Sunil Jain

September 3, 2021

Are you speaking to an empty Room...err Zoom?

You are into the fourth Zoom meeting of the day, and it is only 2pm. And while the speaker wants participants to pay 100% attention to this meeting, there is not much the speaker can do... as folks type away on chat while staring into the camera. Good typing skills were never so handy... or destructive depending on which side of the equation you are on. 

As most of the work went virtual during the last 2 years, it is obvious that we have to do a "Think Again" on how we work as a team.  And how to lead better. The leaders have their work cut out for them. Even more so for the coming hybrid work environment. There have been great innovations in terms of a new set of tools coming out in this space - especially the ones using VR look most promising.   Facebook and Google are cooking up something there...with Microsoft not too far behind. And there are lot more virtual whiteboarding/collaboration solutions now - you have Ziteboard, Miro, Witeboard, DomainStoryTelling, GatherTown... the list goes on and on. 

There has been lack of acknowledgement though, around the fact, that the virtual (and hybrid) model requires a change in how we work and how we use the tools we already have. You cannot continue to have the same communication style as you did when onsite and not see impact on team member stress levels - as well as yours. You cannot replace a conference room meeting with the Zoom one and a walk-up with a Slack ping - and expect it to all work out. Biggest gains can be had from changing our communication style, and how we lead people, without compromising on human interactions. 

In my previous post on the topic of efficient communication, I had started with the importance of time. Of carving out uninterrupted blocks of time. It is better instead to think in terms of attention. 

I would say that the most valuable currency... is not time...not the dollar, nor bitcoin but “attention.” We need to rethink our communication style if we want to avoid burnout without impacting productivity. This is true regardless of team being remote, onsite or hybrid. While being onsite may mask some of the stress and inefficiencies, it does not minimize the damage improper use of meetings and excessive direct chat pings does in those settings as well. 

Increased communication does not equate to increased collaboration. In fact, it may even make leaders less effective if not done carefully.  

Zoom fatigue is a real problem now - as well as Slack fatigue. And no, the solution is not to reduce their usage to a minimum - nor to abandon these. But if we do not use these properly, that is precisely what might already be happening. I am sure you have been in a Zoom meeting where you felt that most were chatting away - where the speaker feels hopeless listening to his own voice. Or folks have quit their chat for hours, just to get some work done. But that results in a move to text message on phone, and next to a phone call. 

This post is not about trivializing any of these tools but how to use these better, collectively. To get more work done while reducing stress.  

Not communicating is not an option. Communication is the most crucial tool for working well together.  

If you are looking for a fancy new productivity tool that can replace meetings and chats to improve the team's productivity and reduce stress, this is not the post for you. This post is about how to use existing tools better.   

As they say in sports, more important than equipment is skill. 

The defaults of any system should favor adoption of right practices - not encourage damaging ones. Right now, especially in virtual remote environment, it appears the bar for poor practices is set even lower. An inefficient meeting is just a click away. There is no constraint on conference room availability now. Since boundaries between work and life have been blurred, you do not even need to get up and walk to a person's desk - when there is this cool hip chat feature called direct ping just a click away, any time of the day. 

There are a few misconceptions about how much stress and time wastage improper use of these causes: 

  1. While everyone understands the mental fatigue inefficient and excessive meetings cause...but most think of these as necessary evil, needed to get work done 

  2. Meetings alone can ensure that team members are interacting and asking questions 

  3. That chat is great for all kinds of communication. And in the virtual world, it is the best tool for communication all the time, for all scenarios 

  4. While excessive and improper use of meetings and chats may have an impact on team member productivity and stress... but impact is minimal, and benefits far outweigh the downside 

Let us start with these misconceptions first and then see how we can improve upon them. 

We are not going to get in the weeds of project management philosophy as to why projects get delayed. Also, we are not going to get into why we have some non-motivated team members or ones lacking skills. That is a much broader topic worthy of books which I am unqualified to write. 

The best place to start though is to start this discussion is with that word "attention". 

One of the reasons as to why a team member is unable to finish their work on time is because they did not have enough attention cycle that work demands.  

Consider this scenario which is not that uncommon. For quite a few, most workdays are chopped into a collection of meetings and a stream of unplanned direct chat pings. That leaves very little "attention cycle" to produce quality work.  

It is 4pm and your fourth meeting of the day just finished. And you were only able to respond to the fifth chat ping out of fifty that have been on your chat notification. Quite a few of these chats lined up when you were in meetings (and even those five chats you were able to respond to, you did it while in the meeting). Of course, you are going to be stressed about the task that you have not even started working on that was due yesterday - unless you are already checked out and just collecting paycheck. 

The only way to get work done in this scenario is to work late at night or on weekends - when you get a breather from inefficient meetings and excessive direct chat pings. That is the only time when you have attention cycles available that are needed to get that work done. This may be another version of "masochistic management" and "rock star employee" who gets work done only by working long hours. One of the factors pushing team members towards "late night worker" or "weekend warrior" is constant drain on attention by improper use of meetings and unplanned excessive chat messages. I am not saying this is the only reason but is a big factor.  "Brain Rules" by J Medina (section Attention) has good citations on impact of these constant interruptions as well as the wastefulness of multi-tasking. 

There is a viable alternative approach, where more work can be done without stressing team members out due to improper use of meetings and unplanned excessive direct chat pings. While this may not be applicable all the time, it can be adopted for most scenarios. 

Meeting, chats, and channels are not the cause of stress, it is how these are being used.  

When done properly and in the right amount, meetings are the most useful tool to work together and so is chat. Creating a channel and setting up a series of meetings at the start of an initiative, without having clear guidelines on how and when to use these, is a sure way to generate more stress for team members. 

Tip# 1: Use chats for communications that are:  social, urgent, troubleshooting and deployments. 

Chat is a great tool for water cooler type informal discussions. Be it about how the weekend was, or next coffee bean discovery or what have you. Great for these kinds of discussions and builds team bonds, should be encouraged. If these are not direct pings all day long, and there is no pressure on team members to always be available for these - nor is the expectation to respond immediately to such discussions. 

Using chat for project discussions and agile team conversation is great - when used properly. If there are direct pings all day long and everything is urgent all the time, it can turn into a stress channel.  

This is more a matter of working style and less about the tool itself.   

Team interactions in such project team channels go a long way to unblock others and move fast. This does not preempt the need to think ahead. Creating some initial written material ahead of time can reduce some of the back and forth, and provide context for some recurring discussions, as well as issues. 

Chat is also a great tool for two other scenarios - Urgent and Troubleshooting/Deployments. 

Let us talk about troubleshooting first. When there is an active problem identified and the team is diagnosing the issue, there is no other tool better than chat. The team can quickly hop in a channel and work together, most of the time without resorting to a meeting. In all hands-on deck kind of situations, a meeting can also be setup. Same goes for deployments - most deployment tools have chat integrations - and the ability to not just notify but trigger deployments via chats is extremely useful. 

Next, let us talk about urgent communication. When you want a quick answer to your questions, the ability to reach out to someone via direct chat ping, and expect a quick answer, is especially useful. Expecting an instant email response during such times usually does not work. And picking up the phone or setting up a meeting for each such request is impractical. 

Chat works great for such urgent needs. The problem is when every request turns into an urgent one, and everyone feels entitled to demand an instant response, all the time. And this is where chatting is most destructive. It is not the tools itself but how they are used and the expectation.  

When you have fifty direct pings (red dots) on your chat notification, there is no precise way to tell, in most chat applications, as to which one of those fifty pings is urgent. And which ones are causal/social discussions? This is exactly what forces anyone who uses chat to constantly check on chat - else they are going to miss something urgent from their manager or good old FOMO. Or abandon chat completely for extended periods just to get a respite and get work done. 

Instead of direct pings all the time, it's better to take the conversation to a channel as much as possible - it provides visibility, prevents building knowledge silos, and saves another red dot on chat notification. Reserve the need for immediate response only for that is truly urgent. And do not make everything urgent. Reserve channel wide ping(@channel or @here) for rare situations - as this also contributes to those fifty red dots on notification. 

Here is another side effect of using chat improperly. You have realized that no one pays attention to email any more. So, there is a company-wide announcement (or even group wide announcement) that is important - but not urgent. But since you are not sure if most are even going to read that announcement via email, you do company-wide (or group wide) announcement, using "@here" or "@channel". On chat notification, this is just a red dot.  

There is not much to differentiate, for a team member, just from notification, if amongst the fifty red dots they see, is an important company announcement. Or another direct ping from co-worker.  

Considering how many channels have been created, it makes it even more difficult to traverse this. There is nothing wrong in over communicating that is important and may be via multiple communication medium. However, when team members are already tired of those red dots on their chat notification, as well as gazillion channels, they are in, such announcements will lose the importance they deserve. 

Instead, it is better to differentiate between urgent and important. Maybe use different mechanism and frequency for communicating the important. We know chat is good for urgent. If you use chat for all important communication as well as for social, casual conversations - folks cannot differentiate when it is casual and when important. They just need to be on top of chat all the time. 

Tip #2: Train the Leaders on how to communicate effectively in the new work environment 

I would start with what is the most key area that needs to be addressed - and that would be the manager's communication style. If a manager's primary style of working is to get work done primarily via inefficient meetings and excessive direct chat pings, and that is not addressed first, everything else will fail. If a manager is constantly doing direct pings on their team members or others, team members feel the need to respond to chat right away - and they resort to the same behavior themselves. And that is how we get fifty unaddressed notifications all the time.  

Tip #3:  Clear guidelines on what communication mechanism to use for what style of communication and when 

  1. There needs to be a difference between urgent and important. When everything is urgent all the time, then truly urgent is difficult to convey. 

  2. Anything that is important should be first given some thought and circulated via email or another asynchronous method - where the expectation from receiver is to not respond right away. This is the reason email and other asynchronous methods should be encouraged for important communication. Anything that is important should not be expected to be responded to instantly and using tiny exchanges typical of a chat. 

  3. Another reason email and asynchronous methods shine for important communications is that they have a subject line, which tells you what the topic of communication is (unlike chat). You can filter on all different criteria to arrange the communication you like, as well as flag it for importance, follow-up, or junk. And search it easily ...or forward these to others - with whole context. Good luck trying this with chat. 

Tip #4:  Be miserly with meetings and email to large audiences, use it carefully - as you would do with chat.

While need to keep everyone updated is important, it is counter-productive to start with an email or a meeting invite to 30+ people. Start small first with key stakeholders. And bring people in at the right time, once some basic consensus has been reached. Otherwise, it will freak some people out as they may not have context. And many will tune out due to gazillion email flying back and forth in their inbox. And if they are 1 of 30 participants in that meeting when there was hardly any room for most to contribute, they will tune out, chatting away on something else while you see them via that square in Zoom wondering if they are paying attention. The best virtual (or in person) discussions happen in small groups.  As the number of participants increases in a meeting, the engagement level drops. Same is true for email as well. There is a complete set guidelines that can be used to effectively use email as a team - that would be its own writeup though. Here are some quick pointers: 

  • Know your audience. If sending to executives – keep it less than 10 lines – less is more. If sending to technical folks – provide details, and specifics, instead of being vague. Reduce back and forth by avoiding an open-ended email: Instead of asking when you will be available, include couple of slots, that way there is no back and forth just on that topic 

  • Choose subject carefully – that is a big factor in people opening/reading(or not) your email 

  • If you want response back, always end with a question 

  • It is polite to respond, just to the sender, with comments or acknowledgement..but avoid replying all, just to say ‘Thank You” 

In most situations it is best to not start email or meeting with biggest audience, thinking that this way that everyone will be on same page (you would not do same on chat, would you?).. Once content is solidified, and consensus reached, then it is better to send via one single, wide email out. To everyone. 

Tip #5: Get the most out of meetings 

Ahead of the meeting, the organizer should have a collaborative document started and shared with the participants. This gives all an opportunity to think about the topic and contribute. The key again here is to create that space and time for team members - to not just write that document but read as well. When most of your day is spent jumping from meeting to another and the rest on catching up to excessive direct chat pings, prepping that document and reading it ahead of the meeting is an unreasonable ask. 

Tip #6: Spend few minutes at the start of the meeting, collectively reviewing that document that was prepared, with camera off 

In virtual environment, where folks have screen fatigue due to staring into Zoom all day long, this can also help everyone in meetings to turn off their cameras for few minutes and focus on that document. Over a day it adds up and helps a lot. Yes, having a camera on during meetings is immensely helpful - the solution is not to have cameras turned off during all meetings but minimize the number of meetings and provide opportunities like this to turn off the camera when you can. 

When you are running from meeting to meeting, allocating a few minutes at the start of the meeting to read that document has many benefits. It brings everyone quickly on the same page (because someone already spent time ahead to put context in that document). You just need to read it, and the time has already been carved out as part of the meeting. It by default encourages documenting the meeting, which otherwise would have been merely verbal exchange of words without knowing what came out of the meeting or any follow-ups. Besides for months/years to come, it is available for new team members to glean context from - if there is need to revisit the topic and how decision was made. 

Tip #7: Standups are useful...some can be inefficient and ineffective 

Stand-ups are a terrific way to quickly check where the team is and if anyone is blocked by anyone else or could use help. However, if these lack proper participation or turn into 1 hour discussions every other day, then these become counterproductive. Specific issues are better addressed with a separate conversation. And simple updates can be handled via chat. 

Tip #8: Train the leaders - yes, this one deserves repetition 

Leaders set the example by how they work, and not just what they say. If the leader does not make the above-mentioned changes in their communication style, words of sympathy around team member stress carry little weight. They need to use currency of meetings wisely or else risk losing their credibility and effectiveness of the tools. 

Any written medium cannot convey the emotional queues that only visuals can provide. And those casual water cooler kinds of discussions are very useful.  In fact, that is more of a reason to preserve sanctity of meetings and use these wisely. The idea is not to completely minimize or eliminate these, but how to combine these effectively with other methods. 

The primary role of a leader is motivating team members, keeping them engaged and reducing stress for them without compromising productivity. The old days of leader's role as a task-master who gets work done micro-managing via inefficient meetings and excessive direct chat pings are waning. By making the above changes in your communication style, you will reduce team member stress, as well as yours. You will create space to produce more without the need to always work long hours. During certain stages of a project, it is reasonable to pull long hours to close out the project. Those should be exceptions not the norm. Plus, time gained using efficient communication methods can be used towards having more informal 1-on-1s where team members can open up and express their concerns can you. And for more book clubs, game hours or whatever your team likes doing as a group. You will have more fruitful discussions and interactions happening in these kinds of sessions than is possible in any other forum.