Kick-off meetings, status update meetings and feedback meetings. Client meetings, team meetings and supplier meetings. Quick catch-up calls and quarterly round-up calls. Scrums, huddle-ups and stand-ups. The spontaneous encounters and the quick desk drop-bys. Not to forget the “do you mind taking a look at this?” emails and the “What do you know about X, Y and Z?” emails.
For many, it’s a normal week. Businesses want to encourage collaboration and teamwork in every sphere of working life, and there’s good reason for it. 97% of employees and executives believe lack of alignment within a team impacts the outcome of a task or project.
Implementing cross-company collaboration gives both employees and employers more freedom, more knowledge, and more resource. A 16-year study by Idea Champions found that 97% of people get their best ideas throughout the day – not necessarily while at work. Thanks to collaboration technology, people can share these ideas and creativity wherever they are, instead of being confined to the office.
But employees around the country are starting to suffer at the hands of collaboration. Time-consuming, endless meetings and a constant stream of emails drain enthusiasm, productivity and workplace happiness. When companies then throw more technology at improving and increasing collaboration, feelings of apathy and disillusionment rise.
Are you suffering from collaboration overload?
Implementing collaborative practices in the workplace has started to go awry. Being asked to collaborate now often translates to ‘sitting in more meetings’ and ‘answering more emails’. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) conducted a study into collaboration in organisations and concluded that we’re suffering from collaboration overload.
The HBR study found that over the last two decades, the time managers and employees spend in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50%. The time people spend in meetings, on the phone and answering emails is around 80% at many companies. And this huge chunk of time takes its toll on more than just employee well-being. Tom Cochran, former CTO at Atlantic Media, worked out that each email sent at the company cost 95 cents. Yearly, this cost the company over $1m.
Time is one of our most precious assets, arguably as valuable as money. It’s very unlikely that you’d walk up to a colleague, take money from their bag, and tear it up. So, why do we let our peers waste our time with irrelevant meetings and emails? Studies show that if you’re trying to reach a decision, inviting between four and seven people is ideal. The toll of collaborative overload on productivity is clear. The most productive companies in HBR’s study lose 50% less time to unnecessary and ineffective collaboration.
What’s collaboration overload doing to your business?
It’s not just office productivity that suffers. There’s only a 50% overlap between top collaborative contributors and top performing employees. And 20% of top performers don’t interact or collaborate at all. Collaborative efforts aren’t spread equally across a business: 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.
If an employee helps on a project, more people ask them to work in their teams. The employee gets a reputation for being helpful and having great ideas, resulting in more people wanting to collaborate. It’s a vicious circle, and one that has overwhelmingly negative results. HBR found the individuals who colleagues regard as the best information sources and the most desirable collaborators have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores.
Helping your teams get the right balance
Business leaders need to prevent over-collaboration. There are two avenues to take: one around culture and behaviour, and the other around technology.
Culture and behaviour
Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that needs to embed itself into the business. However, someone needs to ignite change. If not, things stay sedimentary, and collaboration overload continues to run rife. Businesses need to think about changing their culture if they want to succeed in the digital era. Yet in our latest research report, we found that only 23% of UK organisations are undergoing a cultural transformation. There’s a few things you can do to influence this cultural change, all through shaping employee behaviours.
Respect people’s time
If business leaders show empathy and respect towards people’s time, the behaviour will filter down. Think carefully about meeting invites: consider the aims, and who and how many people will be useful. In a launch meeting, you’re always going to need a bigger group. But when you’re trying to reach a decision, whose opinion really matters? Decide whether meetings are necessary. For example, status updates don’t need an entire session. You can convey the information using an app, letting people read and absorb in their own time.
The most innovative, creative, impactful work stems from deep working. But if employees are consistently emailed or called into meetings, they can’t reach this level of concentration. So, encourage employees to book time out for themselves. This might be blocking their lunch hour out, so they have time to recharge before tackling their next task. Or it might be blocking the day out and working in a different environment. Business leaders should also encourage employees to say no. It’s a hard skill to master. However, employees should understand what will add value to the company, and what won’t.
Grow networks within the business
One of the most important ways to combat collaboration overload is through networking and relationship building. Research by Microsoft found that the top performers in a company tended to have larger internal networks. This ensures if someone asks them for help, they have more people to call upon. They don’t take on the work if they know someone better suited. Business leaders should encourage employees to grow their networks. As the HBR study revealed, those with bigger networks suffered less from collaboration demands.
When people are interested in their collaborative tasks, the overload disappears. Give a subject expert the opportunity to collaborate with others in their area, and they’re naturally going to enjoy it more than someone who’s further away from the information.
One of the key causes of collaboration overload is the amount of collaboration tools employees are expected to use. A study by Smartsheet revealed that a third of businesses struggle to get employees to use company collaboration tools. It’s unsurprising. Throwing another piece of technology at a workforce won’t solve any problems.
But there’s one way you can really make a difference: using social technologies. A McKinsey survey found that employees communicate differently within teams when using social technologies. Users are twice as likely to connect with colleagues through interactive, real-time tools, like collaborative document editing. 63% of teams using social tools self-organise, compared to 43% of those using other communication means.
Take, for example, the global advertising agency JWT. After investigating collaboration overload in the company, its CTO found that some teams were sending and receiving over 3,000 emails a month. The firm decided to try Microsoft Teams, included with its Office 365 package. Within two months of using Teams, email traffic dropped by over 30%.
The story is similar for giant retailer, Marks and Spencer. Using Sharepoint and Yammer, teams can collaborate online. This has led to faster decision making and the streamlining of company-wide projects and initiatives. The Renault Sport Formula One team depends on teamwork and collaboration, especially when it comes to uniting scattered team members. Mobile team members need collaborative tools that enable productivity, wherever they are. So, the team use Office 365 and Skype for Business to help them stay in touch.
But it’s not just about platforms and software. The increasing number of millennials in the workplace has kicked off a device-led transformation. From BYOD to working remotely, employees want to work on mobile devices. People will always work better on devices they enjoy. And if they work remotely, they need devices that can support this, in terms of both performance and security.
The end of collaboration overload
With the right culture, the right behaviours, and the right technology, collaboration can resume its status as hugely helpful activity. At Microsoft, our chat-based, collaborative space, Microsoft Teams, lets you share feedback, take calls, IM colleagues, and edit Excel, Word and PowerPoint documents. It’s made for teamwork, and helps eliminate the incessant emails and meeting requests that cloud every project.
 Defined by McKinsey as: “products and services that enable social interactions in the digital realm, and thus allow people to connect and interact virtually.”