With all the conversation around remote work, hybrid work and offices there’s a missing component driving a massive problem affecting most knowledge workers.
It has nothing to do with where you’re sitting or how long your commute is.
It has everything to do with how you work with others on your team and the tools you use to collaborate. It also has to do with how you think about productivity, expectations on response times to messages, and what it means to actually “work.”
Have you heard of collaboration overload?
Introducing Collaboration Overload
Collaboration is great. Everyone benefits from sharing their insights, and making the collective work better. However, recent developments and cultural expectations have ballooned the expectations for collaboration, and it’s now becoming a full time job for many knowledge workers.
In recent years, collaborative aspects of work like messaging, meetings, and email have increased by over 50%.
Requests come in from any number of channels: emails, chat messages, meeting invites, or hallway conversations. All of a sudden, we are a servant to our tools, trying to catch up on Slack between meetings and having no time for our own goals.
And while we are getting overloaded with requests, it’s also weird to decline a request. How many feel people feel comfortable skipping meetings, opting out of conversations, and declaring Slack bankruptcy? Most company cultures encourage collaboration without boundaries in place to help people understand when it’s ok to say no.
Less is more
When it’s as easy as adding email addresses to a meeting invite, we don’t default to thinking about the opportunity cost associated with adding extra humans. Why not include Amy from Singapore in the Zoom call, on the off chance she can add value, even if that means Amy has to take a call in the middle of her night?
And that’s just it. There is a cost to all this collaboration. All the well meaning pings, dings, and meeting invitations are hard to ignore and feel impossible to decline.
- Slack messages are disruptive in the moment, and people often feel they need to respond right away, which takes away any possibility of focus
- Meetings are expensive and force people to perform creativity on the spot, which is not how most people operate
- People often default to asking others for help rather than attempting to find a solution themselves, which causes delays
In fact, in a study of three Fortune 500 companies, employees toggled between apps more than 1,200 times per day on average. Is it any surprise that we are burnt out from all this collaboration?
Some companies are already taking drastic measures to change behavior.
After abolishing meetings, Shopify recently introduced a monetary indicator of the actual cost of meetings in meeting invitations to help people figure out whether they really need all those humans in a meeting.
What we can do
Rob Cross, an organizational researcher, coined the term and writes about how pervasive it is in his awesome book Beyond Collaboration Overload.
With over a decade of research into collaboration overload, Rob estimates that 50% of the problems generated come from beliefs we hold. These beliefs keep us from declining requests and focus on what’s most important. They come from well meaning intentions but they hold us back. For example:
- The desire to help others- Helping feels good. It provides value to others and increases our own self esteem. However, it can get in the way of prioritization.
- The sense of accomplishment from getting things done - Doing small, lower intensity tasks can make us feel like we’re working. Are they keeping us away from deeper, more important work?
- Feeling important- It feels good when people come to us for expert advice. It feeds our ego and makes us feel a sense of purpose.
- Being labeled a poor performer - If we decline meetings or requests for collaboration, we might worry about being seen as unproductive.
How many of these beliefs resonate? Over time, the feelings above in addition to the tools and practices at work have contributed to a lot of the burnout knowledge workers are feeling.
If we can change how we think about our work, it can help us reduce our own anxiety, the noise we perceive, and take control over our work.
After we’ve challenged some long standing beliefs around collaboration, it’s time to add some structure to our work. The following recommendations are not exciting or spicy, but making them habitual will make a dramatic difference in every day work:
- Write down objectives - Start by articulating the most important goals in work and in life. Write them down somewhere visible that can be referenced daily.
- Match the calendar - The calendar is our most valuable tool for accountability in making sure our objectives match how we spend our time to reach them. For many people, their calendars and objectives are completely different. Getting these to match is a huge goal that may take time and patience to adjust.
- Reevaluate collaboration moments - Do you need to be involved in everything you’re currently approving? If you’re a leader, there is a high probability that you can empower your team to make all kinds of decisions without your involvement. Things like minor expense requests, travel planning, and/or certain types of approvals can likely be delegated or removed completely.
- Add context to collaboration requests - When people request your time, whether in a meeting or feedback request, evaluate whether you need to be involved. Ask those involved to explain why your presence is necessary, what type of feedback is needed, and the timing of the request. Often, getting this context will be enough to figure out whether it makes sense to delegate or not be included at all.
The Future Will Have Focus
As cofounder of Hoop, I’ve talked to hundreds of knowledge workers who unknowingly suffer from collaboration overload. They often feel like they can’t get around all the meetings and Slack messages without being bad employees. They work in the evenings to take advantage of the quiet to focus.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, many companies have taken measures to increase focus time and reduce the perceived need for collaboration. Often these changes come from cultural shifts empowering individuals to make decisions without seeing approval and/or take control of their schedules.
A new breed of tools like Hoop will enable a future where people can focus, log off, and do their best work without fear of repercussions.
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