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E-mail. Slack. Trello. G-chat. Do we have too many office communication tools?

Peter and Maria Hoey for The Boston Globe

You e-mail your boss about your plan for the morning, and then follow up with a message over the interoffice chat platform when you don’t hear back. A half-hour later, the boss buzzes you over Slack that you’re missing an important meeting she had placed on your Google Calendar, which you had failed to check.

A proliferation of communication and task management programs, designed to make it easier to get things done, has in many cases also made it easier to lose track of things as workers have to jump between e-mails, messages, meeting notes, schedules, tasks, and attachments.

“It’s a very big problem right now. Everybody’s having that experience. I certainly have it in my work,” said Charles Heckscher, codirector of the Center for the Study of Collaboration in Work and Society at Rutgers University.


Kathryn Collins, a marketing specialist for Harbor Media, which provides local access programming in Hingham, said it’s becoming difficult to keep track of which colleagues and clients prefer phones, or e-mail, or texts, and also to remember the right conversational style for each channel.

“If anything, the more options you have, the harder it is to choose any one thing,” said Collins. “It does take away your capacity for memory to try to remember which medium to associate with people, and also with marketing, to remember to switch your tone,” Collins said.

There are dozens of products on the market that seek to change the way offices divvy up work and keep in touch. Slack has brought workplace chat into the mainstream. Trello allows multiple employees to manage projects online. Group video calls are available on any number of platforms, and big tech companies like Microsoft and Cisco offer products that tie many of these functions together.

“The fundamental issue has become one of information overload,” said MJ Shoer, director of client engagement at IT firm Onepath. There are “so many ways to communicate that people seem badgered at times by the number of ways that people are trying to get ahold of them.”


Yet for all that, most back and forth — 75 percent — is still conducted through those pioneers of electronic communications, e-mail and texting, and that dinosaur of modern technology, the telephone, according to a recent survey by TECHnalysis Research.

That split gets even more pronounced when it comes to communication among people in different companies or organizations, which are more likely to be using different platforms.

And the pattern holds among even so-called digital natives who were conducting their social lives on AOL Instant Messenger back when many adults thought online chat was a fad.

Bob O’Donnell, founder of TECHnalysis, said the market for communication and collaboration programs is so saturated that workers are almost reluctant to embrace any one new tool.

“The fallbacks — everybody’s got a phone number and everybody’s got an e-mail address — tend to work,” he said.

Heckscher said workplaces will have to reckon with the challenges of using multiple systems for the foreseeable future.

“Collaboration is becoming much more elaborate and complex than it used to be, and we’re at an early stage in figuring out how to do that,” he said. “It’s one of those messy periods.”

Information technology experts say the best that companies can do right now is be clear and consistent with employees. If your boss uses one program to set up all of your meetings, know which program it is — and how to use it.


At Lewis, a public relations and marketing company with about 30 locations around the world, North America IT chief Eric Beaudette is trying to get all 550 employees to use Zoom, a program for video and Web conferencing.

He said it’s been a vast improvement over the office’s experience with Skype, because he found people on that platform did not differentiate between their personal and business accounts. That meant that people who mistakenly signed into the wrong account before a meeting would sometimes miss out, making it harder to coordinate among far-flung offices.

Even though Skype has officially been shut down at Lewis, Beaudette still finds some stragglers among the staff who can’t give it up.

“Some people just couldn’t let go of Skype,” he said. “People get stuck in a rut, and they know what they like, and they fear change.”

Shoer said it gets worse when individual employees or even single departments build their own ad hoc systems out of the dozens of free, simple programs available on the Web.

“A small group of users can go out and find a product that they like, and they just implement it. They don’t need its help, it’s easy to do, and they’re off and running,” he said. “That’s where, organizationally, there needs to be some form of a consolidated strategy.”

Sometimes, companies have to rethink their systems to fix the problems.


California payment-technology business iPayment Inc. accumulated different IT systems as it bought other companies around the country, and for a time had a system that was so complex many employees couldn’t chat with each other at all.

Jennifer Reichenbacher, who is iPayment’s vice president of marketing and works out of the company’s Boston office, said the tools she had for collaboration were in fact making it more difficult to work together.

She instead used her cellphone to text colleagues when she needed to quickly check in with them, which she said is “definitely not a best practice.”

The company has since switched to a system operated by Fuze, the Back Bay startup that has raised more than $300 million and built a software system that brings telephones, chat, video conferencing, and other channels onto a single platform.

“Keeping those systems separate, it does have a cultural impact,” she said. “It’s clunky, and it doesn’t feel like one company.”

Andy Rosen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.