In an increasingly interconnected world, many employees are dealing with "collaboration overload." Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Rob Cross, Michael Arena, Greg Pryor, Rebecca Hinds, and Tim Bowman offer four suggestions to help companies minimize this phenomenon within their organizations.
Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden professor of global leadership at Babson College and the founder of Connected Commons. Michael Arena is a faculty member in the University of Pennsylvania's master's in organizational dynamics program and a co-founder of Connected Commons. Greg Pryor is the former SVP of people and performance evangelist at Workday and a co-founder of Connected Commons. Rebecca Hinds is the head of the Work Innovation Lab (WIL) by Asana. Tim Bowman is a research fellow at the WIL and the head of market intelligence at Asana.
According to the authors, time spent on collaborative aspects of work has increased by roughly 50% in the past 12 years. Recent research has shown that employees at various Fortune 500 companies toggled between apps more than 1,200 times per day. And while there are benefits to this interconnected way of working, "collaboration overload" can drive "micro-stress."
When employees must deal with "excessive or misaligned goals set by too many external stakeholders," they often fall into "collaboration overload."
To gauge the effectiveness of strategies designed to overcome "collaboration overload," the authors conducted a study at the WIL. For the study, they built a "collaborative intelligence" dashboard for participating Asana employees that showed their daily collaboration metrics, which included:
Then, the authors compared each of the three metrics against their peers. Participants were randomly split into three groups and asked to complete a daily diary entry for two weeks, reflecting on their new collaborative intelligence.
The first group was only required to complete the daily diary entry. The second group was also required to complete a personal prioritization exercise where they listed their top three to five priorities every day. The third group was asked to complete a group prioritization exercise that involved explaining their priorities to two other stakeholders.
"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 authors write.
"Collaboration overload is an often invisible tax, but, as we show, it's something that we can control," they add. "We found people had far more control over collaboration overload than they thought at the onset of the study."
While "[t]he burden of tackling collaboration overload often falls on employees to be more intentional about their approach to work," the authors note that "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," the authors write.
According to the authors, there are four steps organizations can take to reduce "collaboration overload" for their workers, including:
1. Investing in tools that help workers stay focused
According to the authors, workplace collaboration tools should not compete for workers' 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," they suggest.
In addition, they suggest that leaders should "prioritize integrating the proliferation of collaboration tools that they've invested in."
2. Giving workers access to 'collaborative intelligence'
Companies should also provide workers with "collaborative intelligence" through platforms like the dashboard in the WIL study. "Our collaborative intelligence dashboard gave participants much needed clarity into collaborative work behaviors that they never had before," the authors write.
With collaborative intelligence, workers must be able to see benchmarks and comparative points to gauge the "health" of their collaboration, they add. Notably, over half (55%) of the authors' study participants reported that comparing their actions to others was the most valuable thing on their dashboard.
"As participants looked at their dashboards, they began to reflect more deeply on how they were allocating their time," the authors write. "… 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. Creating collaboration standards across your organization
According to the authors, organizations should be strategic when creating collaborative norms in the workplace. "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," they write.
Since people often view their most recent ping or request as the most urgent one, the authors note that organizations should set norms around the urgency of information.
4. Resetting existing collaborative practices
In some cases, "organizations need to do a complete reset and rebuild collaborative practices from the ground up," the authors write.
Ultimately, "[o]rganizations need to do a better job of helping employees manage collaboration overload," the authors add. "We have a natural tendency to believe that more collaboration is better, without recognizing the crippling costs." (Cross et al., Harvard Business Review, 12/9)
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