more proactive than reactive. This will empower you to achieve more of your most significant tasks, increasing your productivity and satisfaction. This will give you an even better result: you’ll feel happier at work.