The message is the medium – How to use communications tools and avoid burnout

I used to think I had a screen problem and then everyone started working from home. Now I KNOW I have a screen problem.

I sit at my dining room table all day and stare into my computer. There are some days where I have 6 hours of video calls with colleagues located across the country and multiple timezones. I can see it in their faces as they can see it in mine, the combination of social isolation and no natural barrier between work and home has led to burnout. I get this feeling mostly because we don’t use the communications tools the way we should.

The greatest abuse comes from meetings. Check that, meetings without agendas. If you have no agenda for a meeting, the meeting is not necessary or it is a social call. No agenda reads to me that attendance is not required. Second to a non-agenda meeting is one that has an agenda but the time is spent just reading the update doc that everyone already contributed to (and read?). Don’t be a non-agenda-only-read-the-doc meeting. Also, don’t just share your screen and read the doc either. Same infraction.

I heard a rumour floating around that in a legendary move by Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke, he deleted every single meeting from the entire company calendar system because he noticed the ridiculous number of internal meetings happening. It’s time we all did that or we’ll never break the cycle of being a meeting-first company.

The second highest abuse comes from using the communications tools improperly. It has always been strange to me that when we onboard new employees we don’t teach anyone how to use the tools properly. Everyone can send an email or a text message but do you know what your company policy is for why you’d use one over the other and when to use which tool? Confused? Yeah, that’s the problem.

What’s the hierarchy of your system? When should you send an email, book a calendar meeting or send a Slack message. When you receive any of these messages, what should you accept, how quickly are you expected to respond — or should you even respond? If you don’t know, your team doesn’t either and I’ll bet no one in your company has a clue.

When you send a message to someone, be aware of the context your are sending it in. There is an escalating case of urgency depending on the medium you send it through. We abuse this power by mis-sending mis-classified messages and this has a cumulative impact on the recipients that will eventually lead to overwhelm for them.

It makes no sense to bring on employees without equipping them with the ability to navigate the communications wormhole in any size company. Setting these clear expectations will avoid the kind of burnout we are facing today.

Be a Tobi when it comes to questioning the value of every single meeting. Be a good digital citizen when you are communicating with your team. Define the message and the medium by which it should sent will be obvious.