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建立團隊通訊策略 —— 特別是遠端策略的 7 種方法

By Page Grossman

發佈日期:2020 年 4 月 20 日
上次更新日期:2020 年 10 月 29 日

There’s an insidious presence eating away at your productivity and focus every day. It’s communication debt. And, as most of us are now working from home and learning the joys and miseries of being part of a remote team, online communication is skyrocketing. No more can you pop into your colleagues office to ask a quick question. Now, your only options are email, Slack, phone calls, or video conference. With the rise of online communication because of remote work, communication debt will be even more prevalent than normal.

“Communication debt” refers to the combined number of messages across various communication channels that are unread, pending, and need replies. And the notifications for all these messages disrupt our focus, flow, and ability to get work done. Henry Poydar, founder and principle of 8012 Labs, coined the term “communication debt,” and although its early use was limited to the software development world, I truly believe we’re now all suffering from communication overload.

According to Poydar, whom I spoke with, responding to all our messages on various communication platforms take time, and even simply triaging those messages takes attention away from more important, more creative work that requires deep focus.

As a manager, your job is to manage a team that needs to create, innovate, and execute. How can you protect your employees from the stress of communication debt? First off—congrats. If you’re a manager and asking yourself that question, you’re already a few steps ahead of the pack. Now here’s what else you can do.

[Related read: 3 simple steps to inbox zero]

What communication debt looks like on a team

According to Poydar, you can pretty much assume your team is in communication debt, because everyone is currently drowning in it. “The real red flag is when there’s no strategy in place to handle or manage communication debt,” says Poydar. There are simply too many communication channels and not enough rules and boundaries. Our culture around instant communication has taught us that we have to always be available to answer other people’s questions—preferably instantly.

As a manager, your job is to manage a team that needs to create, innovate, and execute. How can you protect your employees from the stress of communication debt?

The default in large companies and large teams is to over-communicate. What can be bad about that? Well, the debt that accrues when we lose time in all our channels, paired with the time lost multi-tasking or task switching, and overall lack of attention management.

For example: Was that email that just came in an emergency note that the app is down, or an invitation to someone’s birthday with doughnuts in the staff kitchen? You don’t know until after your attention has already been pulled away and you’re distracted. We have a finite amount of energy each day and we need to manage how we spend that energy and what it goes towards.

Time isn’t the problem

To really dive into this issue, I brought in Maura Thomas, a consultant for corporations and an author and speaker on attention management, to share some tips on getting out of communication debt. While so many of us focus on improving our time management and scheduling, down to each minute of our day, your amount of time often isn’t the problem. Instead, the problem is our ability to manage our attention.

If we want to work better and faster, we have to prioritize. Choose one area to focus on at a time, and give all our attention to that one thing. Task switching or, as it’s more commonly known, multi-tasking has been shown to be utter bunk. Humans aren’t good at it—that’s just the hard truth.

If we want to work better and faster, we have to prioritize. Choose one area to focus on at a time, and give all our attention to that one thing.

On average, it takes 20 minutes to refocus after switching our attention. The average employee switches their attention every three minutes, and “nobody can get into any level of focus in three minute increments,” says Thomas.

[Related read: Your smartphone is making you stupid]

While attention management might seem like the antithesis to communication debt—those emails or Slacks do need a response, at some point—helping yourself or your team to block out focus time, or response times, and to set expectations can benefit the team as a whole. Here’s how.

Managers: 7 steps to lower your team’s communication debt

While we can take a lot of steps as individuals to improve our attention management and attempt to stay out of communication debt, this is truly something that has to be implemented from the top down. So, managers, take note and send this to your superiors if you want a healthier, more productive team.

1. Create a knowledge base

Many of the messages received within a team are from other team members asking for status updates, looking for information, or asking simple questions about a project they’re collaborating on.

While it’s so tempting to seek the path of least resistance to getting an answer and getting back to your own work, this back and forth among team members is deadly to attention management. That’s where a knowledge base comes in.

If the team (and preferably organization as a whole) has a searchable knowledge base, then everyone has access to all the information they might need. Instead of sending out a query and disrupting someone else’s workflow to get the answer, they can search and find it for themselves.

2. Set communication expectations

How a team communicates is all about culture and expectations. According to Thomas, there are two major issues that have to be addressed when setting communication expectations: channel etiquette and overcommunication. Boundaries should be set for what channels employees should use for which types of queries, and what questions are better self-served. This suggestion isn’t about policing speech, but setting guidelines so employees don’t feel pressured to constantly be available to answer questions, especially those that aren’t necessary.

How a team communicates is all about culture and expectations.

Another step towards reducing overcommunication comes in the form of automated messages and cc’s. Your team should know when other team members should be cc’d and keep the need to be cc’d to a minimum. The same goes for automated messages and reminders, and when it’s appropriate to “reply all.”

3. Set expectations around response rates

Instant communication creates the expectation that if we have a question, we shoot off a message or Slack and we’ll get a near immediate response in return. “Often, leaders reinforce the idea that a fast response is good,” says Thomas. “Which leads to the conclusion that if fast is good, immediate is best.” But this expectation plays a massive role in shattering deep focus and increasing communication debt.

Not only does a team need to understand the protocols of when to communicate, what questions are appropriate to ask, and what channels to use to communicate, the team needs to agree upon an expectation for response time. And that expectation must be implemented and respected by everyone. Consider whether these should be different by email versus a communication tool like Slack. Whether it’s 1 hour, or 3 hours, or 24, one way to help your team meet these expectations is to encourage employees to have scheduled “breaks” from their work specifically to check email and messages. For example, messages get checked and responded to at 9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 5 p.m. Imagine how much deep work can get done in between those email breaks. Managers tend to set the bar for expected communication, but employees should gauge when they are most productive and save that time for focused work, and schedule email breaks during less optimal timeframes.

[Related read: ‘Kill Reply All’—a rallying cry for better digital etiquette]

4. Have emergency protocols in place

But... what about those times when you really, really, really need an answer. Right. Now.

That’s where emergency communication protocols come in. There are two things you need to define so that the emergency protocol will function: what constitutes an emergency, and which channel should be used. Also consider whether the protocol changes during work hours, or when an event occurs outside of work hours.

Managers tend to set the bar for expected communication, but employees should gauge when they are most productive and save that time for focused work, and schedule email breaks during less optimal timeframes.

Emergency protocols allow employees to stop working when the workday ends. For example, a text from a manager after hours signals that something needs to be dealt with immediately, whereas a late night email can be handled in the morning.

5. Lead from the top

All of this is well and good, but if leaders of a team don’t follow the rules, then neither will the rest of the team.

Another way managers can be anti-communication debt is to be a “shit umbrella,” protecting their team from information they don’t need. In that role, a manager acts as a filter lowering the team’s burden of communication debt. This is also where the “reply all” and “cc” come in; only micromanagers need to be cc’d on everything. Trust your team to do their job—they’ll respect you for it.

6. Bring in efficiency tools

No, this doesn’t mean use Slack instead of email. It does mean that your team should use communication platforms that eliminate or reduce the need for meetings and one-on-one communication for status updates on projects. Some examples of efficiency tools that act as a project status knowledge base are Trello, Asana, and Status Hero, the latter of which is the brainchild of Henry Poydar.

When status updates are clear to everyone, and materials can be uploaded to a centralized system, it eliminates the need to communicate updates on a project.

[Related read: 5 productivity hacks anyone can do]

7. Recognize that email is work

A bad habit of many workers is to regard email as fluff work. “When email is done right, it’s not the stuff to squeeze in, it’s real work,” says Thomas. But so often, that five-minute break to check email and respond to the crucial things that have plopped in your inbox turns into a multi-hour timesuck. Email is real work and it needs to be treated as such.

When status updates are clear to everyone, and materials can be uploaded to a centralized system, it eliminates the need to communicate updates on a project.

This is also why it’s important for managers to build time for email into your team’s day. For just a small indication of the average workday, let’s do a little math.

Say an employee receives 75 important emails a day (according to Thomas, this is a legitimate average number). If each email takes 2 minutes to respond to (a short estimate, if you ask me) then you spend 150 minutes a day responding to emails. That’s two-and-a-half hours or just over one-quarter of the average workday. So if responding to emails takes up 25 percent of your time, in addition to meetings, it’s important to recognize and honor that, and also to work to minimize unnecessary communication (and meetings). When you consider that managers, according to Thomas, attend 3-5 meetings per day, that might be up to 4 hours, plus 2.5 hours of email, which means that very little of the 8-hour work day remains.

Communication debt really comes into play when team productivity seems lower—or lower than you’d like. If you can build a strategy to reduce communication debt, you—and your team—just might be able to cross some things off your to-do list. Finally.