Information overload? 5 tips to tame team collaboration apps

While the rise of popular collaboration tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts has been a boon to worker productivity, there's a downside: The seemingly endless parade of distractions, morning, noon and night. Here's how to turn down the noise and get more work done.

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Email, video and messaging apps such as Slack and Microsoft Teams make it possible to easily collaborate with co-workers, no matter what time zone (or country) they happen to be in. And access to mobile versions of the same apps means that colleagues can quickly respond to a DM, follow a group conversation or make a quick edit to file at virtually any time.

But with that ease of use comes a problem: workers can become overwhelmed by a barrage of notifications from colleagues before the workday begins, during it, and after it should be over. And that’s not good for productivity or distracted workers’ stress levels.

Research from UC Irvine has shown it can take more than 20 minutes to become immersed in a task after an interruption, while a different study claims that multitasking can reduce productivity by 40%. The increased collaborative workload can even lead to burnout — something the World Health Organization recently recognized as an occupational phenomenon — with the always-on nature of modern communications a contributing factor, according to Harvard Business Review research.

Gartner analyst Craig Roth has noted in recent blog posts that information overload is a tricky problem with plenty of blame to go around, whether it be managers with inflated expectations, corporate IT that deploys overlapping tools, or the vendors that create apps so adept at grabbing our attention.

But there are steps users can take to at least reduce the collaborative din, mute clamoring colleagues and actually get some work done. These five tips should help.

1. Use apps’ Do Not Disturb mode

The easiest way to reduce unwanted noise is to hit the collaborative equivalent of a snooze button and temporarily set apps to “silent.” Most apps have a Do Not Disturb (DND) function that can be switched on when a user needs to focus on finishing a particular task.

“Sometimes it’s important to know when to turn off the noise and allow myself to focus 100% of my attention on the task at hand,” says Marissa Salazar, a product marketing manager for Microsoft Teams. “A quick /dnd in the Command Bar in Teams sets my status to Do Not Disturb — which turns off notifications and indicates to my team that I’m focused on a project.”

To achieve real focus it’s important to carve out time in your daily schedule — and even find a quiet place to get work done.

“Block out one- to two-hour chunks of time in your calendar for uninterrupted work so you can fully focus and reach your peak creativity and productivity,” says Paul Gentile, senior director of product marketing at collaboration software firm LogMeIn. “To avoid distractions, opt for a quiet space like a private meeting room and turn off all chat/email notifications.”

Still worried about missing an important message while finishing a report? Even with notifications snoozed, colleagues still have a range of tools at their disposal to find you when you’re temporarily off-grid.

“If there is an emergency, your team will find a way to get a hold of you,” says Dejan Deklich, chief product officer at unified communications software vendor 8x8. “A more hardcore alternative is to simply exit your team messaging app and put your phone in DND mode.”

That said, it’s important to keep colleagues in the loop when diving into “focus” time. “The key is being transparent about when you are going dark if you are on an active team in motion, collaborating with mutual deadlines,” says Peter Rivera, chief experience officer at consulting firm Avanade. “And there needs to be a panic button of some kind (an SMS to co-workers to break through if things go awry). So you can ‘go dim’ but you cannot ever be 100% dark.”

2. Limit notifications to your specific work hours

The rise of digital workplace tools has been vital to connecting teams in around the world. For organizations with staff in different geographies, conversations in one time zone can continue long after workers have clocked off in another, meaning smartphones can still buzz with messages late into the night or early in the morning.

“Let's say an employee installs a chat tool on their personal phone and it lights up with notifications at [9 p.m.] because someone at work is saying something in a chat room that pulls everyone in. That's terrible,” says David Heinemeier Hansson, cofounder and CTO at Basecamp, which sells a work management tool that includes a team chat feature.

The “right to disconnect” has become a hot topic in recent years as communication and collaboration technologies become more common at work. Legislators in France have gone so far as to ban requirements that employees respond to emails outside of working hours, and in Germany big companies such as Volkswagen and Daimler have voluntarily introduced post-shift email blackouts for some workers, even automatically deleting messages for workers on vacation. While similar restrictions were proposed in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration deemed them unrealistic.

Responding to user demands for more control over communications, collaboration software providers have added the ability to automatically mute notifications during certain times of day. Slack, for example, lets admins designate a default quiet time for all employees to ensure they are not disturbed by colleagues, and users can set up their own preferences in app settings.

Basecamp created a feature called Work Can Wait to mute notifications when a worker is finished for the day. “Just because we’ve made it so easy to get in contact with everyone in a company, maybe that is not such a good idea,” says Heinemeier Hansson. “Just because we can doesn't mean we should.”

3. Leave irrelevant channels and group chats

One popular feature in chat-based collaboration tools is channels, which serve as a hub for discussions around a certain topic, from serious company announcements to social interest groups and even areas for random chatter.

Channels and group chat can focus discussions and be a great way to broadcast information effectively to a wider group without engaging in multiple private conversations.

“[One-to-one] chat conversations take up a tremendous amount of brain CPU cycles — use multi-user rooms with @ mentions to have multiple people see the same message,” says Deklich. “If you're not talking about something secret, using a company-wide room is a fantastic way to cut down on the number of concurrent communication channels you have to maintain.”

But keeping track of conversations in numerous channels can be time-consuming. It’s important to be selective when choosing which channels and group chats you subscribe to.

“Leave or unfollow rooms with low signal-to-noise ratio — if there is something you absolutely must see, someone will @mention you,” he says. “For certain types of conversations, chat is not the best. Use email, or possibly even a cloud document service, for ‘slow’ collaboration.”

If you don’t want to leave a channel or group for good, you can often mute it temporarily.

“As an individual user, it’s about tuning notification settings to your needs,” says Chris Uldriks, a technology consultant at Point B Management Consulting. “Ask yourself: what do you need to know right away?” 

It is possible, for example, to set mobile and desktop notifications based upon someone @mentioning you, or if there is activity in a specific channel you’re interested in, says Uldriks. “And what you don't need to know right away you can catch up on in your activity feed when you have the time.”

4. Avoid switching between apps

In addition to information overload, some workers face app overload. And bouncing between them can get in the way of clear and efficient communication. The obvious solution is to avoid moving between apps, but that’s often easier said than done. Organizations often rely on several tools for worker communication, meaning conversations occur in multiple places.

“New tools are constantly popping up,” Heinemeier Hansson says. “A lot of companies have not one communication and productivity tool, they have one, two, three, four, five, six — they might have Trello, they might have Slack, they might have Dropbox, they might have Google Docs. They have all of this all of the time, and of course that is stressing employees. Where is the information? It is spread out everywhere.”

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