Why do we send text messages (via Slack, WhatsApp, Skype, etc) to the people who are sitting directly across from us at work (or at least we did before the pandemic)? Or when we have a quick but urgent question (i.e. we’re at the grocery store and need to ask someone what to buy) — why do we still send that message instead of just calling, when we know the person we’re asking may not see the message before we need to make a decision?
Have you ever noticed how sometimes a work conversation that would take 10 minutes in-person can drag on for hours on a messaging app or comments thread — and in the meantime, you didn’t get anything else done on the things you meant to be working on because you were constantly going back and forth between your messages and that other work?
The evidence is overwhelming that text messaging as a primary form of communication kills productivity compared to face-to-face or picking up the phone — that lost art otherwise known as “conversation”. Why? Because messaging inherently involves task-switching — that is, constantly switching back and forth between tasks without finishing any of them.
Live conversation demands immediate, uninterrupted responses, because you are right there in front of (or on the phone with) the other person — and can’t allow distractions to creep in. Messaging, on the other hand, allows each party to respond in their own time, or switch to other tasks before resolving the issue being discussed. Such task-switching is an inherent productivity killer because it involves energy: each time you switch tasks, you stop what you were doing and have to remember where you left off on the task you are switching back to — an extra step to get back in the “groove” compared to sticking with the task at hand until it’s done. Hence why messaging is less efficient than live conversation most of the time.
Indeed, various studies show it can take anywhere from 64 seconds to 23 minutes to recover after an interruption to the same level of productivity as before the interruption. Yes, that was 23 minutes — nearly half an hour. How many times are you interrupted each day by a message? Now multiply that by 23 minutes.
Similarly, McKinsey analysis found that the average professional spends 28% of their workday reading and responding to email, amounting to 2.6 hours spent and 120 messages per day.
And a study of NASA engineers found that putting them in the same room instead of messaging back and forth reduced the time taken to design a part of a spacecraft from 6 months to 9 hours, because they could immediately catch mistakes and react to their colleagues without waiting for replies.
We all sort of know this intuitively — anyone can verify that they get more done when they close the WhatsApp browser window and focus on work. We can also
So why do we keep using messaging instead of face-to-face conversation or picking up the phone and calling? (And I fully admit, I am as guilty of this as anyone!)
I think there are 7 key reasons for this counterproductive obsession with text messaging:
1. Culture. Humans (at least in Western countries) seem to have become much more comfortable with text as a form of communication. Why? Because text is less intrusive (seeing that phone ring can create anxiety because you don’t know what the other person wants or how long the conversation will last), and more convenient (you can respond in your own time once you’ve finished what you’re doing, and think through your response in advance). Voice call anxiety is exacerbated by annoying “incoming call” pop-ups on apps like Slack or Skype, which can be quite jarring to have pop up on your screen in the middle of your work. Together, all of these factors create a feedback loop: the more we reserve phone calls for “serious conversations”, the more anxiety we feel when a phone call is received, which further discourages calling, and so on.
2. Merging Work-Life Sphere. Messaging means we are constantly in communication with all our potential contacts throughout the day. So instead of focusing on work during the day, or personal life in the evening, we find ourselves planning social activities or chatting with friends during the day, and checking work emails at night.
3. Remote teams. Few humans want to call someone they’ve never met face-to-face or have only a casual relationship with — hence why cold calling is one of humanity’s most dreaded tasks. But with remote teams (i.e. designers in one country working with developers in another) — already on the rise before Covid-19, and now the default for most office workers — you often find yourself working with someone who you have no idea what they even look like. Much less anxiety to send a message than call them on the phone.
4. Open office plans. Messaging is QUIET. And in open-office plans with little privacy, conversations can be disruptive to everyone else who’s trying to work — especially if the topic is sensitive. Indeed, a Harvard Business School study showed that open-office plans reduce in-person communication and collaboration by 70% — contrary to their initial mission!
5. Expectations from others. Bosses, and society in general, expect quick responses to text messages (and emails). This forces workers to constantly check their messages to see if someone is asking something — which means they are constantly distracted from the work they are actually supposed to be doing.
6. Addiction. We’ve become so used to constant notifications and messages that our brains are constantly “pinging” to see if we might have a message waiting. Indeed, Harvard research has found that there’s a dopamine hit each time we receive a message (and the social validation that comes with the message), so we become literally addicted to that validation and constantly seek it out.
7. Messages are EASY. Not only does sending a message not require the immense physical effort of standing up and walking 5 meters, they can also act as a sort of to-do list — shoot off a message as soon as something pops into your head, and it postpones action.
People working in Africa have the additional challenge of telecommunications equipment: internet connections are often slow, and international phone calls expensive, discouraging phone calls.
Messaging does have some advantages. It is convenient, so if the message is truly simple and only demands a one-off response and not a free-flowing discussion, send a message by all means. It avoids phone tag (after all, we’ve all had those times of calling back and forth without reaching the other person). And it leaves a paper trail — hence why managers and IT departments may prefer messaging or commenting, as interactions can be tracked and measured.
But in most cases, these advantages are dwarfed by messaging’s productivity-killing aspects. And while messaging has its place, I believe that in most cases we should all stop using messaging for complex discussions that involve back-and-forth to clarify issues and build up ideas, and start calling instead.
I’d suggest a few steps any individual or company can take to reduce back-and-forth and improve communication at the workplace:
1. Just start calling! If you think the phone call will cause anxiety or that the other person might be busy, send a text message explaining what you were calling about and ask them to call you back when they’re free, so as to avoid ever starting a text message conversation (good practice on apps like Slack or Skype to avoid interrupting your colleague with a jarring “incoming call” popup).
2. Shut off personal messaging during the workday. This reduces the number of non-work distractions that creep in during the day so you can focus on getting work done — and then have more time in the evening for non-work. Workplaces can facilitate this by limiting work-related messaging and groups to work-related communication apps (if you’ve got Slack or Teams, don’t also discuss work in WhatsApp).
3. Set some guidelines for communication channels. Some ideas:
- If it’s urgent, don’t message — call or face-to-face
- If it’s an important decision that needs a paper trail, don’t message — call or face-to-face. Then send an email summarizing the conversation “for the record”
- If it’s a straightforward question, feel free to message. But if after a couple of back-and-forths the idea still isn’t clear, don’t message any further — call or face-to-face
4. Let your colleagues know that if they message or email, they shouldn’t expect responses before the end of the day — if they need you now, they should call.
5. Bosses, set the tone. If you expect a quick response, call someone, don’t send an email. And let everyone in the office know that no one should expect responses to emails in less than 24 hours.
6. Put phones and laptops away in meetings. If it means asking everyone to mute phones and put them in a basket when starting a meeting, do it. Even having a few hours aside each day where you don’t have access to phone or email can start to break the addiction.
7. Get rid of open offices. There, I said it. While this is still a polarizing issue, the evidence against open offices seems to be growing — and I believe Coronavirus could prove the nail in the coffin. Once companies realize that working from home has not damaged productivity, I think we’ll start to see that “constant collaboration” has actually just meant “constant interruption,” and more privacy meant more productivity — even if it meant working in some form of cubicles).
8. If any tech people are reading this, a useful feature on messaging apps (Slack, Skype, Teams, etc) would be a setting that allows you to avoid “incoming call” notifications from popping up on your screen in the middle of other work. Ideas could be: (1) allowing the caller to select to call the mobile app (and not the desktop app), (2) a setting that routes incoming calls to the mobile app when other windows are open, or (3) a setting that simply disables the pop-up, and you only hear the ringing sound.
With these steps, I think people will find themselves to be less interrupted and more productive than our task-switching obsessed world. So next time you need to discuss something more than a few quick hits, don’t send a message: just pick up the damn phone (or voice app)!