Is your team in the information overload pit? Here’s how a leader can help

Whether or not you have heard of “infoxication”, you have most definitely experienced it. If the ability to tell all different messengers apart by the sound of their notifications, the skill of quickly glancing through emails while listening to a meeting, and the feeling that it will never stop are familiar, congratulations, you are infoxicated. 

The concept of “information overload” has been around for decades, so you might be wondering – what is the point of talking about it now? The number-one reason is it is getting worse. 

According to statistics, by 2010, humanity collectively produced 2 zettabytes of data (Feel like googling what a zettabyte is? It’s 270 bytes or one billion terabytes). 

In 2020, we reached 64.2 zettabytes and by 2025 we are expected to more than double that volume arriving at 181 zb. Some of this data is irrelevant to organizations and team leadership, like the fraction attributed to TikTok trends – but a lot of data we are exposed to is significant and we struggle to capture and digest it. 

Remote teams are hit by information overload harder than office-only workplaces. According to Microsoft research, switching to remote and hybrid work lead to 153% more meetings, and a significant spike in chats and emails. 

While the pandemic is slowing down, the overcommunication trend is not, so much so that researchers warn us about “the peak becoming the baseline”. 

As a remote team leader, why should you care about information overload and how to protect your team (and yourself) from drowning in the incoming noise? We are taking a deeper dive into the problem and offering short and actionable ways to triage the problem. 

What is information overload and why should you care? 

In a data-driven world, it’s hard to admit you have a problem with information overload. Today, everything is data-led, data-first, and data-driven. More data means better decisions, bigger market shares, and higher revenue. 

Yet, there’s a flipside to wanting to know everything that happens inside your organization or on the market – both for your employees as individuals and the organization as a whole. It’s known both colloqually and scientifically as information overload. The information overload definition is the difficulty to make decisions and function effectively when too much data on a subject is available. In the workplace, teammates are typically overloaded by too many meetings, messages, and emails. 

Individual pitfalls of information overload

Some challenges of getting too much information are obvious, others are more subtle. Both kinds are highly damaging to your team’s productivity and fulfillment. We’ve outlined those that hit the hardest: 

Information overload slows people down. Always chasing data keeps your teams from making a decision. Trying to stay updated at the cost of multitasking also leads to more errors and lower outcome quality. With all its importance, prolonged research is often but procrastination in disguise. 

Information overload wears people off. Capturing and processing data points is hard work – so much so teams get exhausted long before anything gets done. Even if your teams manage to stay on top of their projects and track all incoming signals from teammates, customers, or the market, the cost of this feat is probably unnecessarily high and you will have a burnout problem in the nearest future. 

Information overload is confusing. It’s quite common for data to point in different (often opposite) directions until it reaches the point of confusing people instead of supporting them and driving disagreements instead of finding common ground. 

Information overload kills creativity. Sharing knowledge and ideas helps propel creativity but a new voice will have a harder time emerging in the sea of data noise. Knowing what everyone thinks is helpful but getting bogged down in consensus-seeking is not. Bold ideas often require going against the grain and not listening to the crowd which is a lot harder in an informationally-overloaded environment.

Information overload has negative systemic effects on your team’s health. We’ve known for decades that information is addictive. A 2008 AOL study found that 46% out of 4,000 surveyed Americans said they were hooked to checking inboxes. 

Neuroscientists link that to the fact that our brain uses the same pathways when excited by information as it deploys for stimulants. In a remote workplace, this creates a need to compulsively check Slack notifications and feel anxious about missing out on an important update (or a hilarious meme). 

Negative impact of information overload on organizations 

Most likely, you are not a leader who disregards people’s individual needs for the sake of the greater good. Yet, every now and then, the temptation of giving in to the thought that information overload is a new normal that helps companies stay afloat. 

The truth is, on a macro level, information overload causes as much damage for the organization as the whole as it does for its individual parts. 

It creates a culture of “all talk and no walk”. C-suites are already acknowledging this problem – most executives surveyed by McKinsey say that, despite a lot of time in meetings, they are slow to make organizational decisions. On a macroscopic level, companies end up using their energy on discussions and having no fuel to get things going. 

Information overload leads to making wrong decisions. Having too much information puts leaders at risk of interpreting it the wrong way and “missing the forest for the trees”. Once the attention scatters over individual data points, overarching patterns or key anomalies can go undetected. Instead, leaders can fall prey to confirmation bias, choosing the insights that play along with their preferred narratives. 

Information overload destroys systems. Thinking back to Shannon’s information theory, the more variables you have (entropy of the source), the harder it is to get the message across. In that sense, leaders can think of their organizations as water pipes with a specific capacity and watch out that the incoming noise is not going to burst the whole system. 

Information overload puts teams in “refractory periods”. In neuroscience, the term stands for a period of time when a neuron is no longer able to fire an action potential because it has just fired one a while ago. On a chemical level, it has to do with the deactivation of the voltage-gated channels that transport charged particles and enable the phenomenon. There’s no fix but waiting until they fully close and the cell can be excited again. 

Informationally-overloaded teams are similar that way – after a string of meetings, they struggle to switch focus to other tasks, and there’s nothing to do except wait for recharge. 

Where remote work comes in

Through empirical evidence and common-sense analogies, we have demonstrated that information overload is disastrous, both to individuals and organizations. Another question to address is “How is remote work making things worse?”. 

In over two years of functioning as a remote-first organization, we believe that three reasons take the blame. 

  • Productivity theater. In the office, once you came in, you could focus on work (with an exception of an occasional unproductive meeting or a colleague who is too much of a chatterbox). When you work remotely, you have two ongoing tasks: working and showing everyone else you are working. The second one is just as demanding as the first one so it takes a lot of time from the first one. Instead of focusing on their tasks, people are churning out to-dos and reports. Where they should be working on existing ideas, teams keep generating new ones to stay visibly busy. This “productivity theater” creates information overload, tanks productivity, and is a signature feature of remote workplaces. 
  • Outside interference. A physical workplace loses ground to a remote one in many ways – it’s not as personalized and flexible, commuting is inefficient, and hiring pools shrink to incredibly small radiuses. Yet, it’s infinitely superior in one thing – the unity of time and place. In an office, when you are in a meeting, you are in that conference room surrounded by your colleagues. When you work remotely, you are in a meeting, but you are also in your room with noisy neighbors, a train, a coffee shop with loud music, or a park full of chirping birds. All of these – however enjoyable, are noises that make it harder to get through to the signal – the agenda of your meeting and the contributions of the team. 
  • Meeting theater. In the office, there was no need to go around messaging people and scheduling calls just to know how things are going. You stayed in the loop by soaking in the atmosphere or casually catching up with a teammate on your way to a coffee shop. Remotely? You have to introduce yourself via text, schedule a call, confirm everything, and prepare ice-breakers and conversation-starters (rent hikes are a great one). What used to be a casual meeting is now only so far from a tea ceremony – the rituals are so elaborate and complex that the information overload and exhaustion double. 

How to reduce information overload in a remote team? 

Information overload appears to be an accomplice to many organizational problems: engagement dips, slow decision-making, high employee turnover, and declining productivity. Naturally, team leaders should look for ways to reduce it and make sure noises don’t get in the way of signals. 

The most drastic of all solutions would be to cut some information channels off. Stop having meetings, delete most Slack channels, and leave teams to their own devices. Yet, anyone who has led a team (more so a remote one) knows exactly how this ends – in gaps, silos, and the disappearance of organizational unity. 

So, there’s no single straightforward fix to dealing with information overload. It’s a delicate balancing act, with leaders pressured to find the middle ground between “too little” and “too much”. 

The good news is that there are ways to balancing the scales and leading-edge organizations have been using for a while. Let’s quickly go over these strategies: 

  • Be as diligent in retaining internal data. Most sustainable companies have a tried-and-proven approach to segmenting their audiences, tracking the sales pipeline, and identifying red flags in customer behavior. However, that meticulousness doesn’t translate so well internally. Leaders aren’t as eager to invest in EX platforms as they are in CRMs and not as focused on getting a net promoter score from their teams as they are from customers. By investing time and resources into categorizing, segmenting, and clearly visualizing internal data points, you will be able to make sense of what’s happening within the organization and not need to spend so much time in meetings and catch-up calls. 
  • Filter your data. Knowing your key success and failure indicators and paying less attention to the numbers that are lower on the priority list helps draw the line between the signal and the noise. Define North Star metrics across all operations to stay guided in navigating the murky waters of market expansion, financial planning, or team management. 
  • Make it easier for people to get what they need. In working with remote teams, we’ve seen some leaders get stuck between a rock and a hard place – they feel like there’s not enough communication with the team even though everyone on that team is under persistent information overload. That has to do with the fact that employees share a lot of irrelevant back-and-forth information when scheduling meetings or exchanging formal introductions instead of cutting directly to the chase. The good news is technology can help bring down the walls between remote teammates, and it already does so! With oVice, for example, you can walk up to someone as if you are in the office, ask a quick question, and move on to your work. There’s no back-and-forth scheduling nor meeting theater so people can catch up without feeling drained and burdened. 
  • Stop encouraging long hours or 24/7 presence. A lot of leaders do this implicitly by saying things like ‘Thank you for staying up late” or “I see you worked very hard, even came in on the weekend”. Technically, they are not pushing people to work long hours but employees (especialy new hires) can think that putting in extra hours is a way to get recognition. An alternative strategy that helps prioritize the long-term well-being of your teams would be to praise healthy workplace habits like logging out after work hours or spending their weekend afk. Praising employees for not working is quite a radical culture shift but it does an excellent job at incentivizing work-life balance. 

The bottom line

In this day and age, information overload is almost inevitable. The rate at which we can capture and process increasing data volume far outpaces the rate of evolution, making it painfully obvious that humans are and will, for many years, be ill-equipped to process zettabytes. 

For team leaders, making the most out of data comes at risk of unstructured data points governing the organization and leading to distorted conclusion. 

Finding the middle ground is not easy if we try to do this individually, without relying on the help of our teams and technology. But, if they look around, remote team leaders can find a lot of tools – people analytics, customer relationships management tools, and many others – that can help filter data and follow the signals that make a difference. 

oVice also contributes to reducing information overload in remote teams by simplifying communication and making sure you don’t have to always keep an elaborate meeting schedule in mind. Instead, your team can stay connected and communicate effortlessly in a shared virtual space much like you did when you worked in the office. 

By making communication faster and more spontaneous, we help remote and hybrid teams declutter their schedule and streamline communication so that everyone has one fewer load to carry. 

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