Work Life

The real reason your to-do list keeps getting longer

Photo of Holger Reisinger
June 6, 2017
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3 minutes

Employees today spend too much time collaborating and too little concentrating, which is bad for both them and our organizations. Find out how we can reverse the trend and restore balance to these critical work modes.

You can never have too much of a good thing, the old saying goes.

Or can you?

That’s what I wondered when I saw a news headline stating that researchers found that employees today spend 50% more time collaborating than they did 20 years ago.

On its face, it was positive news: We’ve finally managed to erase barriers between employee groups in our organizations. That means we’re working together more closely and almost certainly accomplishing great things, right?

Yet it also seemed too good to be true. So I looked up the report and, sure enough, there was dark news hiding behind that glowing headline. Lots of it.

A professor at Babson College, in the U.S., and two colleagues analyzed 300 organizations over 20 years and found plenty of negatives associated with this surge of collaboration. The most notable were its lopsided distribution of work on specific employee groups, resulting in high levels of stress and burnout. This isn’t good news for us or our organizations, and I urge you to take a look at the report.

When More Isn’t Always Better

Those important findings aside, my issue with collaborative overload is balance. Collaboration is just one of four work modes our employees are constantly shifting in and out of every day while performing their job duties. The others include conversation and communication – which describe how they get their work done – and concentration, which is particularly important to the growth and well-being of our organizations.

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Concentration is that critical time when employees zero in on their tasks by reflecting, conceptualizing and synthesizing in order to make good decision. More simply: it’s when they get their day-to-day work done. Plus it’s that precious “alone time” where inspiration can strike like a bolt out of the blue – that “Ah-ha moment” that becomes the next big idea, hit product, key acquisition, you name it.

While a collaborative effort is required to bring these bursts of inspiration to fruition, most originate as a single thought or brainstorm from a lone person.

But as collaboration increasingly gobbles up concentration time, our organizations are deprived of the benefits of our employees’ day-to-day work, not to mention those “Ah ha” moments that are so critical to our success. To make up for this declining productivity, our employees must work longer and harder, causing added stress and burnout.

How to Achieve a Better Balance

It’s clear that we need to help employees take back their time and restore the balance between collaboration and concentration.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do this, and here are a few:

  1. We need to instill a culture where employees feel comfortable stepping off what I call the “hamster wheel,” by empowering them to shut off Outlook or turn on their “busy” or “do not disturb” settings, when necessary, to block out unwanted intrusions.
  2. We must provide employees with the right tools to reflect, think, brainstorm, create value and accomplish their day-to-day tasks. These could include private meeting spaces, quiet rooms, work-from-home policies and noise-canceling headsets. Sure, they’re a capital investment – but a smart one.
  3. Finally, we can simply start reducing the number of meetings. This isn’t as big of a cultural shift as it may appear. It’s really as simple as asking ourselves: Does this issue absolutely require a meeting? If so, go ahead. If not, skip it and give employees a bit more concentration time.
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Can there ever be too much of a good thing? It sure looks that way. So let’s strive to strike a better balance between collaboration and concentration.

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