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The rapid adoption of collaboration tools during the pandemic put a dizzying array of communications tools to connect with colleagues and partners into the hands of geographically remote workers. But making it easy to connect has its consequences. The pace of work is picking up and people are overloaded with information like never before.

The Speed of Work Today: More! Faster! Now!

More

Since the start of the pandemic, people have been working longer and working later. Microsoft Researcher Mary Czerwinski attributes this in part to the challenge of taking care of kids while working from home. UC Irvine Informatics professor Gloria Mark points to additional daily duties people are taking on, such as caring for family members. Collaboration tools have enabled workers to be productive during these traditional off-hours. Case in point, the recent Microsoft Work Trends Index 2022 found the average Microsoft Teams user now sends 42% more chats per person after hours.

But these extra hours of work come at a cost. Scattered work hours create discontinuous personal and work times, making it hard to focus, with the need to reorient ourselves multiple times during the day. And whether we are working or not, the endless stream of email, chat messages and meeting recordings continue to pour in … more often on our phones than computers, making them harder to ignore.

Faster

It’s not your imagination, work is moving faster. In fact, the premise of Microsoft's The New Future of Work Report 2022 begins with the assertion that “work is changing faster than it has in a generation.”

As works speeds up, traditional complaints about too much email have evolved into complaints about too many text messages and now even too many voice messages. A recent blog from WhatsApp revealed that seven billion (!) voice messages are sent every day on WhatsApp. That’s almost one voice message for every single person on the planet. Of course, most of these are consumer messages, but many also connect business associates. How did we transition from text to voice so quickly?

In the beginning, we had phone calls, but that took too much time, so text messaging and chat were a godsend to speed things up. Because after all, we don’t really want to talk to people, we just want to share what’s on our mind. Chat enabled us to address multiple people at once, using group chats. A further bonus is chat enabled concurrent conversations, further increasing the velocity of work.

Chat was good for a while, but today, even chat seems like a drag. Replacing chat with voice messages allows us to move even faster, by eliminating the time wasted tapping out messages. But even that isn’t enough. Now, WhatsApp, YouTube, Microsoft and others offer you to listen to messages at 2X — twice the speed. In fact, the 2X button is today’s salvation from having to listen to someone prattle on, in what seems to be the glacial pace of normal speech. The bottom line? We can create messages faster and consume them faster as well. It’s a wonder we're still able to have real conversations.

Now

The move from email to chat reduced expected response times. Email studies peg the expected response time from colleagues from around 15-60 minutes up to several hours. Yet a survey of real text message data found that 95% of texts are read within 3 minutes of being sent, with an average response time of 90 seconds. Of course, these numbers are from limited studies and your expectations may differ, but it is easy to understand that chat is a much noisier and more intrusive medium than email.

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It’s Information Overload All Over Again

While communications tools enable faster transmission of information, our cognitive skills have not kept pace with technology to process information faster. As such, the ease with which we can create and share information is leading to unprecedented levels of information overload. The potential fallout is significant. Overload not only leads to missing important assignments and lost opportunities, it also correlates with increased stress levels, which has also been identified in recent remote work studies.

It is important to understand that overload is not an objective condition, and it doesn't solely depend on the quantity of information you need to process. Information overload is a subjective perception that depends on the following three factors:

  • How much information you need to process (quantity).
  • How easy it is to consume the information (quality).
  • How much time you have to process information (time).

The move to remote work has not only increased the quantity of information we receive, but more of what we consume is mediated by communications tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. Mediation generally reduces information quality, so we end up spending more time and cognitive effort trying to make sense of it all … which leads to even more overload.

Related Article: How to Overcome Information Overload

Collaboration Tools to the Rescue

The good news is collaboration tools are starting to provide new capabilities to help deal with increased levels of overload, in the following three ways by:

  • Reducing the amount of information we need to consume.
  • Reducing the time we spend processing each piece of information.
  • Improving information quality through higher quality interactions.

Here are some examples of how collaboration tools are addressing all three of the contributors to overload.

  • Focused Inbox: By surfacing more relevant emails, a focused Inbox pinpoints the most important emails and reduced what we need to process. The accuracy of what lands in the focused Inbox will improve over time as vendors apply machine learning to what we answer, what we ignore and what we delete.
  • Notifications: Many communications tools today use @mentions and hashtags (#) to alert us about important updates. When used consistently and uniformly, @mentions and hashtags reduce the number of messages we need to pay attention to.
  • Shared messages: Sending group messages via chat tools reduces email load by creating a single, shared conversation in place of overlapping emails threads. When everyone participates in one conversation instead of many side conversations, communications are more streamlined and productive, thereby reducing cognitive load.
  • Skip unimportant meetings: According to Microsoft VP of Microsoft Teams and Teams Platform Nicole Herskowitz, data show that chat is increasingly being used to eliminate meetings. “It's all about how you optimize your time. With the recording, transcript, chat history features in Teams, I can assess which meetings I need to attend live and which ones can be viewed asynchronously.” Herskowitz explains, “I'll go to a meeting recording. I'll go to the clip that matters most to me. I can read the meeting transcript and the chat history. All these capabilities help me be much more efficient and more flexible.”
  • Get updates at 2X: Another advantage of viewing meeting recordings is the ability to speed through them at twice the actual rate. Many of us already do this with WhatsApp voice messages and podcasts.
  • Converged communications: Use more than one communication modality to collaborate. Herskowitz points out that more and more communications start on chat and move to a call. “I may be chatting with you about something in Teams and it would be like, you know what. I have a question, let’s talk … we are seeing this kind of workflow evolve.”
  • Increase the quality of mediated communications: Use of features like ‘front row’ in Microsoft Teams allows you to position key participants on the screen for Teams meetings so the visual interaction is richer. Herskowitz suggests that in the future metaverse, Teams communications will become even richer. “Today, you feel like you need to have your camera on because people feel like you’re more engaged. Data show that turning the camera off and using an avatar provides another option that can help reduce meeting fatigue and make people more productive. These metaverse scenarios are going to become a core part of how work gets done.”

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The Future Looks … Mixed

When technology solves problems, it creates new ones. This is certainly true for the modern workplace. As business moves faster, we are becoming increasingly overloaded. Modern tools are helping by reducing the load, so we focus on what’s important.

But this state isn't sustainable — it only prods us to move faster. The impending metaverse is an example. Richer interactions will improve communications, but they will undoubtedly bring more load and new challenges, for which we will need even newer and better tools. The result is we will continue to struggle with and learn to adapt to new varieties of information overload.