Mindful Multicommunicating

Can we get real? Texting, emailing, and talking at the same time is no way to be effective. Here’s how to mitigate the damage
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Imagine starting work on a report that has an imminent deadline. As you begin, you ignore an email alert. You let a phone call go to voice mail. A colleague drops by with a query, sees you working, and leaves. A likely scenario? Hardly. What really happens is that you check the email and the phone display to see if the call was urgent, then answer a text, and wave the colleague in. So much for focusing on the report.

This form of “multicommunicating” is an endemic feature of organizational life. The team of Jane Webster (Smith School of Business), Ann-Frances Cameron, Henri Barki, and Ana Ortiz de Guinea (all of HEC Montréal) has studied the phenomenon for the past 10 years. They point to research that shows that while most of us believe we are adept at multitasking, only 2.5 percent of all workers can be considered “super-taskers.” Thirty-five percent of information workers check their email every 15 minutes, and many spend only nine minutes on a task before moving on to something else.

Multicommunicating is not necessarily bad. It can be a means to accomplishing more work (answering emails while on the phone, for instance) or a tool for using information from one conversation to enhance another (leveraging). On the negative side, however, multicommunicating leads to increased errors, confusion, and the need for repetition and reduces the contribution to each conversation.

Because the “timing and pace of the communications is often controlled by others,” the researchers note, multicommunicating requires you to manage a different relationship with each conversation, a complex interpersonal high-wire act.

In a recent article for the European Journal of Information Systems, the researchers consider four misconceptions held by information systems analysts, programmers, and managers about multicommunicating and suggest ways to avoid being derailed by it.

Misperception #1: “I need to multicommunicate to be accessible to colleagues and clients”

When workers become available to the second conversation, they’re less accessible to the original conversation. Engaging in more than two conversations further dilutes attention as well as the quality of the conversations.

Workarounds: The researchers suggest that managers train employees on the strengths and weaknesses of multicommunicating, and align expectations around when immediate responses are needed.

“We suggest that managers hold discussions with their team and work with them to develop shared expectations regarding availability and responsiveness,” they write. “In addition, workgroups can collaboratively decide upon ‘quiet time’ each day or each week during which time communication interruptions will be limited and an individual’s responsiveness is not expected.”

Misperception #2: “I’m more productive when I multicommunicate”

Productivity is defined as performance that is efficient and effective. If concurrent conversations increase errors, confusion, and a decline in the perception of professionalism and competence, the negatives outweigh any time saved, not to mention the embarrassment when a personal email to Aunt Mae goes to a work colleague by accident.

As well, multicommunicating makes great demands on memory and the brain’s ability to focus. Juggling multiple conversations makes you less able to read non-verbal communication — facial expressions, body language, or vocal inflection — that may lead to misunderstandings.

Workarounds: To ensure multicommunicating is productive, the researchers say, restrict it to two conversations, both of which have the same goal. For instance, having a conversation about topic A (by phone or in person), while texting about this same topic to gain more information is better than engaging in conversations with different goals about unrelated topics. 

Consider checking emails at specific times of the day (in the morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day, for example), rather than when they show up in your Inbox. Also, limiting multicommunicating to self-initiated conversations gives you more control over your time and workflow.

The researchers suggest you multicommunicate only when “the channels for both conversations provide no visibility and at least one of the channels enables revisions.” In their research, when the participants in conversations were unseen to each other (phone or texting, for example), and if at least one tool (such as email) allowed for making corrections before sending, there were fewer problems with performance and accuracy.

Misperception #3: “In my job, I must multicommunicate”

Very few jobs require such a high level of availability. Far more likely is that people engage in multicommunicating out of habit rather than necessity. And that habit can severely undermine their efforts. Just ask the hapless prime minister caught texting during a speech by the Queen.

Workarounds: To break the multicommunicating habit, take a leaf out of Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. Duhigg says that many of our actions are driven by a cue-routine-reward loops. To reprogram a loop, first identify the multicommunicating routine that needs to be changed. Then, identify the cue that prompts this habit by noting what you were doing, where you were located, or whom you were with immediately before the action (for example, checking email during a phone call with a supplier who always pitches a new product). Identify the intrinsic or extrinsic rewards that are driving the behaviours (cleaning your email Inbox, zoning out from the conversation) and then change the reward. When the cue occurs again, change the loop by planning other productive behaviours that provide the desired reward.

Misconception #4: “Everyone does it so it can’t be considered rude”

This isn’t supported by the evidence. An experiment conducted by two of the researchers found that when people observe someone who is multicommunicating, their perceptions of that person’s rudeness and incompetence are increased, and their willingness to help that person in the future is negatively affected.

There’s also a myth that only older folk believe multicommunicating is rude or that multicommunicating with a subordinate is preferable to engaging in the same behaviour with a boss. The evidence says otherwise. “Subordinates are actually more bothered by this behaviour from their boss,” the researchers note. “This may be because conversations with bosses are more formal and it is often difficult to get their time and feedback, which might make it especially frustrating for employees who cannot have their bosses’ full attention.”

Workarounds: The researchers suggest that you only multicommunicate with colleagues and clients with whom you have established relationships. When giving feedback and direction to employees, focus on one conversation at a time. Do not assume that peoples’ attitudes towards multicommunications are based on age.

Since there isn’t yet a test to determine one’s ability to multicommunicate effectively, it’s likely most of us think we’re much better than we really are at managing concurrent conversations. Multicommunicating requires great skill in handling the various social interactions and erratic timing of conversations with people who all have different expectations.

“Be wary of overestimating your multicommunicating capacity and performance,” the researchers advise. Don’t confuse frequency of multicommunicating with ability to actually carry it off successfully.

Carolyn Lomax

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