The rise in popularity of smartphone and productivity tools have created a communications revolution, the sort of which we haven’t seen since the first invention of the telephone. Even 10-15 years ago, if somebody needed to talk to you while you were out of the office, they’d have to either wait until you arrived the next day, or they’d need to telephone you at home. (In more recent years, they could send you an SMS, but that would still be weird and rude to many people.)

Even today, if a staff member is officially on-call (for instance, support engineers) then, depending on their territory, they may be paid an “out-of-hours stipend” by law. Yet the rest of us, with our phones constantly vying for our attention, have become far too accepting of work-related interruptions during our personal time.

These distractions can also be impactful during the working day, if we’re trying to find focus time for deep work, or if we’re trying to take a lunchbreak or a screen break. If you find yourself being overwhelmed by notifications, there are some things that we can do to help ourselves, and hopefully benefit others too.

Tips for taking back your time

One of the most explicit ways that you can make your communication preferences known to the team, is by declaring it to them! You could formalise it via some form of Communications Readme. Although that’s a lot for people to keep in their heads, especially if they work with dozens of different people each day; a simpler way is to self-manage your status within your productivity tools. If you’re away, ensure that your status is marked as Away - there is no ambiguity here!

If you’re going to be away/unavailable for a significant period (which is totally acceptable in a flexible working situation), it’s extra helpful to give people a clear estimate of when you’ll be back, so that they can manage their own workloads, and take their question to somebody else if necessary. For instance, “On lunch” isn’t necessarily a helpful status, if I don’t know when you started (or plan to finish). “On lunch, back 2pm” might be useful for somebody else to know.

When you’re communicating with others via electronic tools, try to be as respectful of their time as possible. Whenever I ask somebody a question, I always try to provide some indication of the urgency of my question, or if I’m working against a deadline then I will try to let the person know when I need an answer. This allows your colleague to prioritise the request against their existing workload.

For incoming messages (especially DMs), if the message doesn’t appear to be urgent then try to break the cycle of expecting an immediate response. If you’re juggling other tasks, use the “snooze message” feature to bring the message back to your attention later, or simply note “reply to Sarah’s question” on whatever to-do list you have.

I could list a dozen more tips here, based on my own experiences and preferences, but the simplest way to figure them out is by looking at my own Communications Readme - after all, this is essentially a list of all the things that I find valuable when speaking with people.

A manager’s role in healthier communication

If you’re a manager or a team lead, there’s an even more urgent imperative. Not only do you need to take control of your own notifications (which, as a manager, are likely to be more frequent than your colleagues), but you need to be aware that your own responsiveness is being observed by your team, and is often being treated by them as a model of how they’re expected to behave. In other words: if my boss is sending me messages at 10pm, I will assume that my boss is expecting me to respond at 10pm as well.

This can be especially challenging if you’re managing somebody who’s a borderline workaholic (and I include myself in this category). Even if you’re clear with priorities with such a person - for instance, telling them “this can wait til tomorrow” - such a person will probably find themselves inclined to do the work immediately, so that they can get ahead of their plan for the next day. If you discover such a personality in your team (if you find yourself constantly surprised by how reactive this person can be) then they’re probably the person that you need to manage most closely, because their ability to be a “work sponge” puts them at risk of burnout.

Regardless, as a manager, be mindful of how your behaviours may look to the team. If there’s something which you absolutely need to get out of your brain, for instance, to help you to tick off a to-do item, tools such as Gmail and Slack will now allow you to “Schedule this message”, so that the recipient doesn’t get the message until a more sociable time. (Although even this has caused me problems in the past: for instance, I scheduled a message to be sent the following morning; the next day, the message was sent when I was already in a chat with the same person, and they were confused why I was asking them questions that we’d just spent twenty minutes talking about!)

Rather than second-guessing with individuals, ask your team to help: If you’re using collaboration tools, ensure that they have configured the tooling to make their working hours clear. (For instance, in Slack, if somebody configures their notifications to be paused outside of working hours, this will be highlighted to you when composing a DM to that person.) Similarly, for productivity tools with companion mobile apps, the mobile app can often cause a person’s status indicator to show as “Available” even when they’re not actively working - if you get the sense that your colleagues are being shown as available when they should be unreachable, encourage that person to wrangle their status more closely.

Key takeaways 📝

  • In an increasingly connected world, we need to push back against tools which can dominate our lives.
  • Configure your desktop and mobile tools to show you as offline / uncontactable when the working day finishes.
  • Managers need to demonstrate these values too, and hold other people to account (for their own benefit).