In today’s workplace, collaboration is often considered the key to innovation and success. Employees are urged to share knowledge and skills, bounce ideas off one another in open-plan offices, and constantly communicate via technological tools and apps. But a growing body of research shows that although collaboration has many benefits, it doesn’t always have the desired effect. Nor does it necessarily boost productivity.
Not surprisingly, this has generated much commentary, including discussions of “collaborative overload” in the Harvard Business Review and a “collaboration curse” in The Economist. At the same time, however, there are countless blogs and articles that promote teamwork and togetherness, with topics like the “12 habits” of collaborative workplaces or the “10 ways” to encourage knowledge-sharing in teams.
Trends are typically fueled by multiple factors and the “collaboration nation” is no exception. In this instance, factors include the following:
The knowledge economy: As this depends on ideas rather than physical abilities, companies have given much more consideration to putting the best and brightest minds together.
The innovation fixation: The incredible success stories of startups that sprang from garages and transformed into billion-dollar enterprises has created a mindset that encourages innovation at breakneck speed. While this has led to valuable products and services, it has also caused many companies to over prioritize collaboration as a business practice.
The social office: The physical design of workspaces has also changed to support collaboration. As The Economist notes, companies have torn down cubicles and barriers between workers to encourage “serendipitous encounters” and knowledge-sharing. This 21st-century “social office” is also the result of a surge in collaborative apps and tools, such as Workplace by Facebook and Slack, which aim to increase ongoing communication across teams.
Striking the Right Balance
While some collaboration is highly useful and much needed, too much can be counterproductive, especially for employees who are in high demand. To strike the right balance here, companies must find ways to help them collaborate more efficiently.
Employers can begin by identifying how people collaborate, whether it’s by sharing information and expertise or by contributing their time and energy to produce a specific deliverable (a report, for example). In either case, greater efficiencies can be realized by determining what’s fastest and easiest.
In the first instance, emailing the information, rather than attending a meeting, could be the best bet. In the second, the quicker route may be just the opposite, as multiple adjustments may be needed to produce the final product. But rather than emailing these back and forth, components that require discussion can be handled in a single call.
Managing talent by type: Managing talent more effectively can also make for more efficient collaboration, although it’s important to first identify what type of employee one is dealing with. These, as many managers know, typically include those always willing to go above and beyond (“extra-milers”), those with multiple specialized skills, and those who may stand out less, but can be depended upon to complete important day-to-day tasks.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Iowa found that companies see the most benefits when enable extra-milers to frequently interact with other team members. However, to avoid burnout and dissatisfaction, managers should avoid relying solely on these standout employees.
They should also avoid over-reliance on those with specialized skills. Although these employees can fill important gaps in workflows, over-reliance on them can also cause too much stress.
Create a Culture of Risk-Taking: Another impediment to collaborative efficiency is the fear of getting it wrong. In many instances, potentially great ideas remain stuck in the brainstorming stage as employees try to get approvals from upper management before taking action.
Many companies fear that eliminating the approval process will lead to costly errors. However, giving employees more freedom to take action can further streamline the collaboration process.
In conclusion, while research shows that too much collaboration can hurt productivity, companies that shift their focus from the amount of collaboration to its tangible outcomes can use their resources and talent more effectively and see real results.