Avoiding Communication Fatigue in the Coronavirus Remote Workplace

Many employees at companies across the country are now working from home during the coronavirus outbreak. For many employees, this is their first experience with remote work, telework, video conferencing, etc. And it’s everyone’s first experience with the new concept of social distancing. Combined, these factors are changing our communication habits.

As is the case for any change, people need time to adjust. Freelancers are used to working from home, but for people used to sitting at a desk, in an office, surrounded by people, it’s strange to say the least.

But as many of us gather the essentials, create temporary home offices and discover the delights – and frustrations – of using webcam services like Zoom, we also have to prepare mentally for the resulting change in interpersonal communication.

We might start to miss watercooler conversations, front-desk small talk or going to lunch with co-workers — forms of communication that help define workplace culture and even our social identity.

As people adjust to working remotely and communicating with colleagues solely online during the coronavirus outbreak, they need distinguish between essential and nonessential communications.

We can make up for missed small talk by calling co-workers to check in, or by forming online groups through Facebook, Slack and other micro-chatting platforms. We might start by discussing an essential work item but end up talking about personal stuff, just like we do at the office.

In times of crisis, the need to communicate can feel like an ongoing and sometimes even annoying requirement. Everyone wants to offer breaking news.

Suddenly half your friends on Facebook have become amateur infectious disease specialists. Your local grocery store issues updates about what’s in stock and their new social distancing policies at least every few days.

On the work front colleagues want to share information quickly and broadly. Meanwhile, the boss has planned three video conferences and two individual check-in meetings.

But too much communication can defeat its own purpose by overloading people and lead to them tuning out the messages. Here are four ways to avoid communication fatigue while working from home:

Share crucial information.

Those in marketing are already aware of the concept of “communication fatigue.” The same principle applies to all forms of communication: The more frequently that we communicate to an audience, the less valuable our communication becomes.

An audience’s fatigue will likely be worsened when we communicate nonessential, one-way information. Brands that overcommunicate with customers end up losing their attention and interest, which is a major reason why consumers unsubscribe to brand emails. The same holds true for internal communications.

While sharing crucial information about the coronavirus crisis might seem like a no-brainer for managers, the consequences of over communicating can be counterintuitive.

Let’s say a CEO sends out a company-wide email containing new, critical information. It is forwarded to managers, who, in turn, forward the email to their departments. Leaders in those departments then forward it to their own teams.

By the end, some employees have seen the same email four or five times. They become desensitized to this overcommunication and start deleting redundant emails.

But what if an important email gets deleted because its sender has become an overcommunicator and branded by recipients as nonessential? How can middle managers bypass the email traffic jam and make sure that people read their messages?

Consider the frequency.

Before sending another email about the coronavirus and its effects on your business, consider how many times you have already emailed the same people on the same topic and how often they have responded. To avoid communication fatigue, multiple updates should be consolidated into a single email whenever possible.

It might be better to send a text message if someone can answer a question with a simple “yes” or “no.” If you have several questions, then combine them into a single email.

Add value to your message.

You also need to think about the value of what you intend to communicate. If an email doesn’t provide anything new or timely, perhaps you should not send it.

Diversify communication channels.

Communicating solely through email can be monotonous. As people work from home during the coronavirus outbreak, they might prefer to use apps such Slack or Google Talk for short, more immediate communication.

If you need to brainstorm or gather more information, then make a phone call. For personal, sensitive or emotional topics, try a video-conferencing service that lets you see people’s facial expressions, body language and gestures.

Using tools like Apple FaceTime, Zoom and Google Meet can also add a more personal touch than just sending an email. And as remote work and social distancing move us further apart during the coronavirus outbreak, a personal touch might be just what we need.