Collaboration tools are pervasive in the enterprise, but less so are practices for smartly managing the flow of information created in them, according to researchers and tech leaders who find these tools often lead to overload and burnout.
Anyone adding a new workplace chat app, for instance, could pick from dozens of options, and that’s part of the problem. They’re powerful tools for working across teams, time zones and distance. But the volume and velocity of the demands created, and the diversity of channels employees are expected to constantly monitor are wearing people out, said Rob Cross, a professor of global leadership at Babson College.
“Collaborative overload feels good right up until it doesn’t, Cross said. “You’re the king of the world. These drivers that you have personally taken on – accomplishment or status or helping – are being met right up until burnout. And then it’s really hard to get out because of the demands you put on yourself.”
Cross says he has interviewed dozens of successful business leaders who often say they’re stretched too thin across multiple apps for chat, email and meetings.
“You’re hearing stories that they’re overwhelmed,” Cross said. “They’re managing across nine of these platforms: Slack or Teams channels, IM, video, work management systems, gratitude recognition systems.”
Cross said the problem is especially noticeable in high-performing managers.
“These may ultimately be great tools, but all these technologies that are presumably making things faster are not really doing that,” Cross said. “Especially for managers who are all in on their careers, where people are counting on them. Nobody’s addressing the tax that’s being placed on people. There’s no chief collaborative overload officer. It always falls to the individual to figure it out, ‘How do I create some semblance of work and life?'”
“Collaboration app fatigue is real,” says Sebastien Ricard, CEO at Lum-Apps. “It’s no surprise that more choice leads to higher levels of stress. This has been studied by consumer behavior specialists. It’s no different in the workplace. Employees today are more reachable than ever, which sets expectations that they have to respond to every communication right away.”
Tim Mulron, CEO at Teaming, said he sees an over reliance on collaboration tools that’s sometimes coupled with a lack of direction.
“Ensuring that the mission of the team is clear, that the priorities are understood and we have agreement on how we operate eliminates a lot of unnecessary asynchronous communication,” Mulron said. “While it’s important that colleagues feel free to share, maintaining safe spaces is key to facilitating team engagement and team performance. Virtual collaboration tools should be used in moderation, like everything else. Just because you can message a colleague at 4 a.m., it doesn’t mean you should.”
Cross’ research found that collaboration takes up about 85 percent of a manager’s time, about twice what was required in the previous decade. He says another issue that exacerbates the problem is an increasing interdependence between teams of all kinds.
“Throw in time zones and globalization, that’s a big deal in terms of the way in which we have to collaborate more globally,” Cross said. “The interdependence of work has gone up as well, the complexity of what people are producing, whether it’s a car, drug, a consulting project or a financial transaction. There are more and more specialties that have to collaborate to produce these products. It’s really a whole slew of these things that’s not going away.”
Mike Hicks, vice president of marketing and strategy at Igloo Software, said he sees overloaded employees and leadership teams, who are either missing important messages or getting more than they can be expected to handle. “Neither scenario is ideal,” Hicks says, “and it leads to low employee engagement, and decreased productivity, which are both keys signs of virtual collaboration burnout.”
Signs of collaboration burnout
One likely indicator of overload is when collaboration and consensus are tied at the hip, and paralyze the decision-making process. “It’s great that collaboration tools give a voice to everyone, but someone still needs to decide when enough dialogue is enough,” Mulron said. “Collaboration tools are only as good as the teams who use them and the norms they’ve defined about getting work done and how they make decisions. Productivity is a trailing indicator of good business decisions – decisions being the operative word.”
Cross worries that collaboration burnout can be hard to spot because it builds over time rather than, as some might expect, in a series of surges.
“Over months or years, people just work a little harder,” Cross says, “a little deeper into the night and they eventually hit a threshold where they can’t keep up. They start to stress. Their creativity goes down and their negative reactions go up. You see people not fully engaged in meetings and you have to wonder how much coordination is actually happening, when you see them racing in and out of things and not executing. It can be a big deal.”
Some organizations are attempting to bring agile practices to address the problem. But Cross said they often find that the actual bottleneck in productivity occurs not from the tools themselves, but where a handful of connected employees are handling a disproportionate number of demands. And that still occurs after creating new workstreams. “You end up taking people out of existing workstreams and then putting them somewhere else,” he said. “But their old connections keep coming to them – they still have to get answers to keep things going. It creates significant overload in the system around some of your best players. How do you systematically shift those demands? What we find is that it’s much more about managing yourself than it is about the technology.”
Solutions to avoid burnout
Cross said most organizations aren’t taking stock of the types of demands being put on workers through collaboration tools and no one is tracking the amount of time spent using them.
“The really important thing is that it’s invisible as across organizations,” he said, “and until we get better at kind of seeing, OK, if we adapt Slack or Teams or Cisco’s product or whatever, what’s the actual impact on that pattern of connectivity and is it driving the results we want? Or is it having unintended consequences?”
The most effective collaborators Cross speaks with apply time management techniques that fit their work style to keep from being constantly distracted by collaboration. “Technology can help a little bit, but it’s not a technical issue. It’s more of a cultural and work management solution.”
Some people get email out of the way first thing in the morning, he says, while others focus on reflective work first then block out 30-minute segments for email. They’ll accept meeting invites but insist on a hard stop at half an hour rather than an hour. And they make sure meetings are focused, with agendas circulated beforehand and an email after to recap and establish next steps.
“They proactively shape their roles,” Cross said, “so that they don’t have people kind of continually pushing them back into collaborative demand.”