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Combatting Communication Fatigue in Remote Teams

It's no secret that the lack of face-to-face communication is one of the most challenging aspects of leading and managing remote teams. It's hard to stay connected with your team when you're not in the same physical space. Oftentimes, distributed team try to compensate for this lack of communication face to face,  by overcommunicating virtually. The result of this - communication or chat fatigue. This article will help you understand what communication fatigue is, why is communicating so exhausting, and how you can combat communication fatigue and steer your team clear of burnout.

Communication Fatigue Definition

What is virtual communication fatigue? Or what is communication exhaustion? It's the feeling you get when there are too many messages, and your brain can't process all the information in them all at once. You stop paying attention to what people say because it feels like they're talking over each other, and you start to lose focus.

Email and meeting fatigue are the two most common types of communication fatigue. According to a communication survey by Forbes, 89% of workers reported that sorting through their email inbox is one of the most unpleasant remote work experiences. In another meeting survey compiled by Otter.io, 67% of employees complain that they spend too much time in meetings, preventing them from being productive at work.

For remote employees, virtual communication fatigue had worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of messages, emails, and calls is staggering! For example, 1.5 billion messages are sent through Slack each month, and around 10 million people use Slack for their daily work communication. When I was a manager of an eight-person team, I received more than 100 Slack messages and had around 2-4 calls per day. Luckily, by making some career changes, I reduced 90% of my Zoom calls and ended meeting fatigue once and for all.

Symptoms of Virtual Communication Fatigue

  • Having trouble remembering everything that is communicated causing you to miss deadlines or make mistakes
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of communication going on in your day
  • Ignoring messages or not replying to them

What is communication exhaustion? Essentially, it's also one of the symptoms of communication fatigue: it's a feeling of being too tired to respond to anyone that you might end up not responding at all. Other physical symptoms include lightheadedness and difficulty in breathing, which might even lead to panic attacks.

How Does Communication Fatigue Affect Remote Teams

Employee engagement suffers when employees experience communication fatigue. According to an employee retention study, 71% of executives agree that employee engagement is critical to their success. When employees are not engaged, the attrition rate rises, and hiring new talent is not only difficult but is more costly.

If you see your team's engagement is slowing down, it may be time for a change. You need to take control of the situation before everyone becomes overly fatigued and their performance drops as a result. The first thing to do is to check if communication fatigue is indeed happening within your remote team, by observing the symptoms of virtual communication drain that we mentioned earlier.

Besides those mentioned, there are a few other ways to identify if your entire team and company are experiencing fatigue from communicating.

Here are a few fatigue indicators to watch out for:

  • Low engagement from your team during meetings
  • More deadlines are being missed by your team
  • Misunderstandings and miscommunication are happening more frequently

One of the best concrete examples of chat fatigue is when a highly engaged employee suddenly becomes less responsive. Once you start seeing these indicators, it's best to investigate further. The first place to start is to ask the right questions during your 1-1 meetings. For example, you can include questions like, "How do you feel about the team's communication?" Make sure to ask open-ended questions to get the most authentic answers. It's best to avoid a leading question like, "Are you experiencing communication fatigue?"

Another form of investigation to know whether your team is struggling with fatigue due to over communication, is by introducing an anonymous survey. You can enlist the help of your HR Team to conduct these surveys within the team. This way, you can get a better feel for the company's pulse and gain a more comprehensive view of the situation.

How to Help Employees Combat Fatigue

Once you have identified that your employees are experiencing virtual communication fatigue, the next step is to pinpoint the source(s). Additionally, the level of fatigue will differ depending on someone's role and their daily experience with the team. A manager who has too many Zoom meetings in one day will more likely be experiencing a higher level of communication exhaustion compared to your SEO analyst.

So, now the big question...how to prevent communication fatigue?

Here are a few prevention tips against fatigue due to overcommunication:

Update the company's communication process.

Is the communication process clear for each team and the whole company? For example, is it clear for everyone when to send an email or send a private message on Slack? Sometimes communications are being duplicated. A teammate who has tagged someone in a Notion doc has also been tagged on Slack with the same message. To prevent this from happening, our marketing team at 'Where' has set communication guidelines for when to use Notion, an async discussion, and/or Slack.

As a general rule, we use async discussions to hold asynchronous meetings, so we don't have to jump in a Zoom call. We use it to brainstorm new topics or to do a retrospective of our most recent marketing efforts.

Take advantage of asynchronous tools.

One of the most common sources of communication fatigue is Zoom calls or synchronous meetings. As a remote leader, it's time to build an asynchronous-first culture. Zoom doesn't have to be the default form of communication. For example, daily standup calls can be replaced with asynchronous check-ins. Taking advantage of a variety of asynchronous tools can help eliminate the number of Zoom calls you have.

Prioritize deep work.

One of the best ways to help employees combat fatigue is by giving your team the chance to carve out space for deep work. Some companies have implemented no-call Tuesdays or no-call Fridays. This is a simple and easy way to highlight the importance of deep work and encourage the use of  asynchronous tools.

Communication fatigue is real, and it is affecting everyone in so many ways. It's time that remote leaders address why is communication important more than ever in the remote space, and make the necessary changes before it's too late. The good thing is that small changes daily, make the biggest impact longterm.