In the knowledge worker world, “collaboration” has become a darling word. And often, collaboration deserves the praise. Effective teamwork can produce projects and results that are greater than the sum of each person working individually, under the right conditions. But researchers are finding that an unbridled love for collaboration can result in lower productivity, inefficient use of resources, and unhappy burned out workers.
Too Much Collaboration, Too Few Contributors
First, the desire for collaboration has increased incredibly, ballooning by 50 percent or more in the past two decades (Cross, Rebele, and Grant, 2016).
Despite the growth, only a small number of people are adding value to the organization through their collaborative efforts. In a study of 300 organizations, research showed that “in most cases, 20 to 35 percent of value-added collaborations come from only 3 to 5 percent of employees.” The result is a lopsided effort.
Those 3 to 5 percent of employees who add value are often top performers, too. In other words, the organization’s best employees are pulled into more and more teamwork at the expense of individual work. Often, it leads to top performers spending too much time on communication and in meetings and not enough time on core work.
Second, “collaboration culture” compounds the problem. Collaboration culture means a work environment where collaboration is lauded but not necessarily measured or assessed for its value. Another way to put it is “collaboration for collaboration’s sake.”
If an organization praises group efforts above individual efforts, employees can get caught up in team projects even when it’s not the most effective way to work.
“Take meetings, for instance. If meetings become the norm for how work gets done in an organization, an individual employee can do very little. If an individual employee is invited to a meeting—particularly by his or her boss—he or she has little choice but to attend or risk offense. Over time, meetings become a status symbol—that is, the more meetings to which an executive is invited, the more important he or she is assumed to be. (Cross, Rebele, and Grant, 2016)
A 2018 Harvard Business Review summary of the collaboration overload problem notes that “Much overload is driven by your desire to maintain a reputation as helpful” (Cross, Taylor, and Zehner, 2018).
No Measurement of the Cost
Another insidious problem is that organizations may measure the successes of collaboration, but they rarely measure the cost. What did employees give up in order to participate in a team effort? What work isn’t being done because people are being pulled into collaborative projects?
Employees who are eager to help end and are rewarded for collaborating end up in high demand. As their reputation grows, so do demands on their time, “as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks” (Cross, Taylor, and Zehner, 2018).
Bear in mind, too, that these collaborative activities that burn them out aren’t necessarily germane to their core work.
Cross, Taylor, and Zehner note that burnout usually takes one of two forms, a surge or a slow burn:
A surge can result from a promotion, a request from a boss or a colleague to take on or help out with a project, or the desire to jump into an ‘extracurricular’ work activity because you feel obligated or don’t want to miss out. … A slow burn is more insidious and occurs through incremental increases in the volume, diversity, and pace of collaborative demands over time, as personal effectiveness leads to larger networks and greater scope of responsibilities. Go-to people in organizations suffer from this type of overload. As we gain experience, we often tend to take on more work, and our identities start to become intertwined with accomplishment, helping, or being in the know. We tend not to question what we are doing as we add tasks or work late into the night on e-mail.
Is Collaboration Burnout on Your Radar?
I was surprised at the growing body of research analyzing the problem of collaboration overload, as it’s not something I’ve yet heard about on the ground. Are employees aware of it yet? Are managers and executives?
The closest related topic is perhaps open-office plans. The hype about open-office plans is that they encourage collaboration, which isn’t always the case. Studies of open-office plans show that they only promote collaboration in certain circumstances and among certain types of workers. For a lot of workers, sitting in a pit environment causes distractions and creates unhappiness due to the lack of privacy. (Of course, a huge reason businesses continue to stand behind open-office layouts—and I would argue that this reason trumps all others in closed-door conversations—is they are wildly cheaper than any other type of layout.)
In the case of open-office plans, it took close to 10 years for their detrimental effects to become widely known in the mainstream. Collaboration’s reckoning may be just around the corner.
What Can You Do?
Researchers point to a two-fold approach to solving collaboration overload. One side is organizational change. The other is change at the individual level, specifically one’s habits and mindset.
Here are a few actionable tips:
Put a cap on meeting hours per week. Limit the number of hours per week any person or department can spend in meetings. A more specific recommendation from Mankins (2017) is to create a “time bank” for a certain level of employee and fund all meeting time from that bank. Either way, the point is recognize that being in meetings all day is less of a win for the organization than using that time to get work done.
Skip some meetings. Regardless of whether you put on a cap on time spent in meetings per week, skip some meetings where you’re not specifically required. Doing so can force others in the group to pick up tasks or decision making that would normally fall to you, which helps disperse collaboration efforts more evenly.
Give employees permission to say no or delegate. Management can encourage employees to say no or delegate responsibilities to others when their time is not being used effectively.
Simplify the model. How many people are needed to make a decision? How many interactions must occur before work moves forward? If you can simplify these models to reduce the number of “nodes” in the model, you might be able to lighten the load cause by collaboration (Mankins, 2017).
Cross, R., Taylor, S., & Zehner, D. (2018) Collaboration Without Burnout. HArvard Business Review, July–August 2018: 134–137. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/07/collaboration-without-burnout?referral=03759&cm_vc=rr_item_page.bottom.
Cross, R., Rebele, R, & Grant, A. (2016) Collaborative Overload. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2016: 74-79. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload.
Mankins, M. (2017) Collaboration Overload Is a Symptom of a Deeper Organizational Problem. Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2017. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2017/03/collaboration-overload-is-a-symptom-of-a-deeper-organizational-problem