Is Too Much Collaboration a Bad Thing?
Most companies that employ collaborative practices can probably tell you that they see many of collaboration’s benefits. When you have a group working on a common goal, things get done faster, team members have an opportunity to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and individuals can increase their knowledge base and trust in one another. All of this leads to more efficiency and happier workers. What’s not to like?
As it turns out, the law of diminishing returns applies to collaboration as well. Organizations are starting to see a backlash from too much collaboration, as reported by the Harvard Business Review, and the result is ruining the gains that collaboration should provide.
What does too much collaboration look like and how did we get here?
If you’re still skeptical, here’s what the study published by HBR found. In the past twenty years, employees and managers have increased their collaborative work—meetings, brainstorming sessions, general hand-lending—by 50%. Since the amount of individual work hasn’t declined, you can imagine why this shift is causing some unintended consequences. Today, the amount of time employees spend on non-individual work, including answering emails, attending meetings, and talking on the phone, is about 80% of their days.
- Employees are overtaxed at work
In the study, the authors highlight the three categories of collaborative work: informational, social, and personal. These are not created equal. Employees can easily share informational and social resources in a one-time exchange. It’s the personal that is causing the problem, as it requires one individual employee’s specific skills and, more importantly, his or her time. When help seekers ask for hands-on assistance rather than turning to existing informational materials, “an exchange that might have taken five minutes or less turns into a 30-minute calendar invite that strains personal resources on both sides of the request.” This level of collaboration is emotionally straining, as well, and can lead to employees feeling additional stress as they struggle to help their colleagues and manage their own workload.
- Employees who contribute the most create bottlenecks
Another interesting statistic the HBR study uncovered was that only 3-5% of employees undertake nearly a third of value-added collaboration. These employees, due to their exceptional skill or experience and general good will, are pulled in for feedback, sometimes in areas where they don’t need to be or have expertise. They have a reputation for being capable and willing to help, so other teams constantly reach out to them for help and advice. These one-time occasions turn into regular events, and before you know it, teams can’t get anything done until they’ve run their final product by this one person—who, most likely, is trying to do his or her actual job. Hence, what was a good deed becomes an efficiency black hole.
- Employees burn out
And when, then, do employees get their actual work done? At the office, they juggle in-person requests with individual tasks and have a finite amount of time for both. Too often, they are taking their remaining individual projects home. Emotional stress from continual requests at work combined with work invading home life is causing employees to burn out. It is also leading to the very interesting paradox that the most engaged employees (in collaboration) are the ones who are the most dissatisfied.
Three methods to avoid the pitfalls
So, now, your organization is stuck in a vicious cycle: top employees are overtaxed, stressed, and taking their work home with them, and meanwhile, no one else can do anything until they hear from them. How do we break out?
Company leaders can work to change this atmosphere and still harness effective employee collaboration. First, you’ll need to assess who the employees are who are taking on the brunt of the collaborative work using whatever tracking methods you have—CRM, 360-degree feedback, project management tools, employee surveys, etc. Once you have this information you can begin to make changes.
- Redistribute the work
Most importantly, work on changing the behavior patterns of both helpers and help seekers. For helpers, teach them how to manage their requests and give them permission to say no, especially to requests that don’t benefit from their skill set. To stem the flow of requests, change the procedure for how employees request meetings and give them encouragement (or permission) to make their own decisions rather than constantly seeking approval from leaders. You can also consider changing your office plan so that interdependent employees are seated near one another, or enforce a structural change by putting one person in charge of managing collaborative efforts.
- Reward effective collaboration
The best collaborators are sometimes unseen. The HBR study shows that there’s only 50% overlap between collaborators and employees recognized as top performers. The high performers who don’t offer help get rewarded for their contributions while the collaborators, though providing much value-added input, are not recognized for their hard work because it’s less visible. You end up with a situation where “leaders are hoping for A (collaboration) while rewarding B (individual achievement).” Find your collaborators through network analysis, peer recognition programs, or value-added performance metrics. Reward them by making collaboration a criteria for raises or promotions.
- Leverage existing content
People often set up meetings simply to review processes or plans that already exist somewhere. Ensure that employees have an accessible content platform where they can seek out knowledge when they need it. The easier it is for employees to use this type of platform, the more likely it is people will actually use it. Remind them that the platform is being constantly updated and make it a go-to resource.
Don’t let your company fall into the efficiency bottleneck and employee over-taxation that collaboration can create. Keep it working for your company by adjusting your structural systems, rewarding the work of highly collaborative employees, and creating an accessible knowledge base.