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Emails, Slack, Zoom: Is Your Team Too Connected?

Avoid collaboration's dark side: Try meeting-free days and other strategies.

Key points

  • Balance collaboration with alone time through blocked time or negotiating a meeting-free day.
  • Setting personal boundaries and creating a culture of boundaries can combat the "always on" mode of collaboration.
  • Make the most of collaboration time by continually asking questions to avoid problems and aim for success.
Steinar Engeland/Unspash
Steinar Engeland/Unspash

We can trace the idea of “two heads being better than one” back to an unlikely source – an ox at a 1906 country fair. As the story goes, a prominent statistician named Francis Galston observed a contest where attendees tried their luck at guessing the ox’s weight. When the contest ended, Galston did an impromptu experiment, borrowing all of the contest entries for his own analysis. He found that although none of the 787 entrants got the 1,198-pound animal’s weight correct, the average of all of the entries was shockingly accurate, within 1 percent of the ox’s actual weight.

This spontaneous experiment gave rise to a belief in the wisdom of the crowd. Although this idea has been refined in the century since, it can still be seen through our society’s steadfast belief in the benefits of collaboration. Collaboration, teamwork, partnership, joint ventures, and other similar-meaning words have become buzzwords in today's workplaces, and for good reason. Effectively working together can lead to better performance, more innovation, and happier employees.

Yet, we are also seeing signs that the pendulum may have swung too far. The time that employees spend collaborating with one another has increased more than 50 percent over the last decade, with employees spending approximately 34 hours in a standard 40-hour work week working together (responding to emails, monitoring a Slack Channel, participating in a Zoom meeting). With so much joint work, collaboration can end up backfiring.

Employees, especially high-performers, routinely report that they are overwhelmed by collaboration. My research has shown that people who are expected to participate on multiple teams during a single time period run the risk of becoming overworked and less productive. Some have labeled this phenomenon as collaboration overload, where two heads end up being less effective than one.

How can we make sure that we don’t reach this dark side of collaboration? The following three strategies serve as a good starting point.

1. Balance Collaboration with Solo Time

When people are always available through meetings, emails, and IMs, their time to think, work, and produce gets broken down into smaller and smaller bits. These constant interruptions have a real cost, resulting in agitation, a general lack of focus, and lowered productivity.

Recognizing this, some have started to do things differently. In an experiment that was recently published in MIT Sloan Management Review, 76 companies across 50 countries were charged with creating meeting-free days for their employees. After doing so, researchers found that those companies that stacked meetings on two days (leaving three days for focused work) had employees that were 41 percent more engaged, 73 percent more productive, 65 percent more satisfied, and 57 percent less stressed.

Although many people reading this may think that the idea of three meeting-free days a week is a fever dream, smaller changes that move towards the goal of establishing your own solo time can also have a big impact. Working with others tends to be the most effective when it is balanced with some focused alone time. For some people, this may be blocking out 30 minutes on their calendar every morning. For others, it may be lobbying your manager for one meeting-free day a week.

2. Set Boundaries For Yourself and Others

In our constantly connected world, it is no surprise that many of us suffer from what researchers call the email urgency bias: we often feel pressure to respond to emails faster and with more urgency than the sender intended, even when we are outside of standard business hours. This bias has been shown to increase stress and reduce well-being.

There has been a proliferation of advice columns encouraging people to draw boundaries for themselves to help with this challenge, through strategies such as removing email from the phone or only responding to collaborators’ requests during certain hours. Undoubtedly, it is important to set your own boundaries.

However, one complementary strategy is to begin creating a culture of boundaries in your collaborations. The idea is to combat the “always on” mode of collaboration. For example, Shonda Rhimes, the prolific creator of some of the most popular shows on television, is known to simultaneously collaborate on many projects, running the risk of collaboration overload. However, she creates a culture of boundaries by including the following in her email signature, “I do not answer calls or emails after 7 PM or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest that you put down your phone.”

I’ve followed Shonda Rhimes’ lead, trying to help my collaborators fight their own email urgency bias. To do so, I have added the following to my own email signature: “My working hours may be different than yours. I don’t expect a response outside of your usual working hours.”

3. Make the Most of Collaboration Time

While it is important to figure out the optimal amount and cadence of collaboration, it is equally important to get the most out of the time you spend working with others. Society commonly lauds the benefits of teamwork by pointing to extraordinary team successes. However, the reality is that upwards of 80 percent of teams fall short of their goals.

To make sure that your collaboration time doesn’t cause more hurt than harm, consider the following questions with your collaborators: What is our goal for our time together? How will we make sure that everyone has the opportunity to share their perspective and contribute? How will we make a decision if we come to a stalemate? How will we know when we need to revisit our approach to working together?

There is no “one size fits all” approach to collaboration and teamwork, but rather making the most of time together means engaging in a continual conversation about how things are going and how to make them even better. When these questions become part of your group’s regular dialogue, which is something that researchers call team reflexivity, they are likely to push your group to establish effective strategies and norms.

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