Everything We Know About Collaboration At Work Is Wrong

Andrew Thompson, CEO & Founder at Synseer Ltd.

Collaborative working has come under heavy fire recently.

Labelled a fad by some critics, others describe it as an insidious game we’re required to play at the cost of both our time and our sanity.

It’s no surprise that the growth of collaboration at work is being questioned – it should be. According to one study, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more over the last two decades.

In a typical workweek, knowledge workers now spend between 70-85% of their time on the phone, on email, or in meetings (virtual or face-to-face). For some experts and leaders, this figure is as high as 95%.

The Business Case for Collaboration

But is this really such a bad thing? There’s little doubt that operational decisions are improved when we share knowledge with each other on how to fix a widget or answer a customer complaint. Collaboration improves the quality of decision-making.

The very nature of business, meanwhile, has increased the demand on such collaborative decision-making: the globalisation of companies and their markets; the specialisation of skills and expertise; and the need for rapid innovation in products and services. These very real business factors are all driving up collaboration demands on knowledge workers.

Collaboration, then, is fundamental to business success and we can’t reverse the tide. But what about the cost of collaboration, the time and sanity part?

Is it strangling the outcomes it’s designed to achieve?

Possibly, yes. According to one report, our decision-making is getting slower. Around 20% slower in fact. This despite, or because of, the digital tools available to us.

Why Collaboration is Exhausting

Our time is absorbed by the sheer effort of collaboration. Sixty percent of us must consult with at least 10 colleagues each day just to get our jobs done. Thirty percent of us have to engage with over 20 people. And it’s not just the volume of people either, it’s the volume of communication channels.

Every important issue is spread across multiple channels: email, group chat, messaging, face-to-face meetings, teleconferences. If you want to catch up on the latest progress with the marketing plan, you must wade through tonnes of other communications on a whole range of subjects first.

There is no single source of the truth or easy way to keep up, and yet, an active collaborator might be involved in 10 to 30 of these issues at any one time.

The impact on the quality of our decisions is harder to measure.

What we can be confident of, however, is that good decisions arise out of a focused, structured debate. One that avoids group think by engaging the right mix of people in a thoughtful process, and gives introverted thinkers the time and encouragement to contribute. For complex, high-value decisions, this usually involves a meeting – virtual or face-to-face – and as a result, meeting length and frequency is on the increase.

The Problem with Meetings

There’s just one big problem. Twenty-five percent of meeting time is considered “wasted”. Think about it, how often do you attend a meeting only to find that half of the agenda is not relevant to you or that too much time is wasted bringing everyone up to speed?

Our meetings are invaded by other work and communication channels too. According to InterCall, the world’s largest conference call company, 65% of people do other work while in a meeting.

This shallow engagement, fuelled by the distraction of our digital tools, is the opposite of what you need for quality decision-making. So the question must surely be: how can we make collaboration more efficient, more focused and less distracting?

Behavioural changes, like banning laptops from meetings, can help. But the volume of messages and requests pile up in the meantime and have to be dealt with at some point, often in the evenings. What role can our digital collaboration tools play in the future?

A New Dawn for Collaborative Working

The origins of the internet lie in collaboration and a spirit of openness. The design of social networking tools feeds what psychologists call “recognition-hunger”. Today’s generation of digital tools draws on both of these elements to capture our attention, not focus it.

In Britain, we check our phones 221 times a day on average, or once every 4.3 minutes. “It’s like trying to get work done in a casino,” said Professor Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, when addressing Harvard University students in October 2016. “Our tools have become our enemies.”

Group chat applications are great for brief exchanges on operational issues but not for more complex debates. It’s like being in an endless meeting with no purpose or agenda. You have to read everything to keep up, no matter how random the subject-matter.

The next generation of digital tools must improve the efficiency of collaboration by:

  • enabling us to focus on just the important issues
  • helping us follow the debate at our convenience
  • reducing the need to monitor multiple channels and read everything that comes our way
  • moving beyond the operational or brief exchanges of group chat to a digital environment that can handle more complex debates
  • improving the quality and speed of our decision-making processes

Only by addressing these core issues will we escape the tyranny of endless meetings, open inboxes and attention-hungry networking channels.

And only then, will collaborative working become truly productive.