The Dark Side of Electronic Communication

Individuals and organizations alike still rely on electronic mail (e-mail) as a primary communication tool to conduct business. A 2003 study, still relevant by today’s standards, by associate professors Raymond Friedman and Steven Currall, caution about using e-mail to resolve conflicts. While they do not specifically mention it, using other media for the same purpose should also give one pause. 

Based on their review of sociological literature, the authors suggest that escalation of disputes is more likely during electronic communication than during face-to-face conversation. They also recommend a number of ways to ameliorate the risk of escalation, concluding with a call for additional empirical research into e-mail’s impact on conflict management.

The authors define the following properties as present in face-to-face communication:

  • Co-presence (parties are in the same surroundings)
  • Visibility (parties see one another)
  • Audibility (parties hear speech timing and intonation)
  • Cotemporality (parties receive utterances as they are produced)
  • Simultaneity (parties send and receive messages at once)
  • Sequentiality (parties take turns)

It is easy to see how each property enables communicators to “ground” the interaction. In other words, they are able to achieve a shared understanding about the encounter and a shared sense of participation. They also allow participants to time and adjust their actions and reactions so as to move toward agreement. Grounding, timing, and adjusting are all critically important tools in successful conflict resolution.

In looking at e-mail communication, the authors state that e-mail exchanges take place in an antisocial context (participants are isolated at their computers), allow new tactics (such as lengthy messages or communications that bundle multiple arguments together) and are characterized by reviewability and revisability (communicators are able to re-read received messages and extensively shape their responses).

These properties, as well as the lack of those that are unique to face-to-face conversation, engender the following effects (which Friedman and Currall claim increase the risk of escalation during conflict processing):

  • Low feedback. Electronic communication generates little feedback such as clues about how a recipient is reacting to one’s message. As a result, participants cannot fluidly adjust their comments to repair missteps or clarify misunderstandings. Inadvertent insults and loss of face become more likely, and misunderstandings accumulate. Also, recipients can often perceive communication tactics as “heavier” than intended. This causes social bonds to weaken and the involved parties find it more difficult to resolve conflicts.
  • Reduced social cues. E-mail communication lacks the emotional expression found in face-to-face conversations; therefore, the parties rely more on the messages’ cognitive content to manage conflict. In addition, although e-mail participants often include greetings and other forms of “social lubrication” in their messages, the power of such rituals to remind people of social norms and rules declines significantly the longer the delay between message exchanges. When long delays exist, message recipients may respond in socially inappropriate ways – aggressively or not empathetically.
  • Length of messages. When a sender bundles multiple arguments in a lengthy e-mail message, the recipient may forget to respond to one or more arguments in the reply. Moreover, in crafting a response, the recipient may focus only on those arguments that he or she found most upsetting. When a sender believes that the recipient has ignored parts of the message, the sender may suspect a violation of interaction norms. Misunderstandings can accumulate, and inadvertent insults can become more likely.
  • Excess attention. Thanks to the properties of reviewability and revisability, online communicators can ruminate at length about received messages. Research suggests that rumination increases both angry mood and perceptions of a problem’s magnitude. Reviewability and revisability also permit elaborate editing of messages, which increases composers’ commitment to their arguments. The parties become less willing to compromise, begin depersonalizing one another and view the conflict as unresolvable.

The conclusions? Use face-to-face conversations or phone calls to discuss disputes. If e-mail cannot be avoided, then consider that the perceived insult may have been unintentional. Finally, the authors suggest that e-mail users can and should manage risk to resolve conflicts more productively.

Service – Now!

When you’re in line waiting for service, how long is too long?

Studies show that on average, waiting more than three minutes is too long. And customers that wait more than three minutes? There is a strong likelihood that they are dealing with the only available service provider. If customers have choices, they will leave.

This is not good news for providers of service.

How good is your company at providing top-notch customer service? STELLAservice, an online customer service rating company, found that DisneyStore.com ranked among the top ten for both speediest e-mail support (1 hour, 47 minutes, 40 seconds) and phone support (12 seconds). For the full survey, click here.

In addition to speed (or time), customers are also looking for the following qualities in service (source: Evans and Lindsay, The Management and Control of Quality).

  1. Timeliness. Is the service completed on time? For example, is an overnight package delivered overnight?
  2. Completeness. Is everything the customer asked for provided? For example, is a mail order from a catalog company complete when delivered?
  3. Courtesy. How are customers treated by employees? For example, are catalog phone operators at Sears nice and are their voices pleasant?
  4. Consistency. Is the same level of service provided to each customer each time? For example, is your newspaper delivered on time every morning?
  5. Accessibility and convenience. How easy is it to obtain the service? For example, when you call Sears, does the service representative answer quickly?
  6. Accuracy. Is the service preformed right every time? For example, is your bank or credit card statement correct every month?
  7. Responsiveness. How well does the company react to unusual situations (which can happen frequently in a service company)? For example, how well is a telephone operator at Sears able to respond to a customer’s questions about a catalog item not fully described in the catalog?

When working with customers, service providers are in a more precarious situation than are producers of manufactured goods. Because service can be intangible (unlike a product or good that is tangible), it is sometimes hard to know a customer’s expectations. A service’s “fitness for use” is often in the eyes of the customer.

By building quality into every dimension of service, organizations will not only attain excellence in service, but happy and loyal customers – and a healthy bottom line.

Bouncing Around

Did you know that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent? As surprising as this number is, what is more surprising is that those who multitask believe that they are being more productive than if they focus on one task at a time. Let’s have a closer look at multitasking.

The first thing to consider is that no one can truly multitask. What they are doing is “task switching.” According to Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries: “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount. It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.”

If one is task switching, then the way to save time is to batch your tasks. For instance, if you need to attend meetings, then schedule your meetings all in one day or half-day. This way, you get into the necessary mindset required for meetings and you get meetings done all at once (or in chunks of time). This is much better than having one meeting every day.

Switching frequently between tasks can also introduce errors into your work. This is especially true if your work involves a lot of critical thinking. A 2010 French study concluded that while the human brain can handle two complicated tasks without too much trouble, introducing a third task can overwhelm the frontal cortex and increase the number of mistakes.

Another reason not to multitask is that it increases stress. A University of California found that employees who received a steady stream of email stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant access multitasked less and were also less stressed.

Multitasking also increases “inattentional blindness.” One study found that 75% of college students who walked across a street while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. While the brain did not register seeing the clown, there is real danger in inattentional blindness. What if a speeding car was heading toward you while you were engaged on your cell phone?

Multitasking makes it harder to switch between tasks. This is especially true as our brains age. A 2011 study from the University of California in San Francisco concluded that it becomes harder to get back on track after interruptions. This is because sudden interruptions forcing us to focus on another task disrupts short term memory.

All of this begs the question, “Do those who say they can multitask actually multitask and do they do it well?” According to a 2013 University of Utah study, if you engage in multitasking frequently, you are much worse at it than those who only engage occasionally.

The next time you feel the need to bounce around between tasks, STOP. Instead, prioritize and schedule your work to focus on one task at a time. To become more productive, do not divide your attention between tasks. And remember that overall, frequent multitasking or task switching leads to more harm than good.

The Little Things ARE Important

When we focus on getting things done, we typically focus on allotting time for the important and time-consuming tasks. If it’s very important and it’s going to take a long time, we must get it done first, right? Yes and no.

In prioritizing, it is easy to forget to take care of work that can be done in a minute or two; regardless of its importance. When we consistently defer doing the little things, they can become big things. And big things can be a lot harder to manage.

When we end up facing a mountain of big things, we can become overwhelmed. Overwhelm may lead to procrastination which may lead to more little things piling up and becoming big things. It becomes a vicious cycle—little work becomes big work that leads to overwhelm that leads to procrastination. This can lead to stress that eventually leads to poor health and in extreme cases, death.

Take e-mail as an example. How many opened e-mails do you have right now in your e-mail inbox? Any number above zero is too many. Why? Because as soon as you open an e-mail, an action is required that will allow you to remove it from you inbox.

If you open an e-mail and leave it in your inbox (whether or not you acted on it), the accumulating open e-mails in your inbox become electronic clutter that contribute to mental clutter. And mental clutter contributes to overwhelm. For e-mail management, follow the B-F-A-T rule.

For any task that can be done within a couple of minutes, do it immediately. If you do, you will decrease your workload almost instantaneously. You will also decrease your mental clutter. The goal is to start working on tasks that can get done quickly and then follow through to completion.

In other words—if you start, don’t stop until it’s done.

Any tasks that keep nagging at you such as the bill that needs to be paid, the appointment that needs to be made, the paper on your desk that needs to be filed—all of these things can take less than a few minutes, but as soon as you get them done, you are saving yourself from carrying them in your head as a “need to do.”

If you have thought about something more than once, but have not taken action to complete it, this is an item that must be taken care of right away; especially if you can get it done in a few minutes.

In addition to taking care of the little things immediately, do not write the little things on your “to do” list. If it takes you longer to write down what you need to do than it does to actually do it, then start doing it and don’t stop until you’re done.

A little known side-effect of doing quick tasks right away is that the action of not stopping something that you start can translate to developing good habits. For instance, if you know you need to go for a workout (the thought keeps nagging you), putting on your runners (starting) will take less than a minute. Once you’ve got them on, follow through on the task (don’t stop).

Whether at work or at home, turn nagging thoughts into actions and start working on all the little things to completion. When you do, the inertia of your actions will result in good habits that can last a lifetime.

All you need is to get started.

Technology and Social Media on a Collusion Course

In the olden days (remember those?), technology didn’t have a place at work other than as a tool to get work done faster. Today, technology in the workplace is much different than it was even a decade ago.

E-mail has coupled with instant messaging, texting has coupled with mobile phones, and other applications like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, HootSuite, Klout, Ping…the list is almost endless…seem to be must haves for businesses and individuals alike. These technological aids invading the workplace no longer allow users to get their work done faster in an organization laden with “tradition.” In fact, the collusion of technology and social media in the business environment is having the opposite effect.

The complexities inside a business need an overhaul and this includes updating policies and procedures to include technology wherever possible. For instance, why use “approved” corporate travel agents when booking online is much faster? Get rid of your travel department (or travel roles) and allow employees to book for themselves. Allowing employees to use technology (like online travel booking) rather than relying on “tried and true” in-house processes can actually help speed up business.

And forget about middle management taking recommendations to upper management for decisions. Organizations should either do away with middle management or trust middle management (and other front line staff) to make decisions on behalf of the organization. The hierarchical structure of old no longer fits the technological revolution. If your organization is trying to fit technology into its deep hierarchy, it’s doing it wrong and the approach is hurting its bottom line. Deep hierarchies suck both efficiency and productivity out of the organization. In fact, it’s probably not an overstatement to say that deep hierarchies suck the life out of organizations.

Employees can only be productive if the bombardment of technology is managed efficiently. Give your employees access to all of the information they need, so they (and only they) can decide what information is important to be effective in their jobs. Essentially, it’s about employers loosening the “controls” on what their employees may (or may not) access. At the end of the day, productivity and results matter more than the steps taken to get there. But if those steps are enabled through technology, then productivity is also improved.

Employers that trust and value their employees will reap the results of improved efficiency and productivity and, ultimately, corporate success. Allow your employees to use a full range of technology to manage their jobs in the best way they see fit. When this happens, your employees will also trust you and the organization’s leadership. The end result is a win-win relationship that enables the company’s success.

The Cost of Ignoring Communication

A noted author recommends that people selectively ignore communications by scanning communication for two vital pieces of information:

  • Action required by you
  • Deadline for completing the action

If neither of these items is included in the communication, he says to hit the Delete key. And this applies no matter who sent the communication. The author cites a 69% chance that you’ll get this exact communication a second time and there is a 48% chance you’ll get it a third time. He may be correct about the repeated communication, but I suggest the reason the communication is repeated is that it was ignored in the first place.

If you don’t respond to senders, they will repeat their communication until you do. This wastes everyone’s time. Instead of ignoring communication, reply to all communication the first time. It is the courteous thing to do.

In a previous post, I discussed the B-F-A-T Rule for email. With Bring forward-File-Act-Toss, every email that you open in your Inbox is immediately moved out of your Inbox. The goal is to have zero “opened” items in your Inbox at the end of each day. And once you start applying the rule, you’ll be amazed at how your productivity and efficiency will increase. Not to mention that removing clutter from your email inbox will also result in reduced stress.

For every email item in your Inbox, as soon as you open it, SCAN it (or READ it) and immediately do one of the following:

Bring it forward. If the email requires more than a few minutes of your time, tag the email with a Follow-up flag, set a date reminder for yourself in the flag. Now respond to the sender and let them know when they may be getting a response from you. Then MOVE the email to the appropriate Personal Folder (or Delete it – the flag will find it for you when its schedule is due).

File it. If the email is required for reference (i.e., it has value for you and/or your organization), MOVE it from your Inbox to the appropriate Personal Folder. However, if the email has long-term value and others may need it, save it on your organization’s local area network (LAN) or use the electronic document and records management system (EDRMS), as applicable.

Act on it. If the email requires a reply and the reply will take less than a couple of minutes, REPLY to it right away and then either DELETE it (because it has no value to you) or MOVE your “Sent” email (or the original sender’s email) to the appropriate Personal Folder. Remember: even if you don’t move the email to the appropriate Personal Folder, your reply is in your SENT folder. The deleted original email will also be in the DELETE folder.

Toss it. If the email does not require a reply (e.g., mass mailings such as bulletins, newsletters, or other general communique) and has no long-term value, DELETE it.

Following the above guidelines will ensure that you always have an Inbox that is clutter-free and you will be able to locate the information that you need more quickly. In short, you will achieve productivity with your email communications. And the rule is so simple, that you’ll wonder why you never applied it before.

In addition, you’ll save time for yourself and for your senders. It’s a win-win all around.

 

Improving Email Communications

The Radicati Group estimated that in 2010 the number of emails sent per day was around 294 billion. This means that more than 2.8 million emails were sent every second by about 1.9 billion email users (almost 30% of the world’s population).

Given this high number of users and email transmissions, one would think that writing, sending, and responding to emails would be a simple act. However, this is not so. Clarity and brevity in email communication is still lacking. Bill Jensen, author of Simplicity, suggests that there is a connection between behavioural communication and “clear” communication. He says that to be effective, communication must convey the following:

  • Connection. There must be a connection to the recipient’s workload (“how is the message relevant to what I do?”)
  • Lists. The email must list action steps (“what, specifically, should I do?”)
  • Expectations. The expectations for success need to be clear (“what do success and failure look like?”)
  • Ability. The ability to achieve success must be demonstrated (“what tools and support are available?”)
  • Return. The return to the person must be obvious (“what’s in it for me?”)

However, even if you do meet all of the above criteria in your messages, there are still things that occur that can drive your recipient “nuts.” Here are some examples of things to avoid in your email practices.

  1. Reply to all. CYA (cover your butt) is a lazy excuse for hitting the Reply to All button. Does your email really need to be sent to all? Think before you act.
  2. Complex issues. Trying to solve complex messages by email does not work. If it is a complex issue that perhaps started as not-so-complex, pick up the phone or call an in-person meeting.
  3. Subject lines. Does your subject line match the body of your email? This has got to be one of the most exasperating complaints about email. Using an old message to compose a new message is ineffective and not changing the subject line is unforgivable. Subject lines need to be concise and accurate because subject lines aid filing and information retrieval.
  4. Cancellations. If you need to cancel a meeting last minute, do so by telephone. Do not email. Do not text. This is a courtesy we would all do well to observe.
  5. Your poor planning does not constitute my emergency. You know the types – they forgot to get something completed and now all of a sudden, there’s an “urgent” email demanding your attention. And if the deadline isn’t met, the finger is pointed at you because they were “waiting” on you to complete a piece of the project.
  6. ALL CAPS or underlines. Do not use all capitalization in email messages because it appears as if you’re shouting. And don’t use underline because it may appear to be a hyperlink.
  7. Original messages missing. Replying to messages and not returning the original thread creates more work for the recipient who is now trying to remember what they wrote. This hinders productivity. Always return the full message thread.
  8. No signature lines. Always include your full signature on email messages. This includes your name, title, organization, address, and phone numbers. This saves time for the recipient in case they want to call you or send you “real” mail.
  9. Too many attachments. If you’re sending a lot of attachments, get permission before doing so or combine the attachments into one document. Or use an email attachment service such as You Send It where only a link will be provided, thus saving space.
  10. Work email abuse. Sometimes people send non-work related email from their work email address. This is not a good practice, since the majority of big companies monitor email.

When writing your next email, keep in mind the above guidelines. And above all else, use common sense and be disciplined in delivering clear and robust messages in as little space as possible.

The Black Holes of Communication

What is your top timewaster? Meetings? Communication? Micromanagers? You may be surprised to know that activities relating to communication typically cost people about two hours of wasted time every day. If you work an average eight-hour day, that’s 25% of your day gone to waste because of poor or mismanaged communication.

The causes of communication problems can be many, but it comes down to this – your ability to communicate. If you are unable to say “no,” “stop,” or ask the all-important “why” question, you are wasting time every day. Let me give you an example relating to meetings.

Most people go to meetings because they’re “supposed to” go to them. Why? To show that they’re a good employee? Nonsense! You can respectfully decline to attend meetings when the meeting adds no value to your work or you are unable to contribute value to the topic. If either of these apply, then decline the invitation with your reasons for doing so.

Email is another example. How often do you deal with communication from others when someone else should be dealing with it? Sometimes, we feel it’s the “polite” thing to do to take care of a request because it came to us, but that’s the wrong approach. Advise the sender that you aren’t able to assist them and in that same response to them, copy the person who can. There. You’ve just done double duty in one note.

And what about communicating to others? How are your communication skills? Do you say what you mean or do you skirt the issue? Be direct with your messaging. This saves time not only for you, but also for the recipient.

I recently blogged about micromanaging. This is an area where open and honest communication can really help eliminate timewasting. Sometimes the micromanager doesn’t even know that they’re micromanaging, let alone that they’re contributing to huge timewasting. If you’re under the thumb of a micromanager, call a time out and invite your micromanager to coffee. Point out how his/her micromanaging is impacting your work. You’ll both be better off because of the conversation.

To improve your productivity and gain time in your day, eliminate the black holes of communication by asking more questions (“why” is a powerful antidote), saying “no” more often (e.g., meetings), and speaking up about things that don’t feel right. Contrary to the popular song “Silence is Golden,” silence is not golden if it contributes to wasted time and energy.

It’s not sex. It’s not drinking. It’s stress and it’s soaring.

(headline source: Fortune Magazine, October 28, 2002)

A recent study shows that six in ten workers in major global economies are experiencing increased workplace stress. China (86%) has the highest rise in workplace stress (source: The Regus Group). The American Institute of Stress reports that 80% of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress. And 42% say their co-workers need such help.

What is causing all this stress?

One of the main causes of stress is complexity as can be found in faster-better-more technology. With the faster-better-more comes an inherent risk of inefficiency and ineffectiveness for those on the managing end. I submit that most companies have done a poor job of helping their staff manage technology.

Think about something as innocuous as email. How much stress do you incur as a direct result of too much email? Does your company provide you with resources, training, and guidance to help you manage your email so that it is not a source of stress for you (and those who attempt to communicate with you via email)?

Consider this: There were 3.3 billion email accounts in 2012 (source: Radacati Group). This is expected to increase to 4.3 billion by 2016. Of these amounts, corporate email makes up 25%, yet accounts for most of the world’s email traffic. In 2012, the number of business emails sent and received per day totaled 89 billion. And this number is expected to reach over 143 billion by year-end 2016. Consumer email, on the other hand, is expected to decrease, but this is partly due to increased use of texting and other social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And mobile email is also increasing.

It’s no wonder that stress is soaring. Juggling the ineffectiveness and inefficiencies imposed by technology at work only to come home to even more of the same can increase stress. So how does one cope with this bombardment? Here are some suggestions to help you stop stress from soaring in your life:

  1. Prepare for work by not rushing to work. Give yourself lots of time to get there. Studies show that if you start your day rushing, you will feel more stressed and be less productive at work.
  2. Keep your email inbox clear. Zero items at the end of the day is the rule, not a suggestion (for work and home email accounts). Immediately move all read items out of your inbox into appropriate storage locations (i.e., personal folders, shared drive folders, delete, print and file, etc.). By doing this, you will reduce your visual clutter and also be able to search for email items more efficiently.
  3. Set priorities for your day and stick to those priorities. Unless there’s an emergency, there’s no reason to shift priorities. Shifting will only pull you behind schedule. You want to be ahead, since by doing so, you will experience less stress.
  4. Go home on time whenever you can. Sometimes you may need to do overtime, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Going home on time means you are sticking to a schedule. And this means that both you and your family will be relaxed about schedules.
  5. When at home, don’t use your mobile devices or your desktop computer until you’ve had a chance to unwind. This means spend time with your family and enjoy dinner before checking your mobile devices. I check my mobile device only if I am expecting to hear from a friend or family member, or if I want to get in touch with them. Otherwise, work can wait until the morning.
  6. Get enough sleep. Sleep and efficiency go hand in hand. Decreasing sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by 32 percent. This means your ability to function is about as good as someone who is inebriated. Get at least 7.5-8.0 hours of sleep each and every night. Use time management planning and plan your bedtime, sticking to your normal bedtime routine every night. On time.

Practice the above six steps and you will be helping yourself reduce your stress. You will experience better mood, better sleep, less tension and anxiety; you will make less mistakes at work, gain better concentration, and will be a much happier person all around.

Working to Death

A recent reader survey shows that British Columbia’s business professionals are working long hours, trending to near 70-hour work weeks. If you’re in this group, you’re setting yourself up for serious health and safety problems, most of which stem from sleep deprivation. In addition to these concerns, working long hours is counterproductive and does more damage to your organization than you might think.

The more you work, the less efficient you become. This results in more waste and less productivity. If the cycle continues, the end result can range from absenteeism due to stress and sickness to accidents on the job and even to death. One of the best ways to get yourself off the cycle of overwork is to pay attention to your work when you’re at work. Become efficient and productive during your regular working hours and you’ll never again need to put in regular overtime.

Here are ten things you can do right now to improve your productivity – i.e., do more in less time:

  1. Eliminate your physical and electronic clutter. Both are wastes that inhibit your performance. A clean office with sparse décor and no stacks and piles of stuff is more conducive to productivity.
  2. Zone in on your work. Organize your work items in zones based on how frequently you access or need an item. For example, if you use a paper cutter only once a month, there is no need for it to be in your office (zone 1).
  3. Move email out of your inbox daily. At the end of the day, your inbox should contain ZERO items – each email you open must be handled immediately. Use the B-F-A-T rule. After you open an email, read it and then B-bring it forward (if further action is required), F-file it (no action is required), A-act on it immediately (if a short response will do), or T-delete (toss) it.
  4. Prioritize tomorrow’s activities the day before. Then work on your priorities as scheduled. Stick to your schedule.
  5. Stop procrastinating at work. Socializing and playing computer games while at work only adds to your workload. Get help for procrastination – it could be as simple as taking a day off to refresh and recharge.
  6. Don’t ignore overwhelm. Figure out why you’re overwhelmed, resolve your issues, and move forward. If you’re constantly overwhelmed with work, maybe you’re in the wrong job.
  7. Think before you act. Productive people spend a lot of time thinking about and planning how to accomplish tasks before they actually do them. This helps prevent re-doing work.
  8. Configure your office space. The most efficient office space is a U-shape. It enables efficient workflow, saving you time. Better yet, ask your boss to consider an open space design for the entire organization. It will help improve your creativity and productivity.
  9. Use project management skills for big projects. If you’re new to project task estimating, take a best-guess at how long a task will take and then multiply that time by three to get a true timeframe.
  10. Use standards and procedures. If your organization does not have standards and procedures for EVERYTHING that needs to get done, then you are spending more time on tasks than necessary.

Implementing these ten tips will help you decrease your hours at the office, so you have more time to spend with family and friends doing the things you love. And at the end of the day, you owe it to yourself and to your employer to return to work mentally refreshed the next day.