Collaboration Without Burnout

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As organizations become more global, adopt matrixed structures, enable 24/7 communication and offer increasingly complex products and services, they are requiring employees to collaborate with more internal colleagues and external contacts than ever. According to research from Connected Commons, most managers now spend at least 85 percent of their work time on email, in meetings, and on the phone; and the demand for such activities has jumped by 50 percent over the past decade. 

Companies benefit, of course:  Faster innovation and more-seamless client service are two by-products of greater collaboration.  But along with all this comes significantly less time for focused individual work, careful reflection, and sound decision-making. 

In a 2016 Harvard Business Reviewarticle Harvard Business School Professor Rob Cross dubbed this destructive phenomenon “collaborative overload” and suggested ways that organizations might combat it.  Over the past few years, Cross and his associates Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner have conducted further quantitative and qualitative research to better understand the problem and uncover solutions that individuals can implement on their own. Working with twenty global organizations in diverse fields (such as software, consumer products, professional services, manufacturing, and life sciences), they started by creating models of employee collaboration and considering the effect of those interactions on engagement, performance, and voluntary attrition.  They then used network analyses to identify “efficient collaborators,” people who work productively with a wide variety of others, but who use the least amount of their own and their colleagues’ time.  Next, they interviewed 100 men and 100 women, all of whom were efficient collaborators, about their working lives.  In the process, they learned a great deal about how overload happens and what leaders must do to avoid it so that they can continue to thrive.  Their results were reported in a July/August 2018 Harvard Business Reviewarticle titled, Collaboration Without Burnout.

Not surprisingly, Cross, Taylor and Zehner found that always-onwork cultures, encroaching technology, demanding bosses, difficult clients,...

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