A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 23, 2021

Research: Workers Lose 10 Hours Per Month Due To Digital Miscommunication

A big part of the problem appears to come from Millennials and Gen Zers working with older colleagues who are less facile with the new technologies - but are more senior so can't just be criticized or blown off. JL

Megan Carnegie reports in Wired:

Toggling between Microsoft Teams, Slack, Flock, Facebook Workplace and Zoom meetings has created a digital communication crisis, and an anxious workforce. In the last 19 months of remote working the average full-time staff in a medium to large business loses 9.3 hours per month, or 112 hours per year on digital communication programs, products and tools. 52% of workers used four or more digital tools in the average work day. Gen Zers and millennials are the most digitally anxious (because) they work with older people more senior to them who do not know how to communicate in the same way.

Omar*, an architecture assistant from Sheffield, hadn’t smoked for years. He was proud to have kept temptation at bay when lockdown first happened, but the arrival of his new boss earlier this year forced him back to the habit. “His messages infuriate me,” Omar says. “It’s as if he’s not even reading what he sends, just blindly typing a few words and these nonsensical abbreviations. It’s even worse when he posts in our team Slack group and tags me, because then I’m worrying how the team will judge my response.”

There is one colleague he contacts to help decipher the messages, but as she works more flexibly to fit around childcare, hours can go by before she replies. “Rolling a cig and smoking it on my balcony is the only thing that calms me down. I feel as if I'm locked in some kind of psychological warfare,” says Omar, who often works late into the night to make up for lost time.

Omar is far from the only person wasting working hours on bad communication. With companies backpedalling on their return to work policies over the summer, many office workers are still doing the bulk from home and their working day has expanded to replace what was their commute. In an August 2021 survey by Cendex, 30 per cent of UK organisations reported that staff work an additional one to two hours a day, and 21 per cent do between three and five extra hours per day.

And while some studies would have you believe that it’s because people are doing more work, digital miscommunication could, in part, be responsible for such bloated workdays. In the last 19 months of remote working the average full-time member of staff in a medium to large business loses 9.3 hours per month, or 112 hours per year on digital communication programmes, products and tools. The research, conducted by professional services firm Sigma, also found that 52 per cent of workers used four or more digital tools in the average work day. For some six per cent of the workforce, interactions are happening across as many as nine platforms.

Toggling between tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Flock, Facebook Workplace and juggling calendars packed with Zoom meetings that should have been emails has created a digital communication crisis, and an anxious workforce. Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection No Matter the Distance, finds that this digital anxiety occurs when digital communication leads to misunderstanding, gaslighting, paranoia or confusion. “The most common driver of digital anxiety is brevity, those brief, low-contact messages,” explains Dhawan. “The pressure to communicate quickly can lead many of us to take shortcuts and leave out context. For those with less power in that situation, cryptic messages can be overthought and create a lot of stress and anxiety.

As the pandemic drags on and we adjust to hybrid work, many are realising that at best, these digital miscommunications are wasting time and at worst, damaging our mental health. Some 18 per cent of British workers say the spread of digital tools makes it harder to switch off, while the same figure finds them anxiety-inducing.

Despite being digital natives, it’s Gen Zers and millennials who are the most digitally anxious demographic in the professional sphere, according to Dhawan’s research. She found that those in younger generations were working with older people that were more senior to them, and who do not know how to communicate in the same way. “A lot of these older generation [leaders] aren’t equipped to create emotional nuance digitally,” she says, as they provide less context and fewer digital cues - a recipe for tech-induced anxiety. As if all the stresses of starting a career in a pandemic weren’t enough, Gen Z are grappling with understanding what Dhawan calls poorly formulated ‘digital body language’.

The global digital transformation market (which covers all the ways we’re trying to fix conventional issues with tech applications) was valued at $336.14 billion in 2020, and is set to grow by over 24 per cent by 2028. Yet among all the enthusiasm for such ‘transformative’ tools, we’re forgetting that when we spoke to each other out loud in the office, we wasted less time agonising over the way we were coming across. Non-verbal cues not only added texture to our working lives, but helped us get the message across more quickly.

“When you have less human interaction, you live in your own head and second guess yourself,” explains Dominique*, who works in finance and now finds herself agonising over emails as she tries to strike the right balance. “Direct but not too direct...friendly, but not weak,” she says. After several incidents where something she sent was misinterpreted, as well as being on the receiving end of poor communication, Dominique’s caution is warranted. “You never quite know how someone is going to react to your message or what headspace they’re in''.

A raft of apps has sprung up to check yourself before you send messages, from Grammarly’s emoji-rich Tone Detector to the software Mpathic, which uses AI to recommend tonal improvements to emails and messages. It sometimes even suggests that users talk in person, instead of by email. But according to Dhawan, tools won’t be enough if workers don’t work on their own behaviour. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a confusing message, Dhawan recommends determining whether the problem is the medium, the tone or the actual message. “If it’s the medium, switch to a different one,” she explains. “Sometimes a phone conversation really is better than email, just as email is a better forum for thoughtfulness and perspective than a text conversation”. If it’s the tone, assume the other person’s best intentions and respond with facts, and if the issue is the message itself, request clarity. But if you’re the sender? Ask yourself whether you’re being clear and if the message could be interpreted any other way. In a position of power, double check you’re not being unintentionally vague, terse or rushed.

Dave Cook, an anthropologist at University College London, believes the variety of different tools is important, because it allows people to engage with a form of communication etiquette that suits them best. There should be clear guidelines on how to use them, for example setting ‘Away’ on Slack, rather than leaving colleagues hanging. “People are neurodiverse, so some prefer asynchronous, others prefer the social aspect of Zoom,” he says. “What’s important is that line managers understand their team members’ communication styles and needs on a personal and flexible level.”

These daily digital mishaps are going to take time to iron out, even in a hybrid workplace, and will require collaboration between both employees and employers. Cook says business leaders must recognise there are human cost implications in adding tech tools without any context. Although hybrid work - and the increased IRL contact - could help iron out digital miscommunication issues, Cook believes there is an art to this, and one that employees alone cannot conjure. “Companies need to trial different approaches, and iterate based on staff feedback - it’s not simply a top-down approach that can be applied.”

*some names have been changed


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