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Toxic Communication in a Remote Work World — and how to beat it.

September 29, 2020
Remote Working
Leadership
Business
Entrepreneurship

The remote working revolution has forced large organizations of all persuasions to finally embrace technology that for more than a decade now has made remote working a reality for a small number of startups, solopreneurs and vagabonds.

But like most things, there are different levels of sophistication when it comes to remote work. Downloading Zoom and using Slack or Microsoft Teams to communicate with your team are a great start, but any tool is only as good as how you use it.

Most organizations are at what Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic — the company that runs Wordpress and effectively powers 30 percent of the internet — calls Level 2 in his five levels of remote work roadmap. They are simply re-creating the office online. And this comes with all of the drawbacks of the office — think long multi-person meetings and countless interruptions, only via the above-mentioned tools instead.

Trust has also become an issue for many a manager who has a tendency to conflate presence with productivity and perhaps have excessively controlling bosses themselves, as Sharon Parker of Curtin University wrote for Harvard Business Review.

This tendency to conflate presence with productivity essentially amounts to a throwback to the algorithmic on-site work of the industrial revolution. If you were present on a conveyor belt, you were putting widgets into boxes, but when it comes to cognitive knowledge work, more hours don’t necessarily mean more output. Work has over the past Century and it is more cognitively complex, and has broader task scope.

The optimal physiological condition for humans is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed ‘the flow state’. McKinsey researchers found that we are up to five times more productive when in a state of flow. But here’s the thing — the upper limit for flow is about four hours a day, and each time we’re interrupted or switch tasks it takes us, on average, 23 minutes to get back into flow. Given the average executive is interrupted 50–60 times a day, and has a calendar full of meetings, most of us are lucky if we spend any time in flow at all.

And the toxic communication that permeates many remote work operations ensures that this holds true, even when we’re working from home.

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So what does this look like in a remote work environment?

Abrupt and unclear messages that create boomerang back-and-forth communication, or worse, results in organizational debt by way of work that doesn’t meet expectations

Poorly written instant messages and emails, devoid of the humanity and nuance that comes with verbal communication and body language can be misinterpreted and result in the withering away of trust and respect amongst team members

Sporadic real-time interruptions through instant messenger and constant phone calls, with the expectation that we will respond quickly, inhibit our ability to focus and get into flow

Chatting sporadically and sharing all manner of Giphys throughout the day via Slack or Teams

All of this can not only derail productivity and create organizational debt, but wreak havoc on employee motivation and wellbeing, because it means employees spend their entire day being busy and engaged on shallow level work, but with little to show for it come the end of the day.

In fact, as Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project put it, when we spend time in the flow state doing deep work our brains are flooded with a cocktail of neurochemicals, including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Not only that, but by spending time in flow we’re more likely to do great work and deliver outcomes, all of which is both rewarding and fulfilling.

So what are the antidotes to this toxic communication?

A culture built around asynchronous communication instead of real-time interruptions can help address many of the communication issues with remote work.

‘I’ll get to it when it suits me’ is the essence of asynchronous communication which gives organizations the ability to move projects forward without the need for real-time availability of project stakeholders.It’s about moving away from signaling productivity by being present or online, towards a focus on what matters — outcomes.

And here’s ten quick tips on how to practice asynchronous communication in a remote working world.

  1. Clear and specific written communication is key when real-time communication is minimised — capture sufficient background detail, action items, desired outcomes, due dates and paths for recourse.
  2. Use task management tools such as Jira, Asana or Trello to support asynchronous monitoring, communication and task visibility, mitigating the need to ‘check in’
  3. Use email or instant messaging to communicate one-way information, rather than defaulting to an interruption like a phone call or a meeting
  4. Turn off desktop and mobile notifications, so that you can spend more time in the zone
  5. Block out periods of the day for deep work, focusing on one task at a time
  6. Make meetings the exception to the rule, not the default option
  7. Be conscientious as to how your message might be interpreted without the tone of voice and body language of verbal communication, and tailor it accordingly
  8. Use visuals where possible to get people on the same page, as humans evolved to see long before the written word or language became a thing
  9. While we shouldn’t default to picking up the phone, if it becomes clear that a matter could be resolved quickly through a 5-minute phone call, rather than an ongoing text exchange, then a phone-call is worth it.
  10. Batch conversations on specific matters during certain windows of time, instead of chatting sporadically throughout the day

Companies that truly practice asynchronous communication are no longer concerned with signaling productivity by being present, as they might have on the factory room floor, and are focused on what matters, performance.

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Steve Glaveski is the author of Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life (Wiley), out in October 2020. Readers can download the first chapter of the book for free at www.timerichbook.com

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