Sanity during the messaging flood

Is messaging in the workplace out of control?

Consider this LinkedIn screenshot:

Screenshot from LinkedIn

If you’ve worked at any company, then you’re already familiar with the hodgepodge of messaging tools they use (eg. Microsoft Teams, Slack, Flock, WhatsApp, Skype, Telegram, Messenger, SMS,…). We exchange messages dozens of ways when combined with with tools that include built-in messaging (eg. G Suite, Asana, Trello, Dialpad, Google Voice…), videoconferencing (eg. Zoom, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Meet, …), and services (eg. Upwork, LinkedIn,…).

How did we get here?

This sentiment from the screenshot easily transfers into the workplace. It suggests that messaging has become more complicated. Messages bring us closer together but quickly overwhelm us. Everyone is drowning in communicationsconstantly flipping through a jungle of unread emails, posts, texts, tweets, voicemails, and comments across tools that don’t talk to each other. The notification lists overflow. Even “integrations” generate more messages. The same messaging capabilities that enable productivity also undermine our workforces and teams. This is a messaging flood.

There’s no simple umbrella solution even though we crave one. Messaging tools are designed to organize you around them, not the other way. The entire communication ecosystem is fractured. Who can consistently check a list of tools all day? Slack touts itself as the “collaboration hub for work” but is the first example in the LinkedIn screenshot. (There is nothing specifically wrong with Slack compared to other tools. I happen to love Slack, but there is still a flood.)

Take better control, regardless of your messaging tools. The best way to navigate the flood at the moment is to organize messaging tools using email and mobile devices.

Organize messaging tools using email

Email, invented about fifty years ago in the defense industry, is the common digital ancestor of all workplace messaging. It is time-tested, whether you like email or not.

Email is positioned as a logical place to organize messages because many (but not all) tools connect to it. This brings most messages together and makes them simpler to process in one place. Some messaging tools provide full text, snippets, or notifications by email. Sometimes it’s even possible to respond by replying to the email. This is a straightforward place to start because we are already so familiar with email and reliant on it.

Get as many messages as possible into a single bucket using email. Formal business tools (eg. Microsoft Teams, Slack,…) are more likely to connect with email than informal tools (eg. SMS, WhatsApp,…).

Organize messaging tools by email using steps like these:

  1. Enable emails from messaging tools, when possible. Try to get an email for each individual message, rather an email for batches of unrelated messages.
  2. Disable spam filters for emails sent by messaging tools. (You would be surprised which messages go to spam. In my experience, Gmail automatically sends notifications from Microsoft Teams directly to spam.)
  3. Set up folders or labels depending on how you will plan to process the messages. If you don’t know, then start with one folder or label and then divide it later if needed.
  4. Automatically filter emails sent from messaging tools into the folders. You can also experiment with more sophisticated filters.

Organize messaging tools on mobile devices

Mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) are relatively stable within a messaging landscape that is undergoing a continuous digital earthquake. While the devices evolve, almost every person has a mobile device, mobile devices host apps, and there are only a few mobile device flavors that matter (Apple iOS and Google Android).

The dominant position of mobile devices within our communication infrastructure makes them a useful platform to organize chaotic messaging tools. New messaging tools are born, merge, and die all the time in a sea of technological change. The arms race of features tries to lure our teams from one tool to another. Meanwhile, messaging tools that don’t work with email usually still have apps for mobile devices. More recent mobile apps even work on laptop and desktop computers.

Mobile devices are the universal constant across messaging tools. They’re the closest solution to a messaging hub if you leverage their functionality effectively.

Organize messaging tools on your mobile device using steps like these:

Messaging in the workplace is out of control. We’re exposed to a deluge of messages and messaging tools on a daily basis. Complexity has accelerated as the same capabilities that enable productivity also undermine us. While depending on specific tools usually does not work, simplify the bigger picture by organizing messaging tools using email and mobile devices. After you get organized, it’s even possible to create more sophisticated efficiencies by integrating messaging into workflows. The initial steps might seem obvious and simplistic and won’t solve every problem, but will make an enormous difference.

  1. Install apps for messaging tools
  2. Put apps in a common location. For example, try to fit all your messaging apps on a single screen or use some other organization scheme. 
  3. Configure notifications that make sense. For example, fine-tune pop-ups so that only the most urgent tools, contacts, and groups can interrupt. For example, on Telegram and WhatsApp it’s possible to mute certain channels or groups.
  4. Enable icon notification illuminations or counts on icons to indicate new messages, if possible (screenshots below from Android and iOS, illuminations and counts indicated by red arrows).

    Notification illuminations in Android

    Message counts in iOS indicated by red arrows

  5. Organize messaging apps into useful folders. For example, apps for Google Docs and Asana belong in the same folder? Sometimes, folders even show notification illuminations counts across every app in the folder. (screenshots below from Android and iOS, illuminations and counts on folders indicated by red arrows)

    Illuminations on folders in Android indicated by red arrows

    Message counts on folders in iOS indicated by red arrows

Executive summary

Messaging in the workplace is out of control. We’re exposed to a deluge of messages and messaging tools on a daily basis. Complexity has accelerated as the same capabilities that enable productivity also undermine us. While depending on specific tools usually does not work, simplify the bigger picture by organizing messaging tools using email and mobile devices. After you get organized, it’s even possible to create more sophisticated efficiencies by integrating messaging into workflows. The initial steps might seem obvious and simplistic and won’t solve every problem, but will make an enormous difference.