A telephone. Paper and pen. A typewriter. Those were once the tools of business. It may be hard to believe, but before smartphones, tablets, and the cloud, teams still managed to work together to get things done. While we could probably still do some work without technology, businesses today are incredibly dependent on a variety of tools and resources that help us share information, keep track of conversations, schedule our days, and communicate with each other.
Technology can be great – there’s no question that it’s better to be able to create a document online, share it with a click or two, spell check it automatically, and then send it off to a customer. But there are times when technology can also get in the way. We live in interrupt mode, with alerts for new emails, reminders of appointments, texts, IMs, and so many other streams of information pouring into our workspaces each day. How can you, as a team leader, make sure technology is helping more than it’s distracting? Here are some habits and practices you can implement to keep your team on track.
Encourage Focus Time
Just because we have tools that allow for instant communication doesn’t mean that it’s good for our brains to be in a constant state of interruption. Many employees feel like they have to respond the instant an email or IM comes in, especially when it’s from their manager. As a leader, you need to set the expectation that it’s OK for team members to block off some time when they are going to focus on a specific task or project, and during that time they won’t be checking email or IM. The key here is communication. Rather than just going dark, set the expectation that your team members need to communicate with you and with each other, make sure any immediate response tasks are covered by others, and set a time limit.
Schedule Time for Email
Similar to the concept of focus blocks, scheduling time to read and respond to emails is another way of being responsive while preventing email from being a constant distraction. You can model this as part of your own time management strategy, as well as encouraging it for your team. For example, I check and respond to email for an hour first thing in the morning, another hour just before lunch, again in the middle of the afternoon, and again at the end of the day. Because I’m checking it on a regular basis, I am rarely out of touch for longer than a few hours, but during those hours I’m able to focus more thoroughly on other work.
Use Status to Set Expectations
One of the benefits of today’s collaboration tools is that they show status or presence. You can easily see who is online, as well as whether they are available to talk or not. The problem is that most people don’t actually use their status options, they simply always show as online. This can be frustrating if you reach out to a colleague and discover they are not actually there, or can’t talk at the moment. Encouraging your team to set their status correctly throughout the day makes it easier to communicate in real-time when you need to.
Use the Right Tool for the Job
Email is great for some types of communication, but it can lead to long, complex chains with multiple topics. IM is really helpful for passing quick information back and forth, but it can be hard to search back and find details without re-reading a whole series of conversations. Discussion boards work well for topic-based information, but they are not great for capturing a final decision. Knowing what tool works best in each scenario, and then setting some guidelines or best practices around how information is captured, can help you make the most of the variety of tools that are available to your team.
Collaboration tools are part of our daily lives, especially when we work as part of virtual teams. But the amount of information we have available to us every day can be overwhelming. As a leader, your role is to make sure the technology gets used well, and helps you and your team work better together.
Making technology work better for your team will eliminate distractions and allow them to accomplish more. Explore AMA's communication seminars and resources!