Workplace collaboration: The unexpected downside

29/06/20174 Minute Read

For the past several years, corporate thought leaders and business gurus across many industries have touted collaboration as the silver bullet to end inefficiency. If we’d only step out of our siloed departments—break down the literal and figurative barriers dividing teams—we’d become a more effective and productive workforce. Or so they said.

Fast forward to 2016 and “operation collaborate” has taken over. Data gathered by the Harvard Business Review tells us that, over the past two decades, the time spent by employees and their managers in collaborative activities has increased by more than 50 per cent. In theory, we should also be 50 per cent more productive, innovative, and successful. We should have found a way to do all our work in half the time, giving us twice as much time to enjoy our families or travel the world.

Only, we’re not. A recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that many employees are working more than 50 hours per week, with a significant percentage of these putting in a staggering 70 hours or more. And this at a time when a newly published study is calling for a national debate on the length of the working week, citing the risk to mental health if the working week isn’t significantly reduced.

Where is modern collaboration failing us, and how can we find a way to work smarter instead of just harder?

A culture of collaboration

From the technology that workers use to the design of office spaces, nearly everything about the modern workplace has been created to foster a culture of collaboration. The logic is this: More communication and a greater emphasis on idea sharing will yield innovation. And while this might be true to some degree, the time spent on collaborative activities leaves less time for doing the hard work of bringing those great ideas to life.

According to HBR, most employees spent about 80 per cent of their working week on the following collaborative activities:

  • reading and writing emails
  • making and answering phone calls
  • attending meetings (virtually and offline)

If a standard working week is 40 hours, that leaves just eight hours available for the critical work an employee must complete on their own. But because most people can’t complete all the work they need to do in such a small amount of time, they work late into the evening and weekends, and sacrifice vacation time. We all know where this leads: stress, burnout, and increased turnover.

HBR also found that leaders who were regarded by employees as the best collaborators reported the lowest engagement and career satisfaction. While technology-assisted communication and open floor plans may increase collaborative efforts between departments and among employees, the result isn’t always positive.

Solving the collaboration challenge

If 2016 was the year of collaboration, 2017 needs to be the year of reassessing the demands that collaborative activities place on workers so that a better balance can be achieved. There are a few ways leaders can help find and foster this balance:

  • Cut unnecessary meetings: According to the EY Australian Productivity Pulse, “Australian workers spend 16 per cent of their day on activities that waste their time and effort,” with a significant contributor being time spent in unnecessary meetings. So what’s the solution? Never schedule a meeting without an agenda and concrete objective.
  • Implement time tracking: Tools such as Toggl and My Hours allow employees to track how they spend their day so you can determine how much of their working week is dedicated to collaborative items, giving the opportunity to scale back when necessary.
  • Give employees the opportunity to say no: Leaders should empower their team members to turn down collaborative activities when these items either don’t require their presence or when they have higher priority items to handle.
  • Create private spaces: While open offices are excellent for opening the lines of communication between employees, there’s such a thing as being too accessible. Counterbalance your open environment with private quiet spaces where employees can retreat to in times when they need to work independently, free from distraction.

Leaders need to make a greater effort to recognise and address what HBR calls “collaboration overload.” While it’s undoubtedly important to foster a culture in which employees feel comfortable approaching one another, sharing ideas, and communicating freely, too much time spent collaborating can drain employees of their time and energy—the two resources they need to do their jobs.

By helping employees balance collaborative activities and independent work, you can position your organisation for greater innovation and sustainable success.

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