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Reducing Noise in the Workplace with MRT

How We Chat January 11, 2018


Reducing Noise in the Workplace with MRT

Using Media Richness Theory as a Guide for Effectively Communicating in the Modern Workplace

Notification Overload Through Multiple Communication Channels

If you’ve had the experience of working with a small startup in its earliest stages, you’re aware of a certain magic ✨:

Everyone is in the same room.

When everyone is in the same room, startups have an ability to move fast while staying on the same page. Having the option to communicate directly means there’s no need to send another email or rely on different forms of communication. The benefits are obvious — everyone shares ideas, asks questions, and gets answers and feedback relatively quickly.

Media Richness Theory vs. How We Work

Media Richness Theory (MRT) is a communication framework that describes the available mediums for communicating and how each medium conveys the information being shared. More importantly, MRT states that face-to-face interactions are still the most effective forms of communication while the quality decreases across other mediums within voice, email, text, etc.

Within the research field of Organizational Behavior, this concept is critical to understanding how communication breaks down at scale:

Media Richness Theory

Media Richness Theory Applied to the Modern Workplace

The modern workplace has introduced many new channels for receiving massive quantities of information within a short amount of time. Consider the notifications sent to an average knowledge worker during the day:

  • A calendar invite for a meeting next week. 📅
  • A reply to a ticket in Jira for a project you need to finish soon. 📓
  • Multiple emails of varying priority levels: 📧
    — marketing from other companies, 📑
    — an announcement from your HR director, 📣
    — an email about a meeting in 20 minutes. 🕐
  • An assigned task from a shared Google document, with three related comments. 📝
  • An intercom message from a lead on your website. 💻
  • A text from an old professional contact who just called you but you let it go to VM. 📲

In addition, the proliferation of real-time team chat through messaging platforms like Stride, Facebook Workplace, Slack or Spark adds an additional number of unread messages that need attention.

Bring the Noise

All of these areas are ways in which we begin to lose face-to-face interactions, and gain an increased level of noise which Media Richness Theory explains as a loss or distraction of non-verbal & visual cues that would otherwise offer us some real-time insight on how a conversation is going. In this sense, noise isn’t necessarily an audible cue of any kind but rather the idea of obstacles within communication that could make it harder to focus on a topic or lead to misinterpretation.

Communication Productivity vs. Noise

A common workplace challenge today is the abundance of communication channels, and we aren’t thinking about MRT when we send a message, which leads to several pitfalls.

Some examples of typical noise pitfalls:

💬 Defaulting to chat too often. There will be plenty of times where discussions might be better tackled in person rather than reaching out across chat, especially if all parties are in the office.

📚 Tons of information to sort through. Most of us will experience the long gap where our messages don’t get a response and you’ll find yourself saying, “hey did you get my message on Slack,” only to realize that your boss is struggling to keep all of their notifications under control.

📋 No formal plans or processes in place. When it comes to chat, it’s best to create a process to stay organized in regards to channel names, topics, when to use direct messages in a public setting and when to reply in a threaded message. A lack of overall structure can make finding old information hard and make workplace chat less productive.

Regardless of where your team currently stands, there are plenty of things that can be done to avoid these pitfalls.

Consider your Audience

Communication Preferences Matter — Choose wisely!

Something to always keep in mind is that people will always have different personal preferences in how they respond or seek to find help in solving work related problems.

We polled employees at a variety of different companies representing education, technology, and government in an effort to learn how they work and communicate with the growing presence of messaging and chat-based platforms.

We found that based on the industry and the various objectives of the team’s involved, the type of platforms played an impact in how they communicated with each other.

  • One government employee noted that the risk of sending secure documents made their small team not rely on a cloud-based solution for collaboration and communication.
  • One employee at an American entertainment company noted that “pretty much the entire company was using Slack.” As a developer, he was especially happy with the ability to use integrations to make work easier.
  • Technology-forward companies tend to be more open to using platforms like Spark and Slack and adoption has spread from the bottom up, even when some noted that their IT teams have regulations about the external vendors that could be added.

Many of these same technology companies did note, however, that while Slack was gaining critical momentum within their teams they were also relying on alternative options for conferencing and video calling. Zoom, Cisco, and WebEx were all mentioned as some of the tools that helped make video conferencing and webinars possible.

How to use Media Richness Theory (MRT) as a Guide for the Modern Workplace

Choose the appropriate medium for your communication (think before sending!)

Consider each flow based on the medium being used.

We all make decisions about the mediums we use to communicate with others. Based on the graphic above, lean media typically involves lower thresholds of feedback because the medium used is more cut and dry. The mediums closer to a rich media become progressively more visual and therefore offer additional opportunities for feedback and discussion.

Increasingly, messaging platforms like Slack, Hangouts Chat or Cisco Spark, allow us to do a variety of things besides basic messaging — from document sharing, live collaboration, audio and video calling are all providing a richer form of communicating in hopes to reach the quality offered by face-to-face.

A research study aimed to determine the factors that go into how professionals choose their preferred medium to communicate showed four major factors come into play:

An individual’s preference to a type of communication channel directly relates to how effective they find that medium to be. Surprisingly, given the lack of visual cues and in person discussions — instant messaging was found to be the preferred method of communication amongst those surveyed because it represented the medium they had the most experience using. Given how rich enterprise messaging platforms like Spark and Slack are, people grow a larger preference for this type of communication channel because it still can convey personality, availability and instant feedback.

The connection between social presence (availability on chat platforms) coupled with the richness of media provides enough for the information exchange to be clear and concise. For more complicated and ambiguous tasks, the same study concluded that those same individuals still preferred an in-person meeting or a video conference to avoid any misinterpretation of information.

If you’re eyeing to message someone as a means of communicating, consider the following:

  • Don’t be that person who makes everything urgent when it’s really not.
  • Consider the level of possible ambiguity in your preferred medium of chat.
  • Consider the type of information being shared and across what medium — sensitive information vs. information that a number of people should be a part of.

Considerations for Improvement within your Team

Reduce Fragmentation of Communication — Consider Unified Communications

A major setback amongst enterprise chat platforms is the lack of cross platform interoperability within teams and across companies. While one team might find themselves utilizing and heavily capitalizing on what Cisco Spark has to offer, they’re largely unable to communicate with vendors and partners on another chat platform. While company wide adoption of messaging tools might be difficult, it’s best to keep the company on the same page and with access to the same tools. So what can you do?

Develop a process for team chat.

It’s hard for everyone to understand the difference of when emails should transform into a phone call or video call, or when a public conversation should best be had through private messages. It’s always good practice to keep channels topical and create new ones in a format that is easy to follow and understand. Check out how Breather handles their internal communication on Slack — which is still one of the best style guides for keeping team chat productive.

Adopt products that help everyone on the team.

Consider platforms which blend video, chat and collaboration that aim to offer a higher richness of communication so that everyone’s needs are met.

  • Cisco Spark. Aside from instant chat, Cisco has built a load of hardware around their product to offer video conferencing solutions to distributed teams.
  • Stride. Stride blends a suite of project management tools, chat, video and voice into one place to help increase the quality of team communication while helping cut down on potential noise.
  • Slack. Covering messaging, calling, and group collaboration. Slack is leading with integrations and bots to improve workflows and make collaboration easier.

In addition, consider creating a “Work Chat Style Guide” where your team agrees on some ground rules for working together during the day.


Consider the Medium to Communicate Better

With today’s enterprise messaging tools, the majority of platforms have realized that the workforce has a preference for instant messaging but also a need for richer forms of communication. As teams become more distributed, platforms are including features within their tools to encourage a more effective medium that mimics a richer form of communication that would otherwise only exist in a face-to-face setting.

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