Effective collaboration is a fundamental driver of organizational success. We all know that. But can you ever have too much of a good thing? Evidence suggests that increased collaboration and the proliferation of collaboration technology could, in fact, have a detrimental impact on your business.

According to research by the Harvard Business Review, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has increased by 50 percent or more over the last decade.

Similarly, it found that people spend upwards of 80 percent of their time performing collaborative tasks – answering emails, making phone calls, and talking to colleagues on messaging tools. It leaves them little time to focus on their core work.

“An increasingly global and interconnected world has seen effective collaboration emerge as a fundamental goal for businesses,” says David Goulden, product director at Clarizen, a global leader in collaborative work management software. “Yet, achieving collaborative perfection remains elusive for most organizations.”

Driven by the complexity of project-related tasks, the growth of the remote workforce and multinational operations, our reliance on meetings, emails, web-conferencing, IM/chat apps, file-sharing systems, intranets, social networks and more has increased exponentially.

Reb Rebele, a researcher for Wharton People Analytics, was part of HBR’s research into ‘collaboration overload’. “Organisations have made intentional pushes to become more collaborative and less siloed,” he says. “The challenge comes when there is too much emphasis on the benefits and not enough attention paid to the costs in terms of time, energy and engagement.”

Those ‘costs’ can include employees facing burnout as they juggle numerous meeting requests and manage a myriad of tools that can cause duplication of effort, the build-up of unnecessary information and distractions. It is, says Goulden, a formula that leads to “business units and management teams being side-tracked by ad-hoc, fragmented communication that distorts priorities and hijacks decision-making”.

According to HBR, individuals can become ‘institutional bottlenecks’ within a team – top collaborators, valued for their contribution, but without whom work stalls until they are involved. To avoid this, leaders must be judicious in their approach to adopting collaboration tools and strategies. “Sometimes we need to take a step back before we charge ahead,” says Tom Marsden, CEO of team analytics business Saberr. “Consider whether you really need more technology, the impact it will have and how you can measure return on investment. There’s a balance to be struck. Collaboration is important and necessary for much of the work teams carry out today, but it’s not an end in itself. We first need to understand whether the task at hand requires collaboration or not.”

Of course, collaboration tools are nothing without collaborators, to whom leaders should pay close attention. “Many leaders likely recognize that having too many meetings or spending too much time on email or group chat is not ideal,” says Rebele. “But too few take the time to collect data or take steps to change it.”

Early ‘diagnosis’ of collaboration overload, then, is essential. Take a look at your team. Who is your strongest collaborator? Who is bearing the biggest costs of collaboration? “Rather than leave it to the individual to cope, leaders must ensure that the work for the group is a shared responsibility that doesn’t burn out those who just so happen to be kind enough to volunteer,” Rebele adds.

A leader must also lead, demonstrating that he or she is approaching collaboration in the right way. Goulden suggests that in many companies executives are not always using the available collaboration tools and so have limited awareness of how they are operated.

“Often, you’ll see executives using email for company-wide communications rather than a collaborative tool,” he adds. “It sends out the wrong message and hinders encouragement of collaboration.” It’s also important – albeit potentially difficult – to allow individuals to stop. Steve Jobs famously said: “It’s only by saying no that you can focus on the jobs that are truly important.”

Marsden suggests that leaders have a responsibility in how they guide collaborators, thinking about company policy regarding answering emails outside of work or disconnecting to complete an important task. The same applies to meetings. Leaders can avoid overload by creating an environment where it’s OK to say no, to decline a request or to leave a meeting if one believes they are not needed. “There comes a point,” says Marsden, “where we must question whether we’re meeting for a purpose or out of habit.”

It may seem controversial to suggest that, in the midst of vast technological investment and implementation, simplicity is key. However, it may also be key to avoid collaboration overload.

While technology undoubtedly accelerates the speed of progress, collaboration is ultimately down to people. Studies have shown that individuals are reluctant to use multiple tools at a time – email use alone is predicted to rise by 14 percent by the end of 2019, which equates to in excess of 2.9 billion users.2

Collaboration tools must be chosen because they fit the needs of an organization, and discipline must be used to make those tools effective. Technology, after all, should principally be support for people. It may even be the case, as Rebele suggests, that “organisations would benefit from having at least one senior leader who is tasked with understanding the costs and benefits of the current collaboration norms in their organisation, and actively planning for ways to make sure the collaborative load is evenly distributed and that the return is worth the investment of all that time and energy”.

Avoiding overloading your employees may seem like a relatively straightforward course of action. But in an increasingly complex world where collaboration is necessary for a number of reasons, it may be harder than imagined. Collaboration should happen for a reason, not simply for the sake of collaboration.

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