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Tackling Communication Overload in the Always On Workplace

published5 months ago
3 min read

For this week’s newsletter, I interviewed Cal Newport, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. Cal's scholarship focuses on the theory of distributed systems, while his writing explores the intersections of culture and technology. He is the author of seven books, including A World Without Email, Digital Minimalism, and Deep Work. These titles include multiple New York Times bestsellers and have been translated into over 40 languages. Cal is also a contributing writer for the New Yorker and the host of the Deep Questions podcast.

In our conversation, we discussed his latest book, A World Without Email. The book explores what so many of us intuitively feel: in this 24/7 world where we’re connected to each other at all hours, our boundaries have corroded and our way of working doesn’t quite function right. Cal uncovers the root problems with being always on and looks to new and more intelligent ways to collaborate.

In your book, you describe the “hyperactive hive mind workflow.” Can you tell us more about this communication style and why it’s the norm in so many workplaces today?

I think of the hyperactive hive mind more as a style of collaboration rather than simply a method of communication. This workflow depends on ad hoc, unscheduled, back-and-forth messages, delivered through tools like email and instant messenger. When you need something, you simply shoot off a message, and in return you implicitly promise to monitor your inboxes assiduously so you can respond quickly when messages of this type arrive for you.

This style is now the norm for most knowledge workers, where interaction occurs in small chunks, fragmenting the other efforts that make up their day. Knowledge workers essentially have to partition their attention into two parallel tracks: one executing work tasks and the other managing an always-present, ongoing, and overloaded electronic conversation about these tasks.

What are the pros and cons of the “hyperactive hive mind workflow”? Why isn’t this the best approach, from a physiological standpoint?

The advantage is that this workflow is very flexible and convenient. It mimics in a digital context how we naturally coordinate ourselves in small groups; that is, simply grabbing someone’s attention when you need something.

The problem, however, is that it doesn’t scale. Imagine, for example, that you have ten different projects or commitments of various sizes that you’re juggling concurrently. Most knowledge workers, of course, have many more than ten things on their plate at any one time, but let’s use this simple number of the sake of example.

Now imagine, on average, each project generates five messages per day that require a response relatively quickly. Now, suddenly, you’re facing 50 different messages each day, arriving at unpredictable times, each of which requires a relatively quick response. You have just created a situation in which you must effectively check your inboxes constantly to keep up with the inbound missives; and you will find yourself switching contexts between your work and your communication, back and forth, all day long.

This is a problem because the human brain is not good at switching the target of its attention. The result is a jumbled cognitive context and mounting mental fatigue. Put more simply: if you check an inbox a couple hundred times a day, your ability to perform valuable work will be greatly reduced. It will also make you miserable.

Why is it especially important for managers to reject the hyperactive hive mind workflow?

For the reasons discussed above, any workflow that requires constant inbox checking, as the hyperactive hive mind does, will make your employees significantly less productive.

And when managers are the ones trying to recover from email interruptions, they fail to meet their goals, they neglect manager responsibilities, and their subordinates don’t have the leadership behavior they need to thrive.

How can people optimize their communication practices to be more productive and effective at work?

The biggest mistake people make when tackling communication overload is trying to fix it with improved habits and norms. They believe that strategies like batching inbox checks, or establishing a standard that you shouldn’t expect quick replies, will solve the problem. They won’t. So long as ad hoc, back-and-forth messages are the primary way we coordinate, there is no way to avoid checking your inbox constantly, as long delays will slow down work.

The key to fixing this overload is instead to replace the hyperactive hive mind with specific and clear alternative workflows that do not depend on people seeing and replying to messages that arrive at unscheduled times.

This is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each alternative must be custom fit to the work product or process in question. You might deploy office hours for small tasks, for example, or agile-style tasks boards and standing status meetings to coordinate a team working on a big project.

Paint for me a world without email. Are we happier in that world? More productive? More engaged?

A world without the hyperactive hive mind work flow — which is the actual goal of my book, though perhaps not as artful to describe — is one that is perhaps less convenient in the moment, as you cannot simply fire off an email or chat when you have a question or think of a task you want off your plate. But it’s also a world in which your brain is not addled and fatigued by constant context switching, and you’re able to work on one thing at a time, until done, before moving on to what’s next. It’s a world where you produce better work than ever before and at a higher volume. A world in which you’re energized and not burned out.

I hope you enjoyed this Q&A, and be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn!