Collaboration Overload Is Sinking Productivity

Collaborative work — the time spent on email, IM, phone and video calls — has risen 50% or more over the past decade to consume 85% or more of most people’s work weeks.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused this figure to take another sharp upward tick, with people spending more time each week in shorter and more fragmented meetings, with voice and video call times doubling and IM traffic increasing by 65%. And to make matters worse, collaboration demands are moving further into the evening and are beginning earlier in the morning.
These demands, which can be invisible to managers, are hurting organizations’ efforts to become more agile and innovative. And they can lead to individual career derailment, burnout, and declines in physical and mental well-being.
In response, forward-looking organizations are taking action to protect employees from the volume of collaborative demands by employing organizational network analysis (ONA) – (O NO – not another unnecessary TLA!)
For example:
  • Two major life sciences organizations have used network analysis (aka ONA?) to systematically analyze calendar data and identify ways to reduce redundant meeting time.
  • One global software organization has focused on email to reduce volume, length, and cc’ing redundancies.
  • A globally recognized insurance organization has employed network analysis (aka ONA?) to identify the most overwhelmed employees and educate them on practices to reduce overload.
  • And, on a more dubious front, one global services organization implemented a 60-second timeout button – after a particularly difficult time, employees can hit a button that lets others know they are taking a mindfulness break — although one must wonder if this is akin to giving a band-aid to an amputee
This exclusive focus on quantity of collaborative demands misses two important drivers of collaborative overload:
1. The inefficiencies and subsequent cognitive switching costs of always-on cultures – i.e. the costs of being disrupted – the time needed to ‘get back up to speed’ – the increase in meetings and the number of participants per meeting from the use of Zoom or Slack, and the decrease in focus on results
2. The personal motivations that lead us all to jump into collaborative work too quickly – and unnecessarily – much of the blame lies with the individual, not others, by responding to most requests or perceived opportunities to feel one matters and/ or is in control – or from wanting to help somehow


To avoid these negatives, General Mills took the following action:
  • Implementation of “free-form fridays” – employees were instructed to leave their calendars blocked starting at 2.00pm every friday, so they could engage in “deep work,” catch-up on emails, and recharge
  • More frequent surveys of employees’ well–being and stress levels, with senior leaders emphasizing the need for prioritization and self-care
  • The development and deployment of “Ways of Working” training and tools for teams with high levels of collaboration, stress, and negative mood
On average, General Mills claim to have reduced collaboration time by eight hours per employee per week , and cut many non-value-added meetings — all without any negative effects on stress levels or moods
The authors thus claim ‘leading organizations that equip their employees to work more efficiently in this context will have an important advantage in terms of both performance and retention’


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