Collaboration without burnout

by | Jul 4, 2018 | Collaboration

I subscribe to Harvard Business Review because probably six times a year it publishes an article that immediately resonates with me. In a recent post I wrote about the problems caused by email overload. In the July-August 2018 issue of HBR Rob Cross, Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner have written a paper entitled Collaboration Without Burnout. This paper follows on from warning signals in a paper by Rob Cross in the January-February 2016 issue. One of the graphics in the 2016 paper shows that people who are highly rated by colleagues as a source of information and as highly desirable collaborators have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores. This mirrors the situation of employees receiving an unmanageable volume of emails.

In my consulting work I am constantly in meetings to undertake research or report back. As the time approaches the next hour mark people are already starting to pack up ready to move on to the next meeting with no time to prepare for it, and that probably continues throughout much of the working day. In another article in the July-August 2018 issue an analysis of the working day of CEOs suggests that 72% of their time is spent in meetings, 70% of which last an hour or longer.

We all like to be good employees and visibly support the organisation we work for. We do not want to get known as someone whose heart is not really in it. If there is a team we are invited to join we feel honoured to be invited even at the cost of failing to meet our personal goals. The technology vendors promise to make the act of collaboration easier and more effective without any metric of what ‘easier’ or ‘effective’ mean in practice. When I ask clients whether they track metrics for the impact that collaborative working is having on business performance they have no quantitative response. It seems that collaboration has a high ‘hope and anticipation’ score that if there are enough meetings something useful will come out of them. Perhaps a core metric of any investment in collaboration technology is that the time spent in collaboration is reduced but there is no diminution of high-quality outcomes.

The paper in HBR is a highly condensed version of a very good briefing paper (download) by Rob Cross published in 2017. The title is Reclaiming Your Day. How Successful People Manage Collaboration Overload and although it is just 13 pages long it is full of excellent advice on how to maintain what ever balance of meetings and personal time works for both you and your company. The actions are set out under the headings of Challenge Beliefs, Impose Structure and Alter Behaviours and I am impressed with the clarity and cogency of the advice.

However the responsibility cannot rest with the employee. Managers have to take their share of responsibility and HR has an important role to play from an employee engagement perspective. There is no shortage of advice – I offer some myself in a report on Working Together. It would be good to see papers at conferences talking about how they have reduced the time spent in meetings as a strategic objective to free up thinking time and still achieve business progress. The message of both the HBR papers is that if action is not taken soon then the consequences could be damaging to both employees and to the organisation.

Martin White