How to avoid collaboration overload

Collaboration can do wonders for your organization's productivity, but there's a dark side. With an increase in collaboration comes an increase in burnout and attrition. The good news: Technology can help.

collaboration overload2
Credit: Thinkstock

Are you feeling the effects of collaboration overload?

If you are, you’re not alone. As collaboration becomes a strategic initiative for businesses looking to increase productivity and cross-functional capability within the workforce, there's a much greater risk that your best employees are going to burn out.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review report that gauged responses from more than 300 organizations, many times the proportion of time workers spend in meetings, responding to requests for help and working in various collaboration and team-focused applications hovers around 80 percent. That leaves little time for all the critical work employees must complete on their own. In fact, 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," according to the research.

[ Related Stories: How IT can help users help themselves ]

HBR's report shows that, in most cases, the distribution of collaborative work is often lopsided, with 20 percent to 35 percent of value-added collaboration coming from only 3 percent to 5 percent of your employees. "As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation," but it can also degrade their individual performance, increase stress and lead to disengagement, frustration, burnout and, finally, turnover, according to the report.

Willing and able

"The more willing the employee, the more they are asked to add to their plate. This used to be high-value for employers, but it's leading to major dissatisfaction for employees long-term. From our own data, too, we see that women are even more prone to be supporting and taking part in these cross-functional collaboration roles, while data shows men are less so. It's fascinating and sobering to see the data here, and the trend of workers overextended and burning themselves out," says Kris Duggan, CEO of enterprise goal-setting and collaboration software solutions company BetterWorks.

How your business take advantage of collaboration without pushing your most valuable employees straight into a burn-and-churn cycle? The answer is data, says Duggan. Being able to track projects, collaborative efforts and interpersonal dependencies is key to making sure no one is taking on too much, and that workloads are distributed evenly so that bottlenecks don't occur, he says.

Duggan says that the number-1 barrier to operational efficiency is accurate tracking of interdepartmental dependencies. In the past, CIOs and managers would direct their teams to focus solely on their own projects and the result was a very siloed organization; over the past decade collaboration has become the norm and so the emphasis must change to understand the rewards versus the risks in that new mindset, Duggan says.

"Due to the cross-functional nature of knowledge work, if you don't make those dependencies explicit, you have a lot of risk. If you have an employee, let's call her Janet, who gets burned out and then she leaves, that's one risk. If Janet has 18 things to accomplish, but she only gets 14 of those done, then there's a risk to the business, too. We know there will be certain people who will become bottlenecks if they're overburdened, so we need to identify them and give them support."

[ Related Stories: How UCaaS will help enterprise workers collaborate ]

Using a data-driven approach to collaboration doesn't just help businesses meet their goals and strategic initiatives, it has a real impact on individual employee engagement and job satisfaction, says Deidre Paknad, CEO of goal-achievement and collaboration software company Workboard.

Being able to track and monitor your individual goals is great in and of itself, but being able to look at the big picture view of how your work impacts larger goals and initiatives is very powerful, Paknad says.

[ Related Stories: 16 Employee engagement trends that will shake up IT in 2016 ]

Look at the big picture

"Cultures that are super-collaborative are great, but sometimes what happens is that you end up over-collaborating and doing other people's jobs. You then have no idea what your individual contributions are, or a sense of what your impact has been," Paknad  says.

That capability empowers individuals not just to see how their piece of the puzzle fits into the big picture, but also allows them greater freedom to focus on what's truly important, instead of getting sucked into projects that aren't necessarily within their purview, Paknad says.

"This view gives them permission to focus on their own priorities, and vocabulary to say 'no' -- so they're not getting pulled into meetings they don't really need to attend, or they aren't pulled into a project they really don't have time for. They can point to the data within the system and say, 'I'm working on this, that and the other thing right now, and here's why those are important to the company and to me. I don't have bandwidth for anything else,'" she says.

That freedom to say no has been a huge boon to Hervé Coureil, executive vice president of global supply chain and his team at Schneider Electric. Schneider Electric uses BetterWorks to ensure the IT strategy is aligned with larger business goals, and to make sure "we're putting a priority on the right things, using the right people doing the right work at the right time, and also how each individual is contributing to their own departments as well as to the larger strategy," Coureil says.

BetterWorks allows Coureil and his team to clarify the overall strategy, and then find a good balance between necessary projects in adherence with organizational goals and opportunities for his IT teams to work on projects they're personally interested in, which also improves engagement and productivity, he says.

Freedom to experiment

"We leave quite a large degree of freedom for people to work on what they want to work on, because now we easily can see they are going to support and contribute to all the overarching strategies. The impact has been incredibly positive, and the biggest benefit is transparency and engagement. Everyone's much more bought-in now that they see what the strategy is, how they are contributing, and how they fit into larger initiatives and the objectives," Coureil says.

Being able to derive insights from collaboration data can also help weed out underperformers and determine where obstacles and roadblocks are occurring, says BetterWorks' Duggan. It's the flipside of the coin – you can determine who's taking on too much and also who's taking on too little and manage accordingly.

"If someone isn't doing enough cross-functional work, that's also a problem. Say you've got a guy named Bob who's only doing his own work, he isn't working cross-functionally, he's not actively contributing to other people's projects. Everyone can see that, too. That can create some social pressure to encourage folks like Bob to step up, or it can alert managers to areas where perhaps Bob needs additional training or coaching or it could be that Bob needs to find another position either inside or outside of your company," Duggan says.

It's really all about using data to discover how and where collaboration is working and where it's not, and delivering adequate feedback and support to your employees when, where and how they need it, says Duggan.

"The standard today is that workers are not getting a lot of feedback on what they're working on, and they don't know if what they're doing matters. We hope that we can help people understand that what they're working on is important, it matters and that they're making an open, transparent and clear contribution," he says.

This story, "How to avoid collaboration overload" was originally published by CIO.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon