Avoiding Collaboration Overload

Carl Brenssell
February 9, 2022
Carl Brenssell,
Co-Founder @ Spoke

In today’s workplace, collaboration is queen! Collaborative work can foster a sense of engagement that brings teams into alignment and helps to develop more effective communication. And it makes sense to have input from different perspectives when working on complex tasks – two heads are better than one, right?

Well, not always. Data published in the Harvard Business Review shows the number of hours employees spend collaborating has jumped by 50% over the past two decades. Within many organizations, collaborative tasks (meetings, responding to emails, and answering instant messages) now fill up to 85% of our working days. 🤯

This collaboration overload means people are left with only a few hours each week to focus on deep work. On average, 15% of a company’s time is consumed by meetings; people spend 2.5 hours a day checking their work emails; and employees send 200 Slack messages on a daily basis (although apparently it’s “not an exception” for power users to type over 1,000 messages in a day).

Teamwork is essential, especially when delivering cross-functional projects. But how can you tell when your team is collaborating too much?

Identifying over-collaboration in the workplace

There’s a broad spectrum of individual fears and motivations that drive collaboration overload. These range from the selfless (a desire to help others) to the egotistical (a refusal to let go of control over a project). Whatever its causes, collaboration overload hurts both productivity and employee wellbeing – leading to burnouts as well as workplace inefficiencies.

A number of tell-tale symptoms might help you to diagnose collaboration overload. Misunderstandings caused by overcommunication; long or unnecessary meetings; ineffective systems of information sharing; a lack of structure or collective understanding around how collaborative work is carried out – these are all signs that over-collaboration could be hurting your team.

5 tips for improving collaborative working within your team

1. Build clear communication structures around collaborative workflows 🏗

One of the biggest blockers when delivering cross-functional projects is a lack of awareness of dependencies on other teams. Creating a concise workflow and setting up clear communication rituals around collaborative work can help keep your projects on track, and avoid confusion or misunderstandings.

Define roles and evenly distribute responsibilities before starting a new project, so everyone on your team knows what is expected of them. Be clear about timings and communicate any changes, to help your team prioritize tasks and stay on top of their workloads. Build communication rituals around project updates – this offers clarity and reduces distraction.

2. Minimize distractions and respect your team’s time ⏳

Distractions are eating into your time: after being interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus on a task. That starts to add up when you consider how many times in a day you stop what you’re doing to respond to a message or answer a quick question. Some distraction is inevitable, but there are ways to limit the number of interruptions within your team.

Planning is key to reducing distractions. Try scheduling time slots for deep work when the entire team can focus on their own projects, and turn off notifications at these times. Or you could block off afternoons with no meetings – at Spoke, we keep afternoons on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays free for focused work.

Many interruptions come from people chasing information. Establishing async communication rituals can limit these distractions. Tools like Loom and Notion allow you to update project documentation and keep a record of meetings. This paper trail creates an archive of information for your team to refer back to themselves, before asking questions.

3. Use technology to your advantage 🦾

There’s an ever-growing list of technological solutions to aid workplace collaboration. But hopping between tools – from Slack to email to Asana to Google Docs and back again – can be distracting and exhausting. Instead of bringing your team into closer alignment, this overwhelming flood of communication can cause people to check out completely.

The trick is selecting the right tools for your organization. Consider what your team needs to make their lives easier, and choose software with features that meet those requirements. Once you’ve decided on your tools, create guidelines for how each of these should be used before onboarding your team.

4. Refine the way you hold meetings 🗓

Meetings can feel like a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Outline a clear agenda for each meeting and stick to it. Encouraging active participation will help you to get the most from meetings. Make sure to take notes and keep track of action points or follow-up items.

To avoid wasting people’s time, only include team members who really need to be there. Any decisions can be communicated more widely afterwards. With the rise of distributed working, apps that allow you to record meetings are a great way to collaborate within hybrid teams or companies working across different time zones.

5. Cultivate a supportive workplace 🫂

Not all issues with workplace collaboration stem from over-collaboration. Teamwork is impossible if some people are afraid to share their thoughts and ideas. Creating a supportive working environment – where everyone in your team feels heard and appreciated – is essential for effective collaboration.

Clear and transparent communication is key to cultivating a supportive workplace culture. Make time for team-building activities and remember to regularly check in with people, to see if they need additional support. In turn, collaborative working will help strengthen trusting relationships between team members.

Collaboration brings teams closer together, helps people to feel supported, and drives company growth. But too much of a good thing might leave your team distracted and unable to focus. If you want to dive deeper into the topic of collaboration overload (and how to avoid it) check out this book: “Beyond Collaboration Overload” by Rob Cross.

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