Regular workplace collaboration is an absolute necessity for an organization’s success. However, it can create a 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.
Consider a typical week: How much time do people spend in meetings, on the phone, and responding to e-mails? At many companies the proportion hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own.
First, it’s important to distinguish among the three types of “collaborative resources” that individual employees invest in others to create value.
- Informational: The knowledge, skills and expertise you pass along to other employees.
- Social: Your network and position, which can be used to help colleagues better collaborate with one another.
- Personal: Your own time and energy.
Informational and social resources can be shared without depleting the collaborator’s supply and time. Unfortunately, personal resources are often the default demand.
Instead of asking for specific informational or social resources—or better yet, searching in existing repositories such as reports or knowledge libraries—people ask for hands-on assistance they may not even need. An exchange that might have taken five minutes or less turns into a 30-minute calendar invite that strains personal resources on both sides of the request.
Leaders can solve this problem with actions such as:
- encourage people to take decisions by themselves,
- leverage technology and physical space to make informational and social resources more accessible and transparent,
- when possible, colocate highly interdependent employees to facilitate brief and impromptu face-to-face collaborations,
- reward effective collaboration, that is, the efficient share of informational, social, and personal resources .
Summing-up: Collaboration is critical to driving innovation and keeping employees engaged. But too much workplace collaboration can achieve just the opposite. We must learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work. That might reduce the odds that the whole becomes far less than the sum of its parts.