You have several looming deadlines, a teetering mountain of reports to analyze and a few dozen unanswered emails weighing on your mind. Although you have a full eight-hour workday ahead — and seemingly more than enough time to be productive — you’ll be lucky to make it through even a third of your to-do list today. Once again, your calendar is jam-packed with meetings.
Regular workplace collaboration is an absolute necessity for your organization’s success. And, as you may have noticed, we’re big advocates for cross-departmental collaboration. But, according to research shared in a recent Harvard Business Review article, there is such a thing as collaboration overload. That is, spending so much time on collaborative tasks that you have little time to do the work you were actually hired to do.
But how much collaboration is too much collaboration? And how can you avoid being swept up in unnecessary activities? Let’s take a look.
The Collaboration Tipping Point
It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact moment when collaboration grows out of control. More often than not, we spend most of our day collaborating without even realizing it. Answering questions from colleagues, helping a teammate locate pertinent information, giving input on a project — even outside meetings, the collaboration machine chugs along.
However, when you’re so busy helping meet the needs of others that you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout and unable to complete your own duties to the best of your abilities, it’s time to make a change.
Understanding Your Resources
According to the HBR article, employees invest in three types of resources to create value through collaboration — informational, social and personal.
- Informational: The knowledge, skills and expertise you pass along to other employees
- Social: Your network and position, which you can use to assist team members in connecting
- Personal: Your own time and energy
The third resource is the most precious, and often the most exploited by collaboration. Unlike informational and social resources, your personal resources are finite and the more you share them with others, the more depleted you become. If you find you’re offering your personal resources disproportionately to the others, it might be time to re-evaluate.
How to Avoid Collaboration Overload
Once you’re able to identify collaboration overload, it’s time to start optimizing the time you spend in your current meetings. There are three ways you can continue to collaborate without burning through your most precious resources.
- Learn to say no. As a worker, saying “no” feels dangerous. And as a leader, saying “no” can feel a lot like letting people down. But prioritizing activities helps free up your time to provide value where you’re needed most. For example, it’s OK to turn down a meeting request if your presence doesn’t have a significant impact on the outcome — especially when you have more pertinent items on your plate.
- Help others help themselves. You’ve likely heard the proverb about teaching a man to fish, and this is the professional equivalent. By passing on knowledge and connection opportunities, you can help team members become more self-sufficient. For example, if an employee has a question, it's fine to provide the answer — but also be sure to share how you came to the conclusion and where you found the information. The next time they have a similar question, they’ll more likely be able to handle it on their own.
- Use technology to your advantage. Technology can often facilitate collaboration overload. It makes it easier for people to reach out to one another, and to become stuck in superfluous conversations. But technology can also help avoid unnecessary collaboration. For example, an integrated workplace management system streamlines the decision-making process for workplace leaders. Instead of meeting to discuss how to optimize the workspace and hypothesize over possible issues, FM professionals can quickly analyze space utilization reports and pinpoint areas of opportunity.
We’ll never argue collaboration isn’t important. It’s critical to driving innovation and keeping employees engaged. But too much workplace collaboration can achieve just the opposite. By taking the time to understand your tipping point and learning to redistribute your resources, you can provide even greater value to your organization and help increase efficiency across the board.