Since most work-related communications are handled via email, it seems like we are all checking our inboxes constantly: before bed, during meals, and even in the bathroom.
All those email alerts are only one part of the problem, though. People use a variety of messaging apps, from WhatsApp to Skype to Facebook Messenger. For employees who work virtually, there are additional sources of distraction that can lead to digital overload.
Digital overload is exhausting. In fact, studies show that it causes a host of problems for workers and businesses alike—from reduced productivity to higher turnover. It can also reduce job satisfaction and lead to burnout.
What is Digital Overload?
Digital overload occurs when we are faced with too much information from digital devices such as computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. It can be a result of work-related communication that takes place outside of normal work hours or non-work-related communication that requires a response.
Overload occurs when the quantity of communication far exceeds our capacity to process it effectively. The result is diminished performance and reduced creativity in the workplace, along with stress and anxiety.
Digital overload is a growing problem among today’s workforce. In fact, nearly two thirds of full-time employees say they experience digital overload every day—which means they are overwhelmed by the number of emails, texts, and other messages they receive during the workday.
With employees having to absorb a lot of information within a short timeframe, it’s no wonder many people feel stressed out. Luckily, there are some simple adjustments you can make to help your employees manage digital overload and stay productive at work.
How Digital Overload Can Lead to Communication Burnout
Our work lives are filled with meetings and emails and status updates, not to mention Slack chats and texts. It seems that there is no shortage of ways to communicate with colleagues.
But all this connectivity can have a downside: It is increasingly easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of messages we receive every day. And unlike in-person interactions or phone calls, there is no easy way to tell when someone is getting overloaded by written communication.
This leaves plenty of people feeling “out of the loop”—unsure of what to prioritize and how to respond in a fast-paced environment. As a result, it is harder for us to collaborate effectively. When we’re constantly putting out fires and trying not to miss an update, it is tough to focus on the big picture together.
5 Ways to Help Employees Avoid Digital Overload
As amazing as technology is, it can also get very overwhelming, very fast. Your employees are under more pressure than ever before, and they may start to feel burned out. The most straightforward way to find out if they’re feeling overloaded is to ask them.
Schedule a few one-on-one meetings with each of your employees and ask them how they are doing. Are they feeling overwhelmed? Do they need help managing their workload? What can you do as a manager to help them feel less stressed at work?
Once you have insight into how your employees are doing, here are five things you can do help them avoid digital overload:
1. Take Stock of Your Tools
What digital tools are you using? How many different ways do people communicate within your company? Take an inventory of your company’s digital communication tools, like Slack, Zoom, Teams, Trello, or Outlook so that you can get a clear view of all the channels people are using to communicate at work.
If you find that your workers are using too many tools or apps in their day-to-day tasks, consider how you can trim the number down. This can be done by consolidating tools or creating better processes for how employees use them in their daily workflow.
For example, if you have a team of project managers who are using Slack for quick check-ins and Zoom video calls for longer brainstorming sessions, consider eliminating the need for both by utilizing the call feature within Slack itself.
2. Solicit Employee Feedback
Remember when you set up that new communications platform? It seemed like a good idea at the time—but maybe it turned out to be one more distraction in an already chaotic day.
Solicit employee feedback about which apps, social media sites, websites, and other digital technologies cause them problems during the workday. Have them write down how much time they spend distracted by these technologies (and what those distractions are costing you in terms of productivity).
Once you gather this data, determine which tools should be completely blocked from company computers and which ones simply need better guidelines on how they are used.
3. Eliminate Unnecessary Platforms
If a tool is not helping your employees work smarter or better, get rid of it. Look at your organization’s current systems, consider which ones are most effective, and then remove those that are not necessary or are duplicates of other programs your company is using.
You might also have older tools still hanging around that could be eliminated or upgraded to something more efficient.
Although it may be tempting to give your employees access to every platform out there in the hopes of increasing communications and sharing, this is rarely a good idea.
Employees do not need access to every single tool available—they just need access to the ones they use most frequently and those that are relevant to their jobs.
4. Encourage Limited Communication, When Necessary
Set up some guidelines for when and how often staff members should communicate with each other. For example, they could refrain from using email after work hours and over the weekend. Or they could limit email to business matters and use other apps such as Slack or Google Hangouts for casual conversations.
Many companies have policies that prohibit or restrict employee communications during non-working hours, but those policies alone are not enough.
The pressure to be available can come from all sides—from managers who want status updates even when they are not working and from employees who need to solve problems that arise outside of business hours. It is important to reinforce the necessity of giving people time away from their devices.
5. Reevaluate Communication Expectations
Employees cannot be expected to be available at all hours, so it is important that management sets clear expectations when it comes to communication. If an employee needs to respond right away, make sure they know what channels should be used for urgent communications.
Ask yourself if your employees really need an answer right away. Does it affect the employee’s ability to do their job? Is it a safety risk? If not, consider allowing the person to respond during the next time they are available. This will help alleviate the sense of urgency and give them the time they need to get the job done.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to workplace stress, digital overload may not be at the top of the list. But when employees are flooded with texts, emails, social media posts, and work-related messages on a daily basis, they can often feel overly connected or even overwhelmed.
One of the most important things you can do is to set some boundaries. For example, try to avoid sending emails outside of work hours and do not assume everyone is available 24/7. This will help your employees in their personal lives as well, and the result will be a happier, more productive workforce.
Effective communication can help fight the negative impacts of digital overload such as low work satisfaction and burnout. As such, you can also consider taking the Effective Communication as a Remote Leader Training course or the Communication Best Practices Training course, which are both available to HR managers looking to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their workplace’s communication systems.
These courses help managers reduce communication burnout caused by digital overload, especially when dealing with remote teams.