Workplaces become saturated with ways to talk, often breeding mistakes and misunderstandings

By Anne Marie Chaker Updated April 26, 2023 9:46 am ET

Lisa Donovan was juggling pings from multiple Slack channels and email windows when she inadvertently sent a sensitive company document to the wrong person. The part-time accountant for a Virginia-based academic coaching firm toggles between 30 instant-messaging channels, four client-email accounts and at least a dozen phone or video calls a day, she says. “It’s, like, ‘Are we on Zoom? Are we on Teams? Did I respond to that? Did I say it right?’” There are so many ways to communicate at work that our communication is breaking down. Bosses say missed messages and crossed signals waste time and trigger mistakes, while research suggests that so much virtual communication makes it easier to snipe at or ignore co-workers. Then there’s the stress of having to stay on top of so many different channels all the time. Microsoft Corp.’s Teams use has surged to more than 280 million monthly active users. Zoom Video Communications Inc.’s business customers have nearly tripled to more than 210,000 since the start of the pandemic, and Salesforce Inc.’s Slack is also growing. In many cases, the clients of each overlap and use the tools on top of emails, texts and in-house messaging forums. All of it is enough to make workers long for the days of complaining about email-inbox overload. “It’s overwhelming,” says Wendy Weinberger, Ms. Donovan’s boss and head of the firm. The company’s IT department was able to successfully recall the sensitive email. In a 2022 Harris Poll survey of more than 1,200 workers and executives, bosses estimated that their teams lost an average 7.47 hours—nearly an entire day—to poor communications a week. Based on an average salary of $66,967, the lost time translates to a cost of $12,506 per employee a year, according to the report conducted on behalf of Grammarly, a proofreading software company.
A new study from executive-search firm Korn Ferry found that communication misfires have helped to make some work relationships less pleasant and collegial.
Among 357 professionals surveyed in recent weeks, nearly half said that remote work made it easier for colleagues to get away with rude behavior such as
interrupting on calls and not returning emails. Remote work has accentuated colleagues’ different communication habits, and
their potential to clash, some employees say. “These tools that are meant to make communication easier have a dark side,” says Michele Simon, a Los Angeles-based lawyer specializing in workplace trauma. A new Pepperdine University study on workplace toxicity that surveyed 800 office workers found that 35% cited communication problems as the top barrier to getting ahead in today’s workplace—ahead of office politics (29%), small budgets (26%) or ineffective plans (20%). Michelle Sooknanan says that at her previous job as a sales manager for a Florida food manufacturer, her boss would often call her impromptu via video as she worked from her home office in Portsmouth, N.H. She says she found the unscheduled calls to her desktop computer stressful and asked that, outside of scheduled calls with the team, she be contacted only by email or instant message. Her manager emailed a couple of days later that her request
couldn’t be accommodated, and that video would sometimes be necessary. Ms. Sooknanan says the tension contributed to her eventual departure. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment. Multiple modes of communication get more complex as the number of people on a conversation thread grows, says Jessica Carlson, a former director of supply-chain
operations at Nestlé SA who left the company in March. Wrestling with post-Covid supply-chain challenges often took place over multiple time zones and forums.