Part 5: Collaboration Overload
This is a part of a series that briefly introduces different HR metrics that are based on collaboration data extracted from digital communication and collaboration platforms.
Defining collaboration overload
The current workplace is, by its very nature, highly collaborative. This characteristic has become even more pronounced in the past two decades, thanks to the rise of various digital collaboration tools like emails, instant messaging, remote meetings, project management software, etc. These tools removed a large part of the natural friction present in the communication and made collaboration much easier and more inclusive. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to this ease of collaboration.
As demonstrated by various studies, our time spent communicating about work is increasingly encroaching on the time we spend truly working.
According to Wajcman and Rose’s research from 2011, the knowledge workers they shadowed in their study divided their workday, on average, into eighty-eight distinct “episodes”, and sixty of them were devoted to communication. According to other research from RescueTime, the company providing services related to time management and digital wellness, half of its users check communication applications like email and Slack every six minutes or less. More than a third of their users check their inboxes every three minutes or less. In this situation it is useful to have some metrics to measure the risk of employees’ collaboration overload and alert managers about conditions that may require some action.
Let’s illustrate that on email collaboration. First, it is useful to get a general idea about the typical number of emails that land in employees’ inboxes. To make that metric more indicative of potential email overload, we need to filter out the irrelevant emails sent by various automated email services, spambots and/or specified blacklisted domains. Have a look at the figure below. We can see that an employee typically receives 111 emails per month but that this metric is highly variable across individual teams. Based on this simple statistic alone, we can already tell where to focus our attention - the Management and Marketing teams stand out significantly from others in the number of received emails per capita, and thus can be at higher risk of collaboration overload.
Fig. 1: Graph from Time is Ltd.’s collaboration analytics platform showing the typical monthly number of emails received per employee.
To make this metric more actionable and useful, we should put it into context using a benchmark for healthy usage of emails. Let’s say that we set this benchmark to 800 received emails per month, i.e. approx. 40 per workday. By using this benchmark at the level of individual employees, we can then report the proportion of employees within the teams who may/may not be at risk of email overload.
Which team in your company overuses emails? Get in touch, Time is Ltd. can tell you.
The figure below shows how such a metric applies for the teams reported in the previous graph. Based on this metric, it seems that there might be some space for concern and potential action only in the case of the Management team, as half of its members are at higher risk of collaboration overload. The rest of the teams are safely above the 80% value, i.e. more than 80% of their members are below the benchmark of 800 received emails per month. The same approach similarly applies in the case of meetings or instant messaging (employing relevant benchmarks in each case). Another option would be to combine all of these different sources into one overall collaboration overload metric.
Fig. 2: Graph from Time is Ltd.’s collaboration analytics platform showing proportion of employees who are not overloaded by received email.
Why HR should pay attention to collaboration overload
Collaboration overload is tightly related to a key prerequisite of employees’ productivity - focus rate, a topic we covered in the part #4 of this series. There are two major ways excessive collaboration requirements have a detrimental effect on employees’ focus rate and productivity. First, they take a large part of the time employees have for doing their work and allocate it instead to the communication about their work with others. Second, they fragment employees’ working time into small pieces and force employees to frequently switch between different tasks and contexts. This has a well-documented damaging effect on people’s performance.
Besides productivity, collaboration overload is also related to employees’ well-being and retention. It is not uncommon that those who carry the most workload in a company are the ones who complain the least about it, often until it is too late to prevent their exhaustion, burnout and/or decision to leave the company. That’s why it’s a good idea for managers to keep track of how collaboration is distributed among employees. They must be prepared to make necessary adjustments to the collaboration “traffic” flow in their team.
Given the deeply ingrained culture of the “hyperactive hive mind”, termed by Cal Newport in his new book A World Without Email, it may be difficult to go against the status quo and push for change. Nevertheless, there are some options for organizations who want to alleviate their employees’ collaboration burden. The following will support them in their performance and well-being:
Set more focus-friendly collaboration rules and expectations
Agree with employees on some simple rules of collaboration that would make their engagement in deep work easier. For example, using threads in instant messaging tools to enhance readability and reduce irrelevant distractions; allowing longer response times in instant messaging tools; using instant messaging instead of emails for shorter messages; shortening meetings by 10% to save time and increase their effectiveness, etc.
Try out new collaboration schemes
Try new schemes of collaboration that better fit employees’ need for slower, deeper, and more focused ways of working. For example, sprint-based project management systems like Agile or Scrum have elements that support focused and intensive work on a single project or task during a pre-specified period of time. Of course, there are jobs that match the linear nature of sprints better by their very nature, like software engineers. But even those in the sales team may benefit from working on pitches for clients in a short, time-boxed sprint. Another example worthy of consideration is the practice of "no-meeting days/weeks'', as meetingitis interferes with employee focus. This less traditional practice has become popular of late, implemented in many companies to prevent excessive meetings. We should keep in mind, however, that the impact of this practice is limited and the root problem (unproductive meetings) remains unsolved.
Educate your employees
At the individual level, employees can be offered trainings to learn some simple rules and practices that are useful for protecting their focus time - e.g. solving similar types of tasks in batches, putting all sources of distraction out of reach, sight and earshot, using an application to relay task-related information instead of committing it to memory,, leaving sufficiently large time slots in calendars for important tasks and focused work, etc.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your collaboration culture
Continuously tweak your collaboration culture, try new things, collect feedback from people, measure the impact of your little experiments using both active and passive data, keep what works and abandon what doesn’t. Those who change do not get left behind.
Don’t let employee burnout destroy productivity. Talk to us about making the right changes.
At Time is Ltd., we measure digital collaboration and productivity, without ever sacrificing employee privacy. We provide an advanced analytical SaaS platform that delivers a holistic view of an organization collaboration patterns. We measure your team’s digital footprint to improve communication, productivity as well as save precious time. Our approach only aggregates meta-data from a variety of data sources, to show how your teams work with your collaboration tools so you can get them more productive and motivated.