The working world has changed inordinately over the past few years, and with the constant shifting and evolving of the professional landscape, new concerns surrounding team collaboration have emerged. Some of these, like Zoom fatigue, were largely consequences of the pandemic—but one issue was around long before COVID-19 struck. According to many experts, over-collaboration has become an epidemic and a new workplace threat.
Team collaboration tends to have positive connotations—it makes us think of communication, cooperation and creation—but you can have too much of a good thing. And that’s precisely what’s happened with a lot of team collaboration; it’s become excessive to the point where it’s draining.
So when, why, and how did over-collaboration become so problematic? How has the pandemic exacerbated the issue? And what steps can organizations take to ensure team collaboration remains a positive, productive exchange?
While the pandemic undeniably aggravated certain workplace difficulties, collaboration was on the rise for years before. Pre-pandemic, most people already spent a lot of time in meetings, emails, instant messaging and phone calls. For better or worse, our world is a digital one, and our culture is one of “always on” hustle—and team collaboration seemed to be the way we showed our commitment.
Whereas meetings were once scheduled for an hour or 45 minutes, now we try to cram in a whole series of 20-minute meetings, which means more note taking, more context-switching, more work, more feedback—and with it, more intensity and stress. While research shows our meetings are now shorter, we are having more of them.
The rise of digital collaboration tools over the past decade also means people are constantly connected in real time, and this has created new and exhausting collaborative demands. In-person meetings are now followed by emails, Slack notes, Zoom debriefs, and follow-up questions over instant messaging. While all these new tools do mean that organizations are more nimble and decision-making has become more streamlined, all this extra team collaboration also means that it’s become increasingly difficult to switch off—let alone get any deep work done.
While over-collaboration was a pre-pandemic problem, the pandemic undeniably inflamed the issue. Before COVID-19, around 85% of our work was spent on collaborative activities, but the pandemic added between five to eight hours of team collaboration to our weekly schedules. And regrettably, these interactions have begun to encroach on our lives; early morning calls, late night emails.
Since the pandemic mandated people work remotely, the concept of team collaboration took on a whole new importance. Companies wanted their employees to feel in sync and connected, and so “team collaboration” became something of a buzzword. Virtual meetings skyrocketed. Apps like Slack, Twist, and Slab were used for storing knowledge, communicating, and coordinating schedules. Even social activities became virtual, with Zoom happy hours becoming especially problematic.
We know that one result of all this extra team collaboration was the much-discussed phenomenon of Zoom fatigue. But how else does over-collaboration affect the ways we work and our wellbeing?
For one, we know that it limits the amount of deep work we’re able to do. While team collaboration can be an important part of the creative process, the real creative work tends to happen when people are working quietly by themselves. They’re able to concentrate, reach a flow state, and focus on the challenging stuff that requires real thinking—the stuff that actually matters.
When you’re constantly being pulled into “quick” catch-up meetings, or pressured into replying to “urgent” emails or Slack updates, it becomes almost impossible to do any meaningful work. Whether these interruptions and distractions occur every five minutes or every twenty five, it means we’re forced to continually switch context, which seriously compromises our productivity.
Then there’s the effect that over-collaboration has on our mental health. When workplaces are in the habit of sending multiple emails and CC’ing additional people, inbox anxiety can become overwhelming. Constant notifications from Slack, Asana, Wrike, or whatever collaboration tool a company uses can induce feelings of stress and dread. The force people to be immediately available to the slightest interruption, and don’t filter the communication that actually needs to get through.
Plus, according to over-collaboration expert Rob Cross, author of the book Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being, too much team collaboration is the cause of most burnout: “The likelihood of an individual disengaging or leaving the organization goes up greatly as the volume of collaboration accelerates past certain thresholds”.
Finally, excessive team collaboration can have harmful social and cultural implications, as it’s changed how we feel we can be successful at work. “If people aren’t engaging in those connections proactively, and early, and in very targeted ways, they tend not to survive over time in ways that they would’ve in the past,” Rob Cross told Harvard Business Review. So, to be successful, we now need to position ourselves in collaborative networks in the right ways, and at the right times.
So what’s the solution? Part of the problem comes from the fact that while team collaboration takes up inordinate amounts of time, it often goes entirely unreported. “Nobody’s really tracking it,” Cross went on to say. “Nobody’s really thinking about it. They can track expense receipts down to two decimal places, but we don’t have a real sense of where 85 or more percent of that time is going.”
Thankfully, smart time tracking tools can now capture time on team collaboration for you—automatically recording time you spend in all web and desktop apps in the background while you work. Tracking team collaboration has multiple benefits. Firstly, it ensures all the time your team is spending working together is reflected in rates and work estimates—whether that’s on Zoom calls, old-fashioned email, brainstorming in-person, or using one of the many forms of async communication.
Yet tracking team collaboration also enables companies and employees to become more efficient. It enables you to see whether all the different collaborative interactions are actually generating real success or not; did anything useful come out of that Zoom call? Was that in-person meeting really necessary? Do you really need to spend two hours in meetings each day to get your work done?
Once you know how much time you’re spending—and potentially wasting—on team collaboration, you’re able to take steps to improve the way you collaborate: what would have improved that video conference? How do your employees feel about their team collaboration? Who really needs to be invited to this meeting?
However you decide to track and improve team collaboration, hopefully, along the way, you’ll free up bags more time to focus on the stuff that truly matters.