Daily Briefing

Virtual communication overload: How to avoid making mistakes at work


With online communication now easier than ever, workers often have to juggle an overwhelming amount of information from emails, instant messages, video calls, and more. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Anne Marie Chaker explains how communication overload can lead to potential mistakes and misunderstandings — as well as what you can do to avoid these mishaps.

Workers are struggling with communication overload

In the workplace, employees are often expected to juggle multiple modes of communication, such as email, instant messages, or video calls, through several different platforms, such as Microsoft's Teams, Saleforce's Slack, and  Zoom.

"There are so many ways to communicate at work that our communication is breaking down," Chaker writes. With communication on overload, it's more likely for workers to miss messages or misunderstand one another, leading to additional stress and unnecessary mistakes.

"You could have an email chain, a text thread, a videoconference call and an in-person one-on-one about the same topic all within 24 hours," said Jessica Carlson, a former director of supply-chain operations at  Nestlé.

Lisa Donovan, a part-time accountant for an academic coaching firm, often has to navigate between "30 instant-messaging channels, four client-email accounts and at least a dozen phone or video calls a day," Chaker writes.

"It's, like, 'Are we on Zoom? Are we on Teams? Did I respond to that? Did I say it right?'" Donovan said. At one point, Donovan even accidentally sent a sensitive company document to the wrong person, though the company's IT department was able to successfully recall it before anything happened.

According to a 2022  Harris Poll survey, which was conducted on the behalf of  Grammarly, bosses estimated that their teams lost an average of 7.47 hours, or almost a whole day of work, every week due to poor communication. Using an average salary of $66,967, researchers found that this lost time cost companies $12,506 per employee per year.

A reliance on virtual communication has also strained workplace relationships, with research showing that it makes it "easier to snipe at or ignore co-workers," Chaker writes. In a survey of 357 workers from  Korn Ferry, almost half said remote work has made rude behavior from colleagues, such as interrupting others on calls or not returning emails, more commonplace.

"These tools that are meant to make communication easier have a dark side," said Michele Simon, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who specializes in workplace trauma. In a  Pepperdine University study of 800 workers, 35% said communication problems were the top obstacles in getting ahead in the workplace.

How to avoid communication mishaps at work

With virtual communication only growing, it's important for workers to find ways to communicate more effectively and comfortably with their colleagues and other team members.

It can be confusing to decide how you want to communicate when there are so many options available. To avoid any confusion, Sally Susman, Pfizer's chief corporate affairs officer and the author of a recent book on workplace communications, recommends making a clear choice ahead of time.

Susman also suggests asking your co-workers about their communication preferences to avoid any potential misunderstandings or difficulties. You should also feel free to voice your own preferences. If you prefer email or instant messages over video calls, say so ahead of time.

In addition, Susman shares that your voice is an important tool in online communication since other in-person social cues will not be possible. "Use it to transmit collegiality and other positive qualities that would ordinarily be picked up in person," Chaker writes. "Even in email or text messages, small touches like 'Hi there' can exude warmth in formats that ordinarily feel cold and transactional."

Aside from these individual efforts, some companies are also working on ways to simplify the communication process for their employees. Rather than using multiple platforms, some organizations are now switching to one central hub that contains several modes of communication.

For example, Shopify, an e-commerce and retail technology company, has moved its staff to  Meta Platform's Workplace, which includes instant messaging, video conferencing, and other communication tools all in one place.

Separately, Brett Lutz, VP of global communications at  Archer Daniels Midland, said his company is using a forum developed by workplace communications software company  Firstup, which allows workers to access stories, images, and other updates. It's "air-traffic control," Lutz said. (Chaker, Wall Street Journal, 4/26)



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