Do you ever feel like you just aren’t getting enough done at work? Do your colleagues keep coming to you with problems, questions, and requests? Are you spending most of your day reading and writing emails? If so, you are probably a victim of collaboration overload.
In this article you will learn about collaboration overload and how to overcome it so you can get more done every day.
Collaboration overload: a definition
Collaboration overload can be defined as the point when individuals spend more time working on adhoc requests from colleagues than accomplishing their own tasks and working towards their own goals.
The Harvard Business Review published an article on the subject titled Collaboration Overload, written by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant. In this article, the authors stated that around 80% of work time is spent between meetings, phone calls and emails. They also suggest that “in most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”
They define three different types of collaborative resources: informational, social and personal. The first two, informational and social resources, are knowledge that is quick to share, costing little time or energy from the person providing it. Examples could be sending an email with someone’s contact information or sending a specific piece of information as a document.
Personal collaborative resources, on the other hand, correspond to the collaborator’s personal time and energy. This could mean executing a series of tasks or joining a meeting, and taking up more of the collaborator’s time. This is the type of collaboration that the authors indicate as a problem, underlining the fact that generally collaborators would rather train their co-workers than do the work for them.
How it all gets out of control
This analysis points out the issues that can arise when collaboration isn’t properly structured.
First, every team member has their own responsibilities, along with the work that those imply. But if collaborators end up spending 80% of their time communicating about informational and social collaborative resources, very little ends up getting done.
Collaboration overload is therefore a symptom of a communication overload. Communicating information is vital to an organization, yet communicating the same thing over and over again to multiple people can lead to miscommunication, with the damaging effects that can then follow.
The second issue is a lack of work management and structured collaboration. With no process or templates, with no structure for knowledge sharing, collaborators are going to need help from others more often. And when collaborators have a hard time setting and following priorities, it will result in increased collaboration overload.
Collaboration and communication overload are symptomatic of poor communication habits, outdated knowledge sharing practices, and a lack of processes and procedures.
Relying on email for internal communications is still the norm, but it contributes heavily to communication overload. Not having a system to efficiently share knowledge across the organization also multiplies communications that could have easily been avoided if collaborators would have been able to find information on their own.
Meetings are also a source of wasted time - especially when they don’t have a clear agenda, a limited timeframe, and are attended only by those who are directly concerned.
Not creating processes or other types of resources that save collaboration time also results in extra communication and collaboration requests that could have been avoided. If a task is to be done multiple times, and by multiple people, creating checklists, templates and processes can help everyone save time and avoid over-communicating.
Ultimately these time-wasting practices are caused by lack of structure in the way the organization shares knowledge and collaborates, leading to too many requests and poor collaboration etiquette.
How to regain control
Regaining control of your time is not only beneficial for your health and career, it is also necessary for your whole organization. Most of the advice below should be put into practice throughout the organization; otherwise, the effects will be fewer and limited over time.
First, information and collective knowledge should be accessible to all employees. Create a repository of available information and design it to evolve and include more information over time.
There are many ways to do this. Save information in a digital form and host it on company servers, or on cloud technology that makes it available everywhere. Cloud services such as Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive can play that role.
You can also create company wikis, documentation that can evolve with time as collaborators contribute to them. These can document good practices, processes, and other critical information, making it all widely available.
The second point is to constantly share new information in existing repositories and communicate the fact that new information is available on a particular topic to the other collaborators concerned. That way they’ll know that this information is available when they need it.
Another way to reduce noise is to set processes and use templates and checklists for recurrent tasks and projects. Doing so formalizes the work and makes more information available to the right person at the right moment. Processes can also turn what would have been ad hoc requests into formal requests which then fall within the duties of the collaborator.
Actively lowering the number and lengths of meetings also contributes to regaining control. Since information can be shared more easily and is increasingly available, meetings such as status reports become obsolete.
Adopting an asynchronous communication style also helps, as it implies that answers are not to be expected immediately. This gives everyone in the conversation the opportunity to think thoughtfully about the subject at hand and to then share with the rest of the team. In addition, everyone can answer on their own schedule, leading to more constructive feedback.
Email is an asynchronous type of communication, but it falls short in many cases. Conversations should be open to the team and, importantly, available for reference. Of course, private and confidential conversations should also be utilized when deemed necessary.
Finally, structuring collaboration around the right set of tools and practices will certainly help the whole organization to regain control. Collaboration relies on three main pillars: team communication, knowledge sharing, and work management. Structuring and normalizing collaboration on these three levels will effectively reduce collaboration overload.
If you are trying to regain control on a personal level, two solutions are available to you. The first is to try to shake your organization's existing structure to apply any or all of the solutions above. The second is to say no to impromptu requests that demand extra efforts on your end and that eat up all of your time.
Adopting only a few of the solutions above might not suffice, and even if your organization has already structured its collaborations, there are some good practices that can reduce the amount of collaborative requests.
Here is what we might call “collaboration etiquette in the workplace”:
- Share any new information in the appropriate repository
- Communicate whenever new information is available (what it is and where it is)
- Give status updates on progress
- Give context to every piece of internal communication
- Search before you ask
- Hold meetings only when they are necessary and beneficial to every attendee
- Share credit with those who contributed
- Build in some buffer time for urgent and important requests
- Use asynchronous types of communication first
Collaboration overload is a phenomenon that must be addressed before it leads to unproductive team members and eventually to burnout.
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