When Slack went down for a little over an hour recently, social media lit up as users collectively freaked out, wondering if they needed to fire up another work chat service or start sending emails. Others, however, saw it as a sort of mandated coffee break and appreciated the time to disconnect. If anything, the shutdown showed how much enterprise users have come to rely on the collaboration tool.
Research suggests that increased collaboration can actually lead to burnout. However, a number of tools are available whose goal is to reduce stress by improving workflow in work chat software, which, mixed with some scheduled breaks, can help you focus and unplug.
In Slack, for example, you can install bots that tap into workflows without leaving the interface and reduce some time-consuming menial tasks. Timebot handles vacation requests and notifies your team when co-workers are out of the office. Polly can set up asynchronous standup meetings or let you run quick surveys in a group. And Workast can be used to convert chat discussions into to-do items. There’s also an entire category of productivity software add-ins for Slack.
If your office has instead settled on Microsoft Teams, that platform also has a number of third-party integrations that can be added to free up time. For example, instead of sending an email notification, Envoy can send a Teams chat message when a visitor arrives at your office. Project management software Trello offers an integration that automatically sends notifications when changes are made to projects. And Zoom.ai provides a natural language assistant in Teams that can manage a calendar or help you find files.
The Need to Unplug
But what about when the need isn’t more collaboration but rather just unplugging to either get work done or relax? A number of IT pros offered tips based on their own office experiences with collaboration tools.
Christina Robbins, marketing manager at Digitech Systems, which makes software for collaboration, says it can be especially difficult to unplug when your job is essentially based on communicating with colleagues.
"If you’re like me, your work is interrupted hundreds of times every day by the ping of a new message, and I’ve read it takes about 20 minutes for our brains to get back into the flow of thought each time we have to restart a task,” Robbins said. “That’s a significant waste of time—no matter how important or urgent the message.”
She says that a mentor taught her early on to protect her flow at work and help her colleagues do the same.
“If you need to distribute information, use email,” she said. “If you need to have a discussion or to make a decision, call a meeting. I think the same axiom applies to other collaboration and chat tools around the office, and it can protect our ability to focus. Rather than interrupting each other during task time with the back-and-forth flow of a discussion that may include dozens of interactions, a well-planned meeting, with questions or an agenda distributed ahead of time, allows the attendees to completely focus on the issues during the meeting and then return to uninterrupted task time when the meeting is over, resulting in a better use of time for everyone."
Detaching from Work
Paul Gentile, senior director of product marketing at LogMeIn, recommends scheduled breaks to deal with the onslaught of constant work chat.
“Being productive all the time is impossible,” Gentile said. “No matter how much effort you put in and how much endurance you have, you’ll eventually get worn down. It’s important for employees to optimize productivity in real time by recognizing when they need to take a break and resume later when they can be more effective. Employees must completely detach from work while taking breaks. Calling into meetings during their lunch or checking email on their walk won’t provide the mental rejuvenation that makes a break valuable.”
He recommends scheduling flow time. “Block out one-to-two-hour chunks of time in your calendar for uninterrupted work,” Gentile said. He also suggests “timeboxing,” or giving yourself a fixed amount of time to complete a task.
Gentile is a proponent of quick breaks every 90 minutes. “Recognize when you need to take a break—look for signs like struggling to focus, making little mistakes, feelings of agitation, stress or tiredness. A quick, 15-minute break helps the brain better consolidate and retain information, allowing the employee to feel more engaged, productive, creative and all around happier at their place of work—a clear benefit for employers.”
A number of browser extensions, such as Marinara, FocusMe and Strict Workflow, will set a timer for getting work done, then taking a break, while also blocking out distractions, like social media sites. These tools, however, are mostly for avoiding distractions like Twitter, not keeping your flow going when you’ve got a mountain of work to attack.
Iain Scholnick, founder and CEO of Braidio, cites IDC research that estimates nearly one-third of an employee’s workday is wasted searching for people and information needed to do their jobs. “Over a third of employees admitted that they are productive for less than 30 hours per week. A lot of this lack of productivity stems from the stress of multiple collaboration tools that constantly force employees to be pulled out of their daily workflow. Many employees may feel the need to unplug completely, but instead of taking drastic measures, companies should focus on reorganizing the tools already at their disposal.”
Even Slack seems to recognize the need for employees to get some distance. In its own blog, the company points out ways to let people know you’re away on vacation, how to use bots to remind co-workers of things that need covering and ways to get caught up when you get back. “Aside from the cognitive benefits of added sleep and mental downtime,” the blog notes, “taking a vacation is critical to motivating people to do more in less time (while at work), while the novelty of being away from your usual surroundings can inspire greater creativity. All of this leads to healthier, happier, and more successful employees.”