Virtual collaboration tools to reduce “digital overload”

A version of this article was previously published in the Journal of mHealth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has substantially altered the ways we work, connect with family and friends, and attend meetings and events. By now, “Zoom fatigue”–i.e., tiredness, anxiety, or worry resulting from overusing Zoom and other synchronous virtual platforms–and “digital overload” have become commonplace phrases.

Even pre-COVID, the increased need to use digital tools to manage workflow and communicate with colleagues introduced changes in our routines or expectations of needing to work longer and faster. Further, thanks to digital technologies, employees can now be easily reached at all times, forcing people to constantly stay with their digital devices and multi-task, in turn resulting in more stress and overload while compromising productivity and reducing employee wellbeing. 

Right now, many of the challenges related to digital overload are further exacerbated due to the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic, childcare-related issues, and the lack of physical and social connection. In addition, if not managed carefully, working from home while primarily depending on video conferencing technology can result in our interactions becoming “hyper-focused.” This lack of friendly water cooler conversations about our weekends, families, and pets, which normally help us de-stress at work, further contributes to our Zoom fatigue.

How can we lessen digital overload?

Considering its impact on our health and productivity, digital overload is clearly something that we need to take seriously.

The pandemic has confirmed the notion that, while some team meetings can be great for idea generation and brainstorming, many others could–and should–have been an email. Web meetings can be draining, especially if long or if you are attending several each day. We typically counsel our clients to keep their synchronous virtual meetings short and, if needed, supplement them with pre- or post-meeting asynchronous (anytime, over-time) touchpoints so that less time can be spent on didactic, energy-depleting presentations and one-way conversations. We follow the same approach with our internal team as well, focusing mainly on asynchronous communication while strategically adding synchronous (real-time) web meetings. This allows us to optimize the time spent in web meetings and lets us focus on decision-making rather than back-and-forth debates or data dumps.

On the flip side, there is also the risk of email overload–another common phenomenon these days. There are a number of strategies that organizations can incorporate to try to manage email overload, including:

  • Filtering and message threading (e.g., separate urgent vs. non-urgent emails). 
  • Creating organizational email policies incorporating communication restrictions (e.g., no email on weekends).
  • Setting rules around subject lines, “to” vs. “CC” prioritization, batch processing, and reminder follow-ups.
  • Writing guidelines for selecting the media to use for the type of communication. For example, use instant messaging for task-related communication only and reserve email for non-time-sensitive content or to document decisions.
  • Setting rules on how and when to use “out of office” or “do not disturb” notifiers.

All that said, the effectiveness of these measures is variable, and implementing them on a company-wide scale is not always feasible. 

Simplifying your virtual toolbox to fight digital overload

One commonly proposed solution to overcoming digital overload is “digital detoxing”; however, this is not always practical or may only have short-term benefits.

Instead, simplifying and streamlining your digital communication and collaboration toolbox might be a more realistic and useful long-term solution. Rather than leveraging multiple, disparate tools for web meetings, asynchronous messaging, document co-creation and review, best practice-sharing, and insight-gathering, consider moving to an all-in-one digital communication and collaboration platform that has all of those capabilities. Ideally, the platform should also be able to host documents, videos, and slide decks; be user-friendly and easy to use even for non-tech savvy people; allow for multilingual, international collaboration; and work for all types of virtual projects, meetings, and events, with both internal and external stakeholders. This approach helps to reduce the number of digital tools, apps, and websites used on any given day, minimizing the digital overload of the users.

Another factor to consider is the availability of behind-the-scenes support, whether technical or strategic. Depending on the types of meetings your team hosts, you may want to consider working with a vendor to plan and orchestrate the event. Here, it is key to look for a vendor that will go out of their way to leave you and the participants feeling nothing but bliss, relief, and confidence throughout the process. To avoid having to coordinate with multiple vendors and software companies, it is ideal if a single vendor can provide the virtual event platform, strategic services, and technical support. Depending on your event, you may also want to consider working with a vendor and platform specializing specifically in life science events as opposed to a general event organizer/platform.

The importance of breaks

Taking breaks is key to fighting digital overloadIn a world where 7–8-hour back-to-back Zoom meetings are becoming the norm and where instant email replies are expected by many, breaks are more important than ever. In web meetings, there seems to be an unspoken rule that silence needs to be filled at all times, even if that means that people don’t have enough time to truly think through their response. Proactively choosing to replace most of these meetings with asynchronous any-time communication on an all-in-one, interactive platform allows people to work when and where it suits them. In turn, this helps them better manage their energy reserves while also avoiding the “knee jerk” reactions that can ensue when put on the spot during a live meeting.

Likewise, comprehensive virtual collaboration platforms can also reduce email overload by capturing project notes and insights in private, company-branded, online spaces. Here, convenient, asynchronous communication, sharing, and collaboration can occur unobtrusively; users are given plenty of processing time to respond, without feeling the pressure to react instantly to an email. These kinds of portals provide a balance between adequate social density while maintaining individual boundaries and structure to recharge. Instead of getting an instant notification every time a response comes in, users can choose to receive daily or even weekly digest emails.

So the next time you are planning a meeting, ask yourself: could this be an email instead, or is there an even better solution?

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