Sunday, May 12, 2019

Communicative noise - a barrier to creativity?

For many people e-mail has become a communication black hole with an inbox that is out of control. As we drown in e-mail we hope to find salvation in exciting new communication platforms like Slack, Teams and Workplace that promise to streamline your messaging and help teams work more efficiently. The problem is that even if we start using new platforms we can't escape the gravitational pull of e-mail which is still the default communication tool in most organisations. As a result we end up having several communication channels open all day and each of them overflowing. Most days I have e-mail, Skype, Zoom, Messenger, Twitter and Whatsapp all open and although I can't say my own feeds are overwhelming, I can imagine that some people have moved from having only one overloaded communication tool to now having several. The trouble is that easy-to-use communication tools lead to us communicating even more and thus adding to the communicative noise.

This is the topic of an article by Rani Molla in Vox, The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work. The problem with team platforms like Slack is that they are so easy to use that they facilitate endless discussions that eat up valuable working and thinking time. E-mail "discussions" can be very irritating especially if everyone uses the "reply all" button every time they write something. However in platforms like Slack, these chatty discussions go viral and the channel becomes extremely noisy and hard to switch off due to fear of missing out or being seen as anti-social. We often confuse communication with productivity. People or groups who are "noisy", in speech or in writing, are generally considered more active and therefore more productive/effective than those who are quiet. We get worried about students who are silent or groups who don't seem to be discussing as actively as others. If you don't contribute to the discussion you aren't doing your job, though in reality the reverse may be truer.

Remote workers are under particular strain to prove that they are working. For people not in an office, messaging colleagues or posting information becomes a way of demonstrating that they are doing their jobs.

There's also a link to our physical work spaces that are increasingly open and flexible to facilitate teamwork and spontaneous brainstorming. The problem here is that it's very hard to concentrate when there are dynamic discussions going on nearby. You can't help overhearing or wanting to join in the fun. Once again we reward and encourage noise rather than silence. Combine the noise in the physical environment to all the digital noise and we have a major problem.

Keeping up with these conversations can seem like a full-time job. After a while, the software goes from helping you work to making it impossible to get work done ... Also, workplace software doesn’t seem to have supplanted the very thing it was supposed to fix: email. Most people use both.

The success of workplace software is because they offer similar rewards to the social media platforms we use outside the workplace. They are extremely sticky, stimulating our need for recognition and belonging through likes, emojis and small talk. Of course they can also be used very creatively and can indeed enhance collaboration but on the other hand they can easily eat up lots of valuable time. Their stickiness also leads to them invading your private life.

There’s a reason you’re checking your work app at night and it’s not because you love your job. It’s because the communications and digital affirmations from your coworkers feel good.

The outcome of all this for me is that we need to reassess the value of "noisy" communication and stop equating it with productivity, efficiency or creativity. Truly creative ideas often come through silent reflection, free from distraction, but we have somehow forgotten this as we create increasingly noisy environments (the ubiquitous use of non-stop background music in public spaces is a further plague). Noisy communication is good in certain contexts like brainstorming, socialising and meetings but we need to reclaim the right to silence (both verbal and digital) for the really creative work.

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