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Making Team-Based Collaboration Work for You

The majority of employees are being pulled between multiple teams every day.

Key points

  • Employees spend as much as 95% of their time collaborating with others.
  • Constant collaboration can leave employees feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
  • Ways to benefit from teamwork, rather than becoming overloaded, include pausing after projects and leaving time for informal interactions.
Source: Windows/Unsplash

The majority of employees are being pulled between a variety of commitments and are juggling multiple teams on any given day. When adding up the hours consumed by meetings, phone calls, and email communication, employees spend as much as 95% of their time collaborating with others.

The goal of collaborative approaches in the workplace is to ensure information flows effectively between all members of the team and to encourage workers to put their minds together in meaningful ways. In reality, it doesn’t always work that way. Instead, the push to constantly collaborate and manage conflicting priorities between teams leaves employees feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

My recently published review of academic literature on the topic of managing multiple team commitments revealed that there are a number of ways to make sure that you benefit from all of this teamwork, rather than falling victim to collaboration overload. Based on this research, below are a few helpful tips to get started:

Take a productive pause.

Research shows that the lack of opportunity for recovery between projects is the leading cause of collaboration burnout. This burnout should be concerning to employees and employers alike, as it increases stress, reduces learning, and harms performance.

One constructive way to take a break between commitments is to build in time for self-reflection. Before moving onto the next team commitment, take some time to think through your project performance, any lessons learned, and how you can apply these lessons in the future. Not only can these pauses give you the much-needed time to take a break from action, but they have also been shown to improve performance going forward.

Know your saturation point.

There is a curvilinear relationship between the number of teams you participate in and your productivity—when you start collaborating with more people, you receive some benefits, such as learning new things and using up any idle time. However, once you are on too many teams, teamwork becomes draining as you are forced to divide your attention between a multitude of goals, deadlines, personnel relationships, and other factors.

You might notice you are overloaded if you can’t keep up with deadlines, continuously are overbooked, or have the feeling that you need to be working nonstop. It is important to know when you have reached your saturation point before you reach your breaking point.

Be transparent with your manager.

Ideally, we expect our managers to have a realistic idea of what we do every day. However, they often only have a high-level understanding of how our working hours are spent. The details of employees’ workdays become even more opaque when teams are spread out or working virtually. In these environments, team members are likely to be over-committed to too many projects without realizing that their managers are unaware of the tasks they’ve taken on.

To avoid this common pitfall, it is important to be clear with your boss about the assignments you are currently working on and how much time you are spending on each, especially if you are beginning to feel overloaded. One simple way to do so is to send your manager weekly status updates or schedule regular 1-on-1 meetings to check in.

Don’t forget about informal interactions.

One of the challenges of being overscheduled is that it leaves less time for informal interactions to occur. Research shows that these informal interactions are critical for learning, giving us pieces of information we may not have heard otherwise, and can even spur creativity. Yet, when employees are so bogged down by team commitments and meetings, this often cannibalizes informal interactions.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, if you fall into this boat, you could benefit from scheduling some informal interactions into your day. Give yourself 10 minutes to walk around the office, or leave 5 minutes for a check-in at the beginning of a Zoom meeting before getting to the agenda. You may be surprised at how much information and energy these informal interactions can bring.

The majority of professionals are constantly pulled from one team to another throughout the workday. These strategies can help make this collaboration work for you rather than overwhelm you, and ensure that your workday productivity is enhanced without the expense of your well-being.

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