The Downside of Over Collaborating

You already know that we’re huge proponents of team collaboration here at INW and that we specialize in the most advanced, capable collaboration software in the world.

However, “With great power come great responsibility” —Spiderman (for all you comic geeks out there!)

Humans are social animals. It’s a basic facet of the human psyche, and there has been a recent trend in business to take advantage of it to increase productivity through collaboration.

From collaborative project management software to creative seating arrangements, there is a lot of thought out there on how to help employees take advantage of each other’s skills. Not to mention good old fashioned meetings.

Like so many great ideas, though, it is possible to take it too far.

In the January-February issue, the Harvard Business Report shared their research on the downside of collaboration. It’s a fascinating crossover between the worlds of business and sociology.

Another finding of the 80/20 rule

According to the HBR article, which surveyed over 300 organizations, the average amount of time spent in collaborative work or team-focused activity is an astonishing 80%. That means that the average employee in one of these companies can only spend about 20% of their time on critical work that only they can perform.

In a collaborative environment, the very best employees appear to be the ones who most readily engage in collaboration. The team players, the helpful ones, the ones to whom everyone can turn for aid.

The logical extension of this, though, is that those same employees have the least amount of time for their own work. A person who constantly helps others has less time to tend to their own matters.

According to the study, 20-35% of collaborative contributions come from 3-5% of employees. That’s a very heavy load on a very small segment of the workforce.

There’s a bit of the snake who eats his own tail here. A team member highly able and willing to help will naturally be asked to help more often. The more they assist in other projects, the more they fall behind in their own. The more they fall behind, the more they suffer from stress and overwork. That takes a toll, ultimately leading to decreased productivity and increased churn.

Solutions for effective collaboration

There are some lessons to be learned from the report. Collaboration remains a wonderfully effective tool in the modern workplace, but as always, there is plenty of room to learn and improve.

Pay Attention – If your collaborative work environment is anything like the ones surveyed by the HBR (Hint: it is), then identify those top performers who are shouldering the majority of the load. Make sure their needs are supported by giving them the tools to prioritize or even triage requests for help. Allow them to refuse requests from peers at least some of the time, in order to take care of their own work.

Maximize Efficiency – Those creative seating arrangements aren’t just for good photos on the website. Place your frequent collaborators in close physical proximity, and allow them to use software to facilitate teamwork. Cutting down the time needed for these interactions goes a long way in making the most of them.

Encourage Initiative – There is a natural tendency to rely on helpers as a crutch. In collaborative workspaces, this often takes the form of constant requests for review and feedback at every step of a project. Instead, encourage employees to take the plunge and have confidence in their own abilities. Collaboration is a wonderful tool for overcoming limitations and filling in skill gaps, but employees should feel safe relying on their own knowledge and skills when appropriate.

Today’s workplace is a much livelier, more social place than offices of the past. It’s for the best, but as with all sea changes, it’s important to keep a steady hand on the rudder.