Harvard Business review

How to Fix Collaboration Overload

We are all immersed in a hyper-connected workplace and world. Employees are tethered to a dizzying array of collaborative technologies, and they are collaborating more than ever before. Time spent on the collaborative aspects of work — such as instant messaging, email, and meetings — has exploded by roughly 50% over the past 12 years.

Although there are critical benefits to this hyper-collaborative way of working, such as improved innovation rates, faster decision-making, and market responsiveness, there’s also an under-recognized cost — employees are overwhelmed with the collaborative demands of their work. And the costs are significant: Employees are burning out with too many competing priorities. The “bridging” connections that generate innovation are declining. And attrition is rising, often with the most connected people leaving, which then hurts the productivity of those they were connected to in the network.

The challenge lies not with the overall workload, but with the collaboration that employees must now do around the work. And unfortunately there appears to be no end in sight — in most organizations the collaborative footprint of work is poorly managed. At one pharmaceutical organization that we studied, half of all meetings on employees’ calendars were double-booked with other meetings.

Collaboration technologies afflict even more damage. Recent research shows that employees at three Fortune 500 companies toggled between apps more than 1,200 times per day on average, causing significant inefficiencies cognitively through the switching costs of fractured time and driving micro-stress in seemingly small moments that have cumulatively devastating consequences over days and weeks.

Reducing the cost of collaboration overload is an analytical challenge. Leaders can track financial expenses down to two decimal places, but they often have minimal understanding of how people are spending most of their time collaborating each week. Managers don’t typically intentionally overspend financial budgets, but they are overspending their people by asking them to collaborate so broadly and frequently on all forms of work without understanding the true costs.

The Pressing Need for Collaborative Intelligence

To assess the effectiveness of various strategies to combat collaboration overload, we ran a study at The Work Innovation Lab, a think tank by Asana that helps businesses meet the growing challenges of work. We built a “collaborative intelligence” dashboard for Asana employees who opted into our study that displayed key daily collaboration metrics:

  • The number of times they initiated a collaboration with someone else
  • The number of times that someone else initiated a collaboration with them
  • The number of teams they collaborated with

Each of the three metrics above was also benchmarked against their peers. We randomized participants into three groups. All groups were asked to complete a daily diary entry for two weeks, from Tuesday through Friday, and reflect on their new collaborative intelligence. The first group completed only the daily diary entry. The second group completed a personal prioritization exercise where they wrote down their top three to five priorities each day. And the third group completed a group prioritization exercise that also involved telling two stakeholders at work about their priorities.

Our study design was grounded in our prior research showing that priority overload has become one of the biggest derailers of team success. In the organizations that we’ve studied, we’ve found that 49% of employees are experiencing priority overload. Employees are drowning in excessive or misaligned goals set by too many external stakeholders with competing needs and demands. Priority overload causes workers to lose sight of their highest priorities and the deliverables that they are accountable for and results in them falling into collaborative overload as they engage in non-critical work.

Throughout the study, we found that collaborative intelligence resulted in participants being more conscious about working with others in ways that minimized others’ collaboration overload. The personal prioritization group did this most effectively. They increased their number of collaborative actions in Asana (such as sending messages, assigning tasks, and adding colleagues to a shared project) by 28% during the study, but decreased the number of notifications that they triggered for others by 7% (via actions such as consolidating their comments and limiting the number of colleagues they added as collaborators on tasks to only the relevant stakeholders). As one participant explained, “When I first saw this dashboard, I said I would be mindful of how I interacted with others … and it seems this worked and that others were doing the same.”

Collaboration overload is an often invisible tax, but, as we show, it’s something that we can control. We found people had far more control over collaboration overload than they thought at the onset of the study.

Tackling Collaboration Overload

The burden of tackling collaboration overload often falls on employees to be more intentional about their approach to work. But the responsibility lies with organizations as well. If leaders and organizational structures are causing overload, the resulting overwhelming amount of time employees are spending in collaborative work activities will remain rampant in organizations.

In our research, we have identified four key ways that organizations can reduce collaboration overload for their people. Each of these four antidotes involves organizations becoming more intelligent about how collaboration is happening.

1. Invest in tools and platforms that protect workers’ focus and impact.

From 2019 to 2021, the number of workers using collaborative technologies grew by 44%, according to research by Gartner. Workplace collaboration tools shouldn’t compete for your attention. Organizations need to invest in B2B tools and platforms, such as workflow automation platforms and tools with “focus time” capabilities, that enable workers to protect their focus, not fragment it.

Leaders also need to prioritize integrating the proliferation of collaboration tools that they’ve invested in. One organization that we studied created a knowledge “hub” that integrated information from all the different SaaS tools (more than 300 of them) so that information that was pertinent to multiple teams was surfaced and foregrounded on the hub. Information that was not relevant to multiple teams was kept off the hub to reduce information and collaboration overload.

2. Equip workers with collaborative intelligence.

Second, organizations need to equip workers with collaborative intelligence, such as dashboards. Our collaborative intelligence dashboard gave participants much needed clarity into collaborative work behaviors that they never had before.

As part of collaborative intelligence, employees need to have benchmarks and comparative points to assess the “health” of their collaboration. More than half (55%) of participants in our study said that the comparison of their actions to others was the most valuable part of their dashboard (versus how they, individually, were spending their time).

As participants looked at their dashboards, they began to reflect more deeply on how they were allocating their time. When one participant saw that they were spending only a small fraction of their time on project work in Asana, they scheduled new focus blocks devoted to “heads-down” project work. When another participant saw that their number of self-initiated collaborations was lower than their peers, they realized they were triggering bottlenecks for others and, in response, began to collaborate more. Unless employees have some benchmark of what good looks like, they will helplessly float along in a sea of collaboration without knowing how to manage it.

3. Establish organization-wide collaboration norms.

Third, organizations need to be strategic about establishing collaborative norms at work. They need to develop the equivalent of an interstate highway system so that their workers know the rules of the road to avoid total chaos.

At one company that we studied, the purpose of each company-endorsed collaboration tool was documented. The documentation was explicit, for instance, that email should not be used to hold important information because of its limited search functionality. Companies should also establish norms around the urgency of information because people have a natural tendency to believe that the latest ping or request received is the most urgent one. Employees need to know when and how to escalate communication (e.g., email → Slack → phone call as urgency increases).

4. Do a reset.

Sometimes organizations need to do a complete reset and rebuild collaborative practices from the ground up. In our previous research, we’ve studied this in the context of performing a “Meeting Doomsday” that involved participants temporarily cleansing their calendars of all small recurring meetings. Doomsday helped participants rethink how they were spending their time in meetings and compelled them to reimagine and totally reset their meetings so that the structure of each meeting (number of attendees, length, cadence, number of participants) aligned with its purpose.

Organizations need to do a better job of helping employees manage collaboration overload. We have a natural tendency to believe that more collaboration is better, without recognizing the crippling costs. Forget monitoring workers’ productivity or work output. To help employees do their best work, leaders and organizations need to invest more in collaborative intelligence by applying the tips above.

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