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Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration

April 06, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Stowe Boyd
By Stowe Boyd

Collaboration is such an expansive word, so we need to clarify what we mean when we ask a question like 'Are we collaborating too much?' At the most basic level, collaboration means one or more people working together on a shared task or goal, generally toward a business benefit. Other meanings for collaboration — such as companies working together, and the use of communication tools to collaborate — are secondary to the core sense of the word.

However, recent research suggests that the time we spend on communication tools — email, IM, phone, video — has soared 50% or more over the last 10 years, and now consumes 85% of most people’s work week. That doesn’t leave much time for non-collaborative work, does it?

What Kind of Collaborative Load Are You Carrying?

Perhaps the definition is less important than the experience of collaborating. Working with another person starts with one person asking one or more others to join an activity toward some end. Looked at from the ethnological perspective, every collaboration starts with an interruption. And in the modern workplace — whether virtual or IRL — that interruption can come in dozens of forms: a Slack message, an email, a phone call, an invitation to join a project in Microsoft 365, a face-to-face request in the elevator to the office, and on, and on.

Relative to the ‘collaborative load’ we have to shoulder, it’s not the medium of the request that matters, it’s the kind of request: what are they asking for?

Every collaboration starts with an interruption. | Stowe Boyd

Rob Cross, Reb Rebelde and Adam Grant offer a useful model by breaking requests for collaboration into informational, social and personal. Informational and social resources can be shared without a great investment of time. However, when asked for personal time investment — instead of sending a link to a document or making an email introduction, we might have to spend an hour in a meeting, and perhaps hours more in follow-up.

The balance that people seek to find, then, is this third area when we want to protect our scarcest resource — our time — while still helping others accomplish their goals. And this personal domain, the researchers argue, is what leads to 'collaborative overload.'

Related Article: Can Asynchronous Collaboration Survive Our Always-On Workplaces?

How to Balance Deep Work and Demands for Collaboration

So what are the best, proven techniques that allow an organization to balance the tension between individuals seeking to accomplish their own 'deep work' — as Cal Newport styles individual, heads-down work — and the organizational need to coordinate work across individuals, teams and networks?

The first consideration has to be thinking about those initial interruptions. Elana Feldman offers six strategies to make it more likely that the initial ‘ask’ is viewed positively: Assess how critical the task is, don’t pile on when people are overloaded, identify the best person to interrupt, pay attention to busyness cues, decrease the time burden on the person, and if possible, give advance warning.

A second technique is to maximize asynchronous communication, and move away from always-on culture. Instead of endless Zoom calls or Slack discussions, companies need to intentionally move as much collaboration as possible to slower, less strident channels, allowing individuals to pick the time to process requests.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that being kind means being available 24/7. | Caroline McGraw

A third consideration: a great deal of research shows that people do better by scheduling companywide time for 'bursty' communications — promote specific, limited timeframes for synchronous availability, leaving large segments of time undisturbed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, no meeting days have been shown to have enormous productivity benefits, and dramatically increased job satisfaction and lowered stress:

When meetings were reduced by 40% (the equivalent of two days per week), we found productivity to be 71% higher because employees felt more empowered and autonomous. Rather than being pinned down by a schedule, they owned their to-do lists and held themselves accountable, which consequently increased satisfaction by 52%.

While it may seem counterintuitive, our research concluded that having too many meetings detracts from effective collaboration, derails workers during their most productive hours, and interrupts people’s train of thought. Consequently, removing 60% of meetings — the equivalent of three days per week — increased cooperation by 55%. Workers replaced meetings with better ways of connecting one-on-one, at a pace suitable for them, often using project management tools to aid communication. In doing so, the risk of stress decreased by 57%, which improved employees’ psychological, physical and mental well-being.

In a slightly different take on blocking out time to structure collaborative time, companies might embrace less time in the office, and use that time for person-to-person or group work.

Removing 60% of meetings — the equivalent of three days per week — increased cooperation by 55%. Workers replaced meetings with better ways of connecting one-on-one, at a pace suitable for them, often using project management tools to aid communication. | Ben Laker, et al

Related Article: Collaboration Overload Is Crushing Innovation at Your Company

The Right Balance Improves Outcomes for Everyone

Companies will find as the pandemic fades to endemic, the emergency, all-hands-on-deck approach to getting things done has to evolve into a new way of working, one intended to protect individual deep work time while carefully managing the broad work demands that groups make on individuals. The right balance likely will be based on seeing individual time as the most critical resource, and erecting barriers to protect it. This, paradoxically, makes the lessened time collaborating much more effective, and everyone more productive.

About the Author

Stowe Boyd's calling is the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future. He also writes extensively about work technologies.

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