How much collaboration is too much?

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing

Is it possible to encourage too much collaboration? Management thinkers are starting to suggest over-collaboration can hurt both you and your organisation’s productivity.

The work day starts with clearing overnight emails. You sit at your hot desk in the open-plan office and add your contribution to a group email about an upcoming project. More emails come in, requiring attention. You receive a text from a colleague who is interstate. Can you send her the presentation your team was working on last week? She needs it for a meeting.

You retrieve the presentation from your desktop and send it on. You notice someone has amended it and scrabble around trying to find the right version. You think the changes were unnecessary but who are you to alter it?

Meanwhile, you have to ready yourself for a meeting with another project team, running late creating its report on a proposed new initiative. The meeting starts late and is delayed by the mid-morning coffee run. With a few team members down and a review session with your boss coming up, what was supposed to be an hour is barely 35 minutes and achieves frustratingly little.

The pressure to collaborate is creating “lopsided” outcomes in the workplace. Up to 35 per cent of “value added” contributions comes from 3 to 5 per cent of employees.

At the review session, your manager asks how you like the role. You say you are finding it hard to focus in the office and feel you would be more productive working at home sometimes. 

“That’s something I want to discuss with you,” the boss says. “I just don’t feel you’re a team player.”

Undermining results?

This hypothetical illustrates one of the dilemmas of modern work. Have we pushed collaboration too far, to the point that it is undermining our ability as individuals to focus on complex tasks and produce quality outcomes?

According to an article in January’s Harvard Business Review, the time spent by managers and employees in “collaborative activities” has increased by 50 per cent in the past two decades. While authors Rob Cross, Rebe Rebele and Adam Grant find much to applaud, their article – “Collaborative Overload” – questions whether the collaboration wave has gone too far.

At some organisations, they say, 80 per cent of employees’ time is spent on the phone or in meetings. Performance is suffering as workers “are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources or attendance at a meeting”.

From their research into more than 300 organisations, the authors say the pressure to collaborate is creating “lopsided” outcomes in the workplace. Up to 35 per cent of “value added” contributions comes from 3 to 5 per cent of employees, they say. The best collaborators are drawn into more and more projects and then become “bottlenecks” holding up progress.

The need to focus

The perils of valuing collaboration above all else are put bluntly in computer scientist Cal Newport’s new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport wants to encourage the “deep work” he says makes us better at what we do and delivers real fulfilment, and he wants organisations to focus more on a deep work ethic.

Yet, he says, people are finding it increasingly difficult to achieve deep work in the office maelstrom of collaborative excess and the “frantic blur of email and social media”, which continually undermine focus.

Leading American architecture firm Gensler has also looked at these issues involving productivity in its sponsored research. Over five years to 2012, Gensler surveyed 90,000 people working at 155 corporates across 10 different industry sectors. Using an earlier 2007 study as a benchmark, the research found that a world of new distractions was impacting on productivity.

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The Gensler analysts found “focus work” was taking up more and more of the average working day. When focus can be achieved, their report says, “good things happen”. 

Yet people are trying to do this focus work in an environment of “less space, less privacy, more time at work and more distractions”. Workplace strategies that sacrifice individual focus in pursuit of collaboration will actually make organisations less effective, the report states.

Gensler describes its report not as a repudiation of collaboration but rather as “an embrace of focus”. The firm concludes: “When people’s most important reported work activity is the one least supported by the workplace, the result is frustration, with a domino effect on the other work modes.”

Collaboration flaws

Professor Chris Jackson, from The University of New South Wales’ School of Business, notes another problem with the enthusiasm for collaboration: while many organisations claim to want it, they don’t, in fact, reward people for engaging in it. People are still assessed individually, even though much of the work they do is created collaboratively. 

“There are people, for example, who are the glue who make the team thing happen,” says Jackson. “They might not do a lot of the work themselves but they help create work outcomes. Spending a lot of time helping other people achieve their outcomes is a likely way to get the sack, even though what you have been doing is valuable.”

Jackson also argues for an acceptance that some employees will contribute without much collaboration – mavericks who work largely by themselves and create outstanding results outside of the group.

Finding a balance

Jackson welcomes the “deep work” argument as a way of helping re-balance the discussion around what constitutes the most productive work environment.

Balance, he says, is the crucial word in putting the right limits around collaboration, understanding individual work styles and talents and better harnessing the potential of the workforce.

“There is a case for saying that too much collaboration is bad, and we need to better understand the impact it is having on people,” says Jackson.

“Just as the world is an increasingly complex place, our corporate culture needs the flexibility to create a mix of different options and working styles to fit the group, but also individuals.”

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April 2016
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