Today’s workforce is more mobile. Mobility and agility is what we want. With that choice and phenomenon come several consequences. One of them is the need to ‘work together’ or collaborate in different ways.
Collaborative workstyles and leadership demands to collaborate more have exploded in the past decade. It started long before collaborative tools existed. Email was our first channel to work with colleagues, customers and partners, regardless of time and place.
Collaboration isn’t a mantra or a goal as such
It didn’t last that long before we started suffering from inbox overload. Even leaving aside commercial messages and all those mails sent from today’s social platforms, many couldn’t cope with the overload of work- and business-related emails anymore. It was time to start operation Zero Email™ as Atos did. After all, with the advent of social collaboration platforms, who needed email, that relic of the past that got declared so often?
The truth is that, except for a few lucky organizations (or better: lucky employees), the decentralization of work, push for more collaboration and, ironically, even the rising acceptance of several collaboration platforms has made work-related inboxes fuller than ever. Can you still cope with all the emails you get?
There is no denying that people see email as a platform of collaboration, even if there are other ones. At the same time the success of collaboration platforms has been going up too. From conference call platforms, file sync and share tools, instant messaging, Twitter-like services for the corporate world and solutions that offer it all: the list goes on.
Instead of making that Zero Email Company dream come true, reality is that the collaborative mantra de facto has often increased the time we spend on collaborating one way or the other. On top of wasting hours checking emails, we also have more conference calls, project collaboration platforms to use, you name it.
Collaboration fatigue: the flipside of ‘always on’
Collaboration is key and collaborate you will, whether you like it or not. “We are one team and we need to work together”. If it was for just one team our collaborative life might be bearable but the reality is that, as knowledge workers, we are part of many ‘one teams’.
And so, after the failure of operation Zero Email in most businesses and email overload we often find ourselves in a new situation: that of collaboration overload overall.
Even if your email autoesponder says you’re not there and your instant messaging platform shows you offline, you will be found. Because if nothing else work, we’ll call you. Those people who always had a hard time to draw boundaries or to say no, often have no choice than to go against their natural reflexes of being true collaborators and be among the most available and flexible and have to feel the pain to learn to say no or perish.
This little psychological reference to those who can’t say no and receive all kinds of psychological labels, depending on the reasons why they find it very hard (don’t even try to change them because it is rooted deeper than you’ll ever get, they can only change themselves), brings me to an issue with collaboration. We all too often fail to recognize, let alone reward, the individual (collaboration) differences in teams.
“There is no I in team”: taking collaboration for granted
Many managers take it for granted that their people and teams will be collaborating. It has even become some kind of a moral code: if you don’t collaborate enough you’re simply bad. “There is no I in team”, remember? As is often the case with simplistic sayings such as ‘there is no I in team’, the truth is somewhat more complex. There are lots of Is in teams and some of them need more “I time” than others.
The role of a modern leader is often seen as one of connecting and making people collaborate in order to achieve a common goal. For managers themselves it’s important to do so because in the end a big part of their job is meeting with people, conducting calls, getting input and collaborating in order to form opinions and understand what they need to understand so they can take decisions. In a sense, one could say that some managers are paid to collaborate. The same goes for other functions, for instance in areas where project management matters a lot.
However, there are also a bunch of people who don’t exactly have the time or even possibility to respond to the managerial demands of collaboration. Anyone who has a creative or strategic function that requires a certain ‘flow’, an absence of interruptions and some form of ‘deep work’ as it is sometimes called, knows how hard it is to focus on a task that requires such an absence of interruptions. For functions that require the highest possible state of creative flow it can even get so bad that they simply can’t work on a task if they are only interrupted twice per day. It’s not because the conf call hour and collaborative workshop hour is over that you still have so many hours left. The mind needs to prepare and it needs to unwind to be able to shift focus. Two hours of calls per day, for instance, does not equal two hours of lessened ‘doing other things’. We are not robots.
Collaboration burnout is real so get realistic
If you look at how in this age of ‘always on’, calendars are filled with conference calls, anyone can call at any time, emails fly around and team after team needs to be joined to ‘collaborate’, for those people life can simply be hell.
But it’s not just them. The collaboration demands in some organizations can be so excessive and add additional pressure to an ever longer ‘to do’ list that people simply become less productive and even ill or depressed.
Collaboration burnout, with apologies for the term, is as real as collaboration and email overload. There are many reasons and many ways to tackle it but the question is, if leadership insists on an ‘always on and excessive collaborative style’, without taking into account individual differences and learn how to prioritize and respect people’s time, it is even possible at all.
Respect people’s time and prioritize.
Do not assume your workers have the same availabilities, priorities and bandwidth as you have or that they ARE (like) you. Talk with them and check whether your collaborative approaches really work for them. See if maybe, just maybe, they need some more creative time or even personal time than you do. You might be younger, very ambitious and able to enjoy private quality time as a childless well-paid manager, having nothing to worry about than your career. But some of your workers might have children to care for or don’t exactly dispose of the same means, financial, mental, whatever.
Don’t assume that a collaboration platform solves all collaboration needs.
People will continue to use several other ways of communication and collaboration and, unless you have a clear plan to create a new collaborative ‘culture‘ (which takes time), collaboration platform fatigue will only add to already existing email fatigue (often email is not integrated, despite still being used that much). Platforms and tools are always the last consideration, never the first. Start by understanding the dynamics in your teams, the goals, the individuals, the actual behavior, the essence of human collaboration and the common PURPOSE. Moreover, when you decide to adopt a collaboration platform, make sure that the platform meets the needs and offers the simplicity users expect. Don’t be one of those numerous companies that have an intranet, extranet or collaboration platform where no one finds what they need or where essential user experiences considerations, let alone involvement, have been totally ignored, leading to yet another investment that results in nothing decent.
Motivate people to collaborate.
Motivating people to collaborate needs more words than this post. However, in practice a first and less obvious step to do so might be asking the opposite, self-reflective question as a leader: how am I NOT motivating people to collaborate? How am I maybe even making them feel bad? Am I scheduling team calls when it’s perhaps not needed? Am I one of those people setting up a call of an hour and going all the way until the hour is over, even if the last half hour was utterly meaningless? Am I a control freak who needs to be constantly in the loop? Do I message my staff, even when I know they’re already working hard each time I feel the urge to message them? Do I expect workers to be always on? Do I respect boundaries? Do I use tools and platforms to interrupt people, just because I can? Are my conference calls mainly about me telling people what to do, esssentially being monologues packaged under the fancy sounding names “team calls”? Do I consider that what I say in such calls, merely reflecting top-down decisions, might upset people and suck the energy and motivation out of them? Does the very reason under each collaborative project or action contain something that is valuable and motivating all together?
And then start thinking about creating a positive, purpose-driven and human way of collaborating.
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