Performance Management

Multicommunicating Effectively to Increase Productivity

In today’s fast-paced workplace, it is often common for employees to have multiple, simultaneous demands on their time.  One of the ways these demands can manifest themselves is when employees carry multiple conversations at the same time – also known as multicommunicating.

What Is Multicommunicating?

Multicommunicating is defined as “engaging in two or more overlapping, synchronous conversations.” This process is made possible through the use of various communication technologies such as instant messaging, text messaging, videoconferencing, or email. Multicommunicating can be a beneficial process, because when used effectively it can increase efficiency and productivity. However, multicommunicating is also a demanding process. The intensity of multicommunication can vary based on several factors:
  • Number of conversations – The greater number of conversations the employee is engaged in, the higher the demand will be.
  • Pace of each conversation – The pace of each conversation might differ based on the method of communication – instant messaging tends to move at a faster pace than email. As the pace of each conversation increases, the intensity experienced also increases.
  • Integration of social roles – Everyone plays different roles in life; some of these might include employee, supervisor, parent, child, friend, etc. When playing multiple roles at the same time, the intensity of the multicommunicating experience increases. For example, videoconferencing with a supervisor at work while simultaneously sending an email to a subordinate will be more demanding than having conversations with two peers.
  • Number and challenge  of topics – Each conversation in a multicommunication event may revolve around a separate topic.  In addition, some topics may be more challenging than others. The more topics that an individual is engaged in at the same time, as well as the level of challenge of each topic, will determine how demanding the experience will be.

Which Conditions Facilitate Multicommunicating?

Often, whether or not employees engage in multicommunicating depends on factors within the organization. Two of these factors that facilitate multicommunicating are the availability of technologies that allow employees to multicommunicate and organizational norms that encourage or discourage multicommunicating.
  • Availability of technology – As mentioned before, communication technology that allows employees to participate in multiple, simultaneous conversations is necessary for multicommunication to occur.  How often multicommunicating occurs in an organization depends on how much these communication technologies are available.
  • Organizational norms – Organizational norms determine which behaviors are considered acceptable and appropriate within an organization. Across different organizations, there is a continuum of acceptable multicommunicating behaviors. In some organizations, it may be considered rude or unprofessional to carry on multiple conversations at any time; in other organizations, it might be perfectly acceptable or even encouraged to multicommunicate whenever possible. Most organizations fall somewhere in between, considering multicommunicating more or less acceptable depending on the situation.

Drawbacks of Multicommunicating

Multicommunicating can be an extremely beneficial practice because it allows individuals to connect with multiple people over shorter periods of time, and thus can increase efficiency and productivity. However, it does come with some notable downsides.  Because the employee is required to divide his or her attention over multiple conversations, there is an increased chance of error – e.g., misunderstanding a response, sending a response to the incorrect person,  or being unable to maintain pace with one or more of the conversations.

Practical Advice

Multicommunicating has both benefits and drawbacks; it is a practice that can be useful at times and detrimental at others. Therefore, it is important to train employees so they will be able to use multicommunication when it will be most appropriate and effective. This will depend on your organization. In order to promote the use of multicommunicating within your organization, provide employees with access to communication technologies that facilitate multiple, sequential conversations such as chat software or cell phones equipped with text messaging. It’s important to offer training to employees for using these various technologies. To decrease or discourage multicommunicating, establish strong organizational norms and policies and procedures against the practice by letting employees know these behaviors are not acceptable. Most organizations fall somewhere in the middle – sometimes it is appropriate or necessary to multicommunicate, but sometimes it is unacceptable. Through the use of these practical suggestions – training, organizational norms, and organizational policies – you can let your employees know how to use multicommunicating in a way that will benefit your organization.

Interpretation by:

Michelle Toelle

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Reinsch Jr., N.L., Turner, J. W., & Tinsley, C.H. (2008) Multicommunicating: A practice whose time has come? Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 391-403.