There’s much to like — and worry — about collaboration at work. When done right, organizations innovate and achieve milestones. When done excessively, it can sap energy and coerce people to play catch-up, which affects their morale and well-being. Organizations can capitalize on data and analytics as well as workplace experience platforms like Microsoft Viva Insights to manage and avoid collaboration overload.
We live in an era of overcollaboration. According to collaboration expert Rob Cross who has worked with more than 300 organizations, collaborative work rose by over 50% in the past decade. Employees now spend 85% of their workweek answering emails, instant messages, phone calls, and video calls as well as spending more time in short-burst and irregularly scheduled meetings.
In a 2021 TED Conferences chat, Cross said those figures increased further during the pandemic as people began to work from home. Meetings are shorter these days but have doubled in number as organizations try to make up for the lack of face-to-face collaboration. Microsoft’s research on collaborations and meetings revealed that Microsoft China employees, for example, spent 14 hours a week on voice and video calls when they transitioned to remote work, which was double the seven hours they spent per week figure prior to the pandemic.
This seemingly endless stream of distractions in the workplace comes with a penalty. In their study, Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke of the University of California and Humboldt University concluded that people adapt to the interruption of their work by working faster. As a result, they experience “a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”
People also need time to get themselves back on track once they’re interrupted. For small interruptions like responding to a text, this could take 64 seconds, while slightly longer ones may cost someone 23 minutes to refocus.
The pandemic exacerbated the number of distractions people have to deal with. For instance, over 70% of mothers in the US now find themselves participating in the workforce but are increasingly spending more time with their children and at home than they did in the 1960s. Parents working at home cannot find “flow,” a state where one is fully absorbed in their work, because they have to remain productive while balancing the demands of their children and running a household.
Collaboration overload is an individual and organizational issue.
According to Cross, collaboration overload is both a self- and an organization-driven issue. At the individual level, people experience this due to a number of factors, including their desire to be seen as a helpful and productive colleague, and their fear of losing control of projects or missing out on better ones.
Organizations are also guilty of causing the issue, which was prevalent at the beginning of the pandemic. In their desire to engage their employees who were working from home, most of these organizations decided to flood their people with emails and meetings.
Asking the same people to participate in everything, too — even when it isn’t their role or when it doesn’t directly affect them or their team — leads to excessive inclusion in collaborative projects that wouldn’t just stretch their bandwidth thin, but also disengage them altogether. Cross-functional collaboration can boost productivity, foster connection among colleagues, and enrich the organization’s creativity, but when done wrongly or excessively can beleaguer employees. In a recent survey, nearly half of employees who regularly work with multiple teams and report to different managers said they spend most of their day working on requests from coworkers, with little time to do their own work. The result? Employees overcome with a deluge requests that creates ambiguity in their roles, drains their attention, consumes a lot of mental effort, and triggers misunderstandings and conflicts. All of these were reflected in the so-called Great Resignation that saw a large number of employees leaving their jobs for greener pastures.
Collaboration overload can be avoided.
While collaboration overload may appear as a fact of life in working during the pandemic, there are employees who remain efficient despite the distractions. Research consortium Connected Commons call these people “efficient collaborators,” or individuals with a significant impact on networks and take the least amount of other people’s time.
Cross, who co-manages Connected Commons, cited the following things that efficient collaborators do that make them 18 to 24% more efficient than their peers:
They divide their time into blocks. Distractions have reduced the amount of time people have to do reflective work. To avoid this, efficient collaborators divide their time into blocks, allocating a portion of it to answering messages and the rest to reflective work. For example, one may devote the morning to responding to emails followed by a two-hour block of reflective work.
They categorize emails by priority. As we mentioned previously, distractions require people to spend a significant amount of time refocusing on their work. This is why efficient collaborators categorize their emails based on their priority and answer them at the appropriate time.
They use “standing” meetings. “This meeting should have been an email,” has been a common complaint among employees who attend meetings on minor issues that don’t warrant a 30-minute or hour-long distraction. According to Cross, efficient leaders set aside weekly touchpoints to deal with one-off issues. Team members post those on collaboration platforms and everyone is encouraged to solve these prior to meetings.
Data and analytics can help curb collaboration overload.
Unlike the majority of companies that took the harmful route of overworking employees with meetings and emails, there were outliers that harnessed analytics to avoid excessive collaboration and the resulting burnout.
For example, General Mills found that average hours spent on collaboration shot up by 20% at the beginning of the pandemic from March to July 2020 based on their Microsoft Workplace Analytics data. The company overlaid this data with the employee experience data and found an increase in negative employee sentiment. In response, they implemented programs to reverse these trends, including dedicating time for “deep work,” conducting more frequent surveys to determine overall workplace mood, and providing training and tools to help avoid collaboration overload.
Microsoft Viva Insights is a comprehensive tool designed for leaders, managers, and employees to improve productivity and well-being in the workplace. It provides users with personalized, actionable, and privacy-minded recommendations based on Microsoft 365 data collected from their emails, instant messages, unscheduled calls, and meetings along with some data from their collaborators within or outside the company.
Its wealth of personalized features includes a Microsoft Teams dashboard where users can get an overview of their day, take a break, praise colleagues for a job well done, or even set up a virtual commute where they can wrap up their day.
The platform also provides daily briefings via Microsoft Outlook to put employees in control of their calendar and be intentional about their day. Depending on their setup, they may receive briefings on their upcoming meetings, tasks they need to follow up on, and reminders to catch up with their team.
Aside from personal insights, Microsoft Viva Insights also offers specific ones for managers and leaders. Managers get access to tools that address organization-driven collaboration overload such as scheduling 1:1 time with team members, recognizing team meeting habits, and scheduling a no-meeting day for the team. Leaders, on the other hand, get a snapshot of their organization, including insights on how they can transform their organization’s meeting culture by seeing how many employees spend most of their meeting time in long, large, or recurring meetings, and how many significantly multitask in meetings.
Like General Mills, today’s organizations already have a plethora of tools that will aid in addressing collaboration overload. They no longer have to go blind when making critical decisions that will impact their workforce during the pandemic and beyond.
Lingaro delivers workplace analytics solutions, complemented by Viva Insights, to some of the world’s most trusted brands to help them make smart decisions backed by data — whether it’s about reducing the number of meetings or improving productivity and mental health at the workplace.