How to avoid collaboration overload

Along with “productivity”, “collaboration” has to be one of the biggest buzzwords of the past couple of years. 

We strive to build collaborative environments with collaborative teams, and we urge them to collaborate, collaborate and collaborate in collaborative workspaces with collaborative tools.

Phew!

But at what point do we look past the buzzword and ask: is this really working? Is all this supposed collaboration actually contributing value to the business?

What is collaboration overload and what causes it?

Collaboration overload is a decrease in performance linked to an excessive emphasis on collaboration.  

I believe it is the result of:

  • increased availability and use of ICT
  • a shift to open plan work environments
  • cultural shifts which compel collaboration 

Even though these can all be positive, the extent to which some organisations are driving them – and without assessing the impact or result – is actually having the opposite effect. 

This is because most collaboration efforts miss the mark. Collaborative tools are being used to hold frequent and often pointless meetings, and when combined with inboxes that never sleep, instant messaging and social media, staff are being bombarded all day, every day and everywhere.

At first this may not appear to be an issue. It’s hard to resist the allure of participating in collaboration overload – particularly for those who measure their success by the number and length of meetings they attend, and the seniority of other attendees.

Research also tells us that many of the ICT platforms we use cause dopamine (the happy hormone) to be released in our brain. This isn’t because they make us happy, but because we feel anxiety whenever we hear a notification sound. The only way to quell it is to check in, and once we are informed we get that hit of dopamine and feel better again.

This growing psychological pressure to keep people engaged all the time can eventually implode, causing a decrease in performance and an increase in stress leave or employee churn.  

Why collaboration doesn’t always work

In addition to the mental and emotional pressure of always being jacked in to collaborative platforms, what’s perhaps most disturbing about collaboration overload is who it affects.

The employees most at risk are generally high performers and key personnel. 

This is because the general workplace population are information seekers. So the collaboration burden weighs heaviest on those who have the information and the skills to share it properly.

Remembering that most collaboration efforts do not add value, research tells us that for the small percentage of those that do, up to 35% of that value comes from just 3-5% of employees. And these are often high performing employees who may be leaving work every day feeling physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. 

How to make collaboration work

Just because a person uses a collaborative tool or workspace doesn’t make them an effective collaborator. 

Collaboration demands knowledge, resources and skills. People need to be empowered to learn, and then trained to impart their knowledge effectively. This is the only way to increase the number of collaborators who are adding value, reduce the pressure on the small few, and add more value to the organisation.

To do this in your organisation, you could:

  1. identify which collaboration activities are actually adding value
  2. identify who in those collaboration activities are adding value
  3. recognise and reward real collaboration: sharing of expertise and ideas
  4. increase the cohort of people who are doing this with proper training.

Essentially, you want to reverse the proportion of information seekers and sharers, and stop associating effective collaboration with how often collaborative tools are being used. 

I want to see increased capability with actual and productive collaboration – not just a reliance on tools. Because reliance on tools doesn’t achieve individual growth or lead to the organisational performance that’s needed to remain competitive. 

Work with me

If you would like me to develop a tailored webinar on effective collaboration for your organisation, please get in touch. 

Webinars are live and interactive, and include practical takeaways that your people can start implementing in the workplace immediately.  

To learn more, simply email me at kv@kimvella.com.au

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