Communication debt: What it is and how to save your team from it

If you work in software development, you’re probably familiar with the idea of technical debt—the “cost” of choosing an easy solution now that you know will need to be reworked later.

It’s a common issue and one that most teams have a process in place for tracking and dealing with. However, it’s not the only workplace debt you take on by choosing easy solutions over hard ones.

Communication debt—the messages, CC’ed emails, notifications, feedback, and meeting requests you accumulate every single day—is quickly becoming an issue we all have to pay attention to.

Hat tip to Henry Poydar for the concept of “Communication Debt.” Henry is the founder of Status Hero, an automated reporting tool used by thousands of business teams to eliminate meetings and track daily goals. He’s been building software and leading software teams for over 20 years.

How your team accumulates communication debt

Like swiping your credit card to buy that new shirt a few days before payday, it’s easy to accumulate communication debt without really thinking about it.

A perfect example is what happens the first few days after you bring on a new hire:

  1. Add them to a bunch of Slack/IM channels (both for their job role, projects, interests, and company-wide ones)
  2. Invite them to regularly recurring meetings (like all-hands, one-on-ones, project updates, stand-ups, etc…)
  3. Put them on company-wide mailing lists
  4. Tag them in project management and collaboration tools
  5. Connect with them on Twitter/LinkedIn/Facebook

On the surface, this communication is great for everyone—not just new hires. You want your team to feel informed, connected, and able to give their input where it matters. You also want to help build a sense of culture and togetherness, especially if you’re a remote team.

But the problem is that every new source of communication adds a little bit more debt to that person’s day. And the longer it goes unchecked, the worse it gets.

Even worse, it’s rare that communication needs go away or get replaced. Other than a few one-off meetings, your communication expectations as an employee only ever seem to grow.

But just like your taxes, inevitably all that communication debt has to be paid off. And this takes a huge toll on your ability to do focused work. We’re notoriously bad at estimating how long a task will take us to do. And it’s all too easy to accumulate a ton of future debt by spending all your time on communication today.

In fact, when we looked at data from 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found  the average knowledge only gets 1 hour, 12 minutes of productive time a day without dealing with communication tools.

Every time you send a message, you’re adding to someone’s debt

Communication debt

Communication debt doesn’t just come from receiving messages. It’s important to realize that every time you send someone a message, meeting invite, or tag them in a comment you’re actively adding to their communication debt. 

And what might seem like a simple request to you could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the person you’re asking.

Separating important from non-important communication in real-time is incredibly time-consuming and draining.

Scanning through hundreds of messages in a main Slack channel or scrolling through hundreds of emails in an overflowing inbox can often take more time than we expect. Yet most people think it’s not a big deal to constantly add to other people’s debt levels.

How to make a plan to reduce your team’s communication debt

So that’s the bad news. Communication debt is something we don’t think about or deal with on an organizational level. Yet it’s slowly taking over more and more of the time we’re meant to have for focused work.

Plus, with the sheer amount of communication we get every day, it takes even more time and energy to separate the signal from the noise.

The good news, is that you can get a grip on communication debt. If you take the time to do so.

No one is going to be productive (or happy) until they pay off their debt. And someone needs to take responsibility for creating processes and practices that protect your focus from distractions and noise.

As a manager or team lead there are a few ways you can help your team with this.

Set sane defaults on notifications and create buffers between other departments and your team

According to author and behavioral designer Nir Eyal, ⅔ of people never change their notification settings in apps. This is crazy. We can’t expect every individual on your team to be able to handle the firehose of information that’s sent to them every day and do their core work.

Setting defaults on notifications for the tools you use is a must.

Does everyone need to be notified when every message or update is made? Probably not. For example, in Slack you can set default channels and notification settings for new teammates (read our full guide on setting up Slack for focus here). Other apps have similar functions that you should become familiar with and explain to employees and coworkers.

Slack notification settings

This isn’t to say the onus should only be on the person receiving information to take action. As a manager, you can actively become a buffer between potentially distracting communication and your team.

Look at company-wide communication and see how you can place it in a “slow” channel that won’t accumulate as much communication debt.

Tell other team leads you’re guarding your team’s time and energy and to contact you before setting up meetings with your team. You can do the same for them.

Change the expectations for communication-seekers

Within your own team, expectations also need to change, especially for people looking for help.

As Adam Grant writes in Harvard Business Review:

“Resetting norms regarding when and how to initiate e-mail requests or meeting invitations can free up a great deal of wasted time.”

For example, at Dropbox, managers eliminated all recurring meetings for two weeks. That gave everyone time to reassess the necessity of meeting that regularly, and, after the hiatus, helped them be more vigilant about giving up their time.

When researchers from Stanford followed up two years after the experiment, they found that while the company had tripled their employees, meetings were still shorter and more productive than before.

You don’t have to make such a drastic change, but simply altering the norm from automatically asking for time to everyone being aware of the debt they’re creating is a powerful shift.

Shift responsibilities

Speaking of shifts, empowering more people to make decisions on their own can also greatly reduce communication debt. As the authors wrote in that same Harvard Business Review article:

“It may seem obvious that support staff or lower-level managers should be authorized to approve small capital expenditures, travel, and some HR activities, but in many organizations they aren’t.”

The more that processes are understood and responsibilities are owned, the less debt needs to be created by routine requests.

A good test for this is to simply remember why you hired the people on your team. It’s probably because you trust them and they’re good at their job. Defaulting to trust not only lowers communication debt, but can even make your team happier.

Create a communication “runbook”

In the IT/Ops world, a “runbook” is a living document that outlines how to deal with certain scenarios. For example, need to add a new user as an admin or swap out an app server? Just look it up in the runbook.

This same idea can work for your team’s communication debt.

Outline scenarios they might encounter when it comes to receiving and responding to communications and document the expectations. It’s a deceptively simple answer to the complex question of: Do I need to answer this right now?

As Status Hero founder Henry Poydar explains:

“Ultimately, your runbook boils down to this: Hey valuable team member, I realize you are going to be subject to more messages and notifications than it is humanly possible to deal with. I’m always going to do my best to stem the tide, but here are the reasonable expectations we have set up for the team to respond to it all.”

Your runbook is specific to your team and should live somewhere that can be updated regularly (like a wiki).

Reducing communication debt is everyone’s responsibility

It’s easy to vilify communication in the workplace. But the truth is that it’s something we all need to do our best work.

We all work better when we talk and communicate. And being able to ask questions and share knowledge is one of the greatest things about being on a team.

But when it gets out of hand and we accumulate too much communication debt, the cons start to outweigh the pros. So be aware of the debt you’re placing on your team when you send an email, schedule a meeting, or tag people on a project. The more time they spend paying back that debt, the less they have to do the work you hired them for.

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