Communication debt may start at an individual level, but an expert on attention management says that its impacts can be felt throughout the association—and tempered by an effective organizational response.
Perhaps this sounds familiar: You have an inbox full of messages, and you haven’t responded to any of them.
Or, perhaps you find your attention constantly getting pulled away by new messages. You’re facing pressure to respond, and eventually something falls off—creating unwanted stress that gets in the way of your day job.
This is the essence of communication debt—a failure to answer messages in a timely fashion and the ensuing pressure that it can create.
Maura Nevel Thomas, a public speaker and productivity trainer who focuses on attention and workflow management, says that communication debt comes to a head when someone truly does need to respond to emails or messages on social media as they emerge as a part of their job.
“I think you have a responsibility as a responsible professional to respond to those,” she says. “At some point I would say you have a responsibility to respond in a timely manner. But you get to decide what ‘timely’ means.”
Thomas emphasizes that it’s important to understand the distinction between the physical management of messages and the management of the stress those messages might cause.
“So there is that tangible debt, but then there’s also the pressure of the debt,” she says. “The ways of dealing with those two parts of communication debt are different.”
Thomas offers these considerations for employees facing communication debt:
When managing workload, understand that email is part of your job, not just a distraction. Workers may have the feeling that messages get in the way of their job, but Thomas argues it’s the opposite. She recommends people view email as a part of their job and devote time to it specifically, rather than checking it throughout the day. “That’s why people are drowning—they’re reading, they’re reviewing, they’re skimming their email all the time, every single message as it arrives,” she says. When you do read them, do so in a batch, read and respond as necessary, and put them out of your inbox when complete.
When managing stress, turn off your notifications—all of them. The tyranny of notifications creates stress because it gives the impression that messages need to be responded to immediately. Thomas suggests the best solution for removing that pressure is to disable notifications entirely. “Here’s the question that I always ask my clients: Do you really need a notification to tell you that you have a new email? Let me end the suspense for you: You have a new email,” she says. “At any moment of any day, it is safe to assume there is new mail waiting for you in your email inbox.”
What Can Employers Do?
Thomas says that communication debt can prove a problem within organizations because of the way it builds up thanks to a latent expectation that correspondence must be responded to immediately.
“We tend to treat all communication as immediate, right? So the expectations are that all communication is synchronous,” she says. “So if I email you, I expect an immediate response; if I text you, I expect an immediate response; if I Slack you, I expect an immediate response.”
But not everything needs an immediate response. (Phone calls used to be treated as immediate, Thomas says, but they’ve become less common as a communication method in the workplace.) When people do need an immediate response, they’re often compelled to reach out in multiple places, deepening communication debt.
“If this happens for every communication for 100 people in an organization, you can see how the volume of the communication increases, but the efficiency of the communication vastly decreases,” she says.
The secret to managing this, she says, is for employers to set expectations about what needs an immediate response and what doesn’t—as well as expectations for the mediums that are used. (Say, for example: An email is low priority, a Slack message is slightly higher priority, followed by a text message, and then a phone call.) Thomas says that this isn’t just a policy that lives in a document, but something that should be closely followed.
“It has to be so ingrained in the culture that if a company says we don’t send emails after six o’clock and then somebody does, it has to be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, we don’t do that,’” she says.