Multicommunication: a symptom not a strategy
|Datum:||26 januari 2023|
Organizations increasingly use instant messaging to share work-related information. Combined with the recent increase in hybrid work, face-to-face communication is increasingly being supplemented or replaced by virtual forms of communication. Even though virtual communication including instant messaging helps reach more people and allows for more flexible working arrangements, it also increases the prevalence of ‘multicommunication’ – a practice of participating in two or more overlapping conversations . Why do people engage in multicommunication, and what are the benefits and downsides?
There are multiple reasons why multicommunication at the workplace is prevalent, and these have to do with the organizational norms around online communication, technological advances around online communication, and, finally, individual adaptation or tolerance to multicommunication.
First, organizations increasingly nurture the culture of “connected time” , which rewards employees’ reachability, constant connectedness and transparency. In this context, multicommunication is seen as a way to be reachable by others at all times. Considering that electronic multitasking, including multicommunication, is known to be contagious , such a culture of “connected time” can easily develop.
Second, the communication technology itself helps multicommunication , as it makes it easy to navigate across multiple open chats and video calls, switch between platforms, and share information across apps.
Finally, since our frequent reliance on instant messaging extends to our private lives as well, we have become more used to switching between conversations with multiple people and feel obliged to respond fast. This habit is also reinforced by the fact that people overestimate their success in multitasking .
Despite its prevalence, multicommunication has costs. First, participating in multiple conversations at the same time is associated with decreased concentration and performance in these conversations [1, 3]. Being less able to concentrate on the discussion topics, having delayed responses, and making mistakes during conversations all negatively impact the ability to acquire important information from conversations.
Second, multicommunication affects conversational norms and interpersonal relationships. Multicommunication likely disrupts usual conversation norms which makes it difficult to follow and participate in the discussion, and it is also considered rude .
Considering the high prevalence of multicommunication, and its negative effects on our performance, how can we manage it? Our recent research on virtual communication during intense teamwork  provides some insight into this issue.
We demonstrated that even in contexts where increasing virtual communication intensity is necessary and unavoidable, such as during extreme time pressure, achieving efficiency in such communication by increasing multicommunication is associated with a decrease in team performance.
Our results point to an alternative strategy to manage intense virtual communication more effectively, which is to organize it in "a bursty manner” or alternate between periods of intense communication and periods of low communication. Such breaks or pauses in communication allow us to regain attentional resources which may have been depleted during intense communication. Relying on our insights and previous research on multicommunication, we suggest three steps that might help understand the prevalence of multicommunication in an organization, and mitigate its expected negative effects:
1. Understand the use of multicommunication. Before initiating any changes in the organization, it is important to understand in which ways and why is multicommunication present. How much do people multicommunicate, when do they do it, and why? For example, if multicommunication is the most prevalent during group meetings, it might be important to understand whether people multicommunicate because they are overworked and need to engage in work while being in a meeting, or maybe because these meetings are considered unnecessary, and employees decide to use their time differently.
2. Limit multicommunication where possible. Considering that empirical research suggests a negative association between multicommunication and performance, it is important to limit this practice where possible. Understanding what is behind multicommunication behavior likely helps inform what kind of changes might be needed. For example, in some cases, it might help to release the workload, and in others to change the frequency and content of meetings during which multicommunication tends to happen.
3. Space out multicommunication where possible. Finally, since informal communication is an essential part of organizational life, multicommunication cannot and should not be completely limited. A way to help change norms around multicommunication could be to introduce the practice of “quiet time”  where no communication takes place, or encourage the use of breaks in communication. To achieve such a change, it is important to explain the negative consequences of multicommunication to the employees, since, as noted, people in general overestimate their multitasking abilities , and might not feel that they are negatively impacted by this practice.
In conclusion, it seems like multicommunication has emerged as a “strategy” to achieve a sense of togetherness in organizations, as well as a strategy to more efficiently manage an increasing number of communication channels we are constantly part of. Yet, multicommunication likely does the opposite by negatively affecting our cognitive resources to do quality work and engage in quality interactions.
It might be more valuable to regard multicommunication as a “symptom” of a culture propagating a chronic fear of missing out, rather than a useful strategy to create a sense of connectedness. The three steps outlined above may be a useful start towards advancing the way we communicate and connect at the workplace and in our private lives.
Nevena Ivanović (nevena.ivanovic rug.nl) is a PhD candidate at the department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the University of Groningen. She researches effective informal coordination between employees and teams working in contexts characterized by high stress and time pressure, risk of disruptions and crises, and those operating in complex and dynamic environments in general.
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