Collaborative activities drive business outcomes because they open channels of communication and invite innovation. Today’s millennial workers, especially, are accustomed to working in close-knit teams, bouncing ideas off each other, and earning instant feedback from colleagues. While strong communication remains a cornerstone of the modern business model, too much of anything can become a problem. When collaborative overload taxes your most helpful employees, the entire system will falter.
Find the Need for Balance in Collaboration
Collaboration works to a point. Instead of placing employees and departments in silos, it opens communication lines between people trying to achieve a common goal, leading to inspiration that drives innovation. However, an oft-cited article from Harvard Business Review highlights the slippery slope of open collaboration. According to the research gathered:
- Over the past 20 years, time spent in collaborative settings in the workplace has grown more than 50 percent.
- Today, many employees spend around 80 percent of their time in communication-based activities instead of on skilled work.
- In value-added group settings, only 3 to5 percent of participants are actually creating value.
- Employees who regularly go above and beyond to deliver results that exceed expectations burn out faster and are more likely to feel disengaged and dissatisfied at work.
These insights illustrate the problems with unfettered collaboration. The Pareto principle—the assertion that roughly 80 percent of the work winds up being done by 20 percent of the people—thrives in collaborative groups. Think back to school: Assigned groups often complete projects the same way. The driven students take over, allowing the rest of the group to skate by with minimal contribution. Over time, this imbalance may create bottlenecks, resentment, and apathy in any collaborative environment. If businesses recognize and understand the realities of unrestrained collaboration, they can actively counter its pitfalls and maximize productivity.
Identify the Red Flags of Collaborative Overload
Collaboration already serves as an integrated part of daily workflow. If organizations drill into the data they collect and discuss collaborative behaviors with managers and employees, they can identify the warning signs of collaborative overload. Some of the most common warning signals of non-optimized collaboration include:
- Management relies heavily on a few key employees. Managers often gravitate toward the employees they can count on to get things done. When they start relying heavily on these power players, however, hard workers run out of steam. In addition to burnout, a negative attitude toward work may spread throughout a team or department.
- Data contradicts management’s perceptions. In open collaboration environments, managers and executives may not see where the real work takes place daily. Instead, they continue to reward the employees who know how to work the system, and others who dedicate their time to completing actual work while also supporting their colleagues often go unnoticed by management. Use customer relationship management (CRM) reports on workflows, employee feedback reports, and other internal analytics programs to identify where, when, and how value-added work takes place.
- Employees are constantly busy, but businesses aren’t seeing results. Collaborative activities often keep employees in the planning stages of a project. Until this team receives this person’s input and this manager’s buy-in, nobody can move forward. As a result, employees keep planning but fail to take any action.
If you notice any of these signs in your own workplace environment, reevaluate your approach to collaboration. Strategic collaboration provides value, but unorganized collaboration can cause problems.
Optimize Collaboration in the Workplace
Like any other business activity, growth comes from measurement and optimization. You would never assume a marketing campaign is generating the appropriate response in your consumer base, so why would you assume all weekly meetings generate productivity in the workplace?
If you identify problems with collaboration—including the time spent, the people involved, or the work accomplished—try these methods to encourage behavior changes and make collaboration worthwhile:
- Create a physical space for “deep work.” Deep work is any skills-driven activity, which often requires a distraction-free area. Building reports, troubleshooting processes, writing or designing anything creative, and finding answers to real business problems are all considered deep work—and most businesses don’t measure the time employees spend doing it. Create space for this type of value-added activity. Being able to forget about emails, phone calls, chat messages, and other types of collaboration allows employees to completely focus on the job at hand.
- Train employees in the art of time management and delegation. Many productive employees have a hard time setting boundaries if a colleague needs help or a sounding board. However, if every employee knew how to say “no” to additional work they didn’t have time to complete, and knew how to prioritize the workday, employees would get more done.
- Shorten meeting times. Consider creating a collaboration policy that includes guidelines for planning meetings and collaborative activities. Some organizations find success with a “no meetings before noon” rule, while others get more done if they limit each meeting to 20 or 30 minutes.
- Leverage technology. Technology facilitates many types of collaboration. Use unified communications solutions, such as Slack, to streamline document sharing, improve question/answer communications, and reduce the need for in-person meetings. Consider using productivity tools, such as Focus Lock and RescueTime, to help employees log their time and eliminate distractions.
In short, collaborative overload is a real thing, but it doesn’t have to plague your business outcomes. With the right mixture of insights, policies, and technology, every business can support effective collaboration in the workplace.
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