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Are all your productivity tools making you feel…unproductive? Here’s how to manage the deluge

March 3, 2021, 4:55 PM UTC
It's not just your imagination. People are using more work apps, and checking them more regularly.
Peopleimages via Getty

It’s time to stop sending Zoom links via text message. Please?

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we’d like to lower-case zoom out a bit and examine how far we’ve come on communication in the pandemic workplace. 

Let’s set up a time to chat? 

Sure. Do you prefer…

Text message

FaceTime

WhatsApp

Facebook Messenger

Twitter DM

Slack 

Signal

Google Hangout

Google Docs

Asana

Trello

AirTable

Notion

Webex 

or… Zoom. 

There’s. Always. Zoom. 

Before COVID-19, the average knowledge worker in the U.S. used 10 apps at least 25 times per workday, according to a study by Asana, which helps teams track and organize their work. Now, with a record number of Americans working from home, the number of apps has ballooned to 13, checked at least 30 times a day.

“We’re overwhelmed,” said Joshua Zerkel, head of global engagement marketing at Asana. “We need to put the team and people back in the driver’s seat so we’re not at the mercy of the tool. Because the world is increasingly chaotic, everyone is looking for any way to retain some modicum of control.” 

I spoke to Asana’s Zerkel and two other productivity experts to figure out how to save ourselves and our colleagues from each other. Our medium to connect: old-school phone conversations. Lots of thought-provoking questions and productivity hacks emerged but everyone agreed that the overdependence on email has got to go. 

The case against email 

Americans spend five hours a day on email, according to a 2019 Adobe survey. More recent data, reflecting the pandemic, has not yet been released.

We do know too much of that time is spent telling you what a previous email meant (guilty, so guilty). Quantified Communications, a communications advisory firm, found businesses spend an average 17 hours per week clarifying previous communication, losing at least $525,000 a year in lost productivity. 

What would happen if you only checked it three times a day? 

That’s the revolutionary suggestion from Aye Moah, head of product for Boomerang, a productivity software company. Boomerang allows you to pause your inbox, schedule emails for later times, send reminders to yourself, allowing VIPs and bosses to break through. (Disclosure: I use it, mostly to time emails to hit people’s inboxes at 9:07 a.m. so they don’t think I am a jerk for interrupting nights or weekends.)

“The context-switching email requires is not worth it for you to have email continually open,” Moah said. “Email has really gotten to a point where it’s not on your timeline anymore.”

In a post titled “How to achieve email mastery” earlier this year, Khe Hy writes: “When I managed a team at BlackRock, I would always say to my direct reports, ‘When you send me something, know that I’m grateful, but I’ll never say thank you.’ Why? Sending a thank you is just one more email for them to process.”

The case for email 

Still, email is the preferred method of communication for most companies and why Boomerang has built a business on that ubiquity. 

“Everyone uses email,” said Moah. “Email is the last open protocol. No one private company owns the medium. Everybody follows the protocol.”

Its value is also tonal. “Let’s move this to email” implies you want something to be serious, pondered, archived. 

A possible compromise

The key to finding a balance with email is to regulate how much time you spend on it and be careful of how much you allow others to set your agenda for the day. Hy spends 32 minutes a day on email and has distilled his approach to a science, relying heavily on other programs to make reading lists, to-dos and set goals. Similarly, Moah has adopted what she calls a “one-touch” system where immediately she decides what, if any, response an email warrants. Not all email is the same and yet some people treat every single one as urgent, she said. 

“For mails you don’t need right away, don’t be afraid to wait six months. Punt it to the future and when it’s relevant to you. Put email on your own timeline.”

Another solution is to think about other mediums, not just for efficiency but to break up monotony. In a Kaltura survey of workers, almost half said they wish executives communicated in ways other than email, such as audio and visual platforms. 

Rules of the road

How do employees know what platforms to use? These three broke this question down into more lists … which seems really on brand for productivity experts. 

Asana’s Zerkel: “The three most important things are coordination, content and communication. Focus on these pillars and which tool is the best tool for that pillar.”

Boomerang’s Moah: “Make a communication guide for your team. What goes on Slack. What goes on email. When do things move to a meeting.”

RadReads’ Hy: “Picture the three legs of a stool: there’s the tool, there’s self awareness and there’s behavior change.”

They all agree on this. Hy’s example, using his own rule of three: You want to lose weight so you buy a Peloton (the bike is the tool). You must ask yourself why you want the tool (self awareness). To be healthier? What does that mean and why does it matter? To look good or live longer or because you love cycling? The answers will guide the behavior change (exercising every day, seeing a nutritionist, keeping a food diary, going on medication) and make it more likely to stick.

Prioritization

It might be time to get real. Working at the pace some people have been going for the last year cannot continue. It’s unhealthy and leading to unprecedented burnout. “I’m really a big proponent of encouraging my team to be very realistic about their time,” said Zerkel. “My goal is not to work more than 40 hours. I found most people have enough time but have too many tasks. We need to be smarter about prioritization, especially now.”

When Hy was about to go on paternity leave, he recalls his manager walked up to him and asked how he wanted to be communicated with, if at all, while away. He was touched. Such grace might seem elusive in a pandemic, or impossible on a platform. “Do you sign off from a Slack conversation? Or do you just go to lunch?” he asked. “Work-from-home has thrown gasoline on unspoken norms. The next step is to make every norm public.”

A year into the pandemic, there’s some concern that business communications haven’t changed enough. “I call it the copy-and-paste mindset,” said Hy. “We had an all-hands 50-person meeting on Mondays but that meeting doesn’t work as a 50-person Zoom call. No one said: What’s the point of this meeting? What about picking a new tool to fight the new enemy instead of using an old tool?

Asana has rolled out product features to meet this new normal. A new feature called “Goals” allows users to see how their individual pieces of a project ladder up. 

“When you don’t know how your work matters, it’s easy to get demotivated. You can feel disconnected all the time,” said Zerkel. “Nobody wants to be a cog in a machine.” 

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