Is collaboration stifling productivity?

Collaboration is a big buzz word for businesses. But are we at risk of taking collaboration too far? Is collaboration actually becoming counterproductive?

Every time we meet, brainstorm, call or email in the workplace, we’re collaborating. And there’s no question that all these things are essential for the way we work today.

We’re better connected than ever, making collaboration a whole lot easier. And as organisations become ever more global, our ability to work together anywhere in the world is more than valuable. It’s a necessity.

Queens University in the US carried out a survey on managers and millennials communicating in the workplace. Nearly three in four employers rated teamwork and collaboration as ‘very important’.

It’s not hard to see why. Surely by communicating and combining our skills, thoughts and insights, we can achieve far more collectively than as individuals.

Collaboration overload

In recent years, some compelling statistics have emerged that reveal collaboration is getting out of control.

A Harvard Business Review report found that in over 300 organisations, employees spend around 80 per cent of their time collaborating or on team-focused activities in a typical week. 

So much collaborating leaves little time for actual work. And what’s the knock-on effect on employees?

According to the report: "Performance suffers 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."

Work isn’t happening at work

Jason Fried is a software entrepreneur who builds web-based collaboration tools. In his TED talk he discusses the problem of getting work done at work.

“If you ask people where do you go when you really need to get something done? You typically get three different types of answers. One is a place, location, or room. Another is a moving object. And a third is a time.”

Read more: How to collaborate successfully when you're used to working alone

People’s responses vary from the kitchen to the train to early in the morning.

“You almost never hear someone say the office,” he argues. “You trade in your work day, for a series of work moments… it’s shredded into bits.”

Uninterrupted work as vital as uninterrupted sleep

Fried likens work to sleep. If either is interrupted you’re left feeling fatigued and unproductive. He explains:

“Sleep and work are phase-based events. In order to get to the deep and really meaningful ones, you have to get through the early ones. If you’re interrupted, you have to start again.”

In order to make work meaningful, Fried believes we need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done. “You cannot ask someone to be creative in 15 minutes and really think about a problem,” he says.

Technology and collaboration – the dream team

According to the survey by Queens, about 40 per cent of Millennials – who will soon make up the majority of the workforce – see technology and collaboration as the ‘dream team’. So much so, they would even pay for social collaboration tools to improve productivity.

Fried agrees, suggesting we cancel meetings and shift from active, face-to-face collaboration to more passive ways of communicating, like email and instant messaging. Which despite also being a distraction, these are interruptions at your own time.

Others disagree. For example, Atlantic Media calculated that the firm was spending over $1 million every year on processing emails. While others go out of their way to avoid electronic distractions. Like author, Jonathan Franzen, who unplugs from the internet when he’s writing.

Balancing it out

Most of us don’t have the freedom to unplug from the world or avoid meetings. But recognising some of these pitfalls is a big step towards restoring healthy collaboration in the workplace.

One of Fried’s thought provoking suggestions is ‘No Talk Thursdays’. An afternoon of quiet, uninterrupted time could be incredibly valuable for both employees and employers.

So as well as scheduling meetings (in moderation), let’s also schedule time to step back, think, read, plan, create and focus. This will surely help us collaborate more effectively and productively in the future. 

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