Collaboration Trends in the Modern Workplace

Thanks to technology and the supreme ubiquity of the internet, the world has become increasingly connected, leading to a more collaborative modern workplace. As a result, nearly 80 percent of the average worker’s time is spent interacting with, and giving feedback to, their fellow employees. Looping a coworker in on a discussion is as easy as dashing off an email — but is this true collaboration if too much email makes us less productive

First, it’s necessary to define what we mean by “collaboration.” The root of the word is deceptively obvious: “co” and “labor” — to work together. Musicians can collaborate on a song. Corporations can collaborate on a new venture. Increased collaboration pushes past preconceived boundaries, such as online interaction between a retail business and its customers (consumer collaboration). In the workplace, it takes form as increased participation across projects and teams that may not normally interact (workplace collaboration). Let’s examine some scenarios where more collaboration could impede or improve work.

The workplace superstar and the pipeline bottleneck

A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that in the past two decades, collaboration between managers and employees has grown by upwards of 50 percent. With the barrier of entry to collaboration lowered, getting more coworkers involved on a project is as simple as adding an invite to a calendar or cc’ing them on an email.

However, HBR’s findings are cautionary. In the modern workplace, more than 80 percent of an employee’s time is spent in collaborative activities like:

  • Reading and writing emails.
  • Making and answering phone calls.
  • Attending meetings both on and offline.

In other words, whether soliciting or giving feedback on projects or updating teammates on recent developments, modern employees have less time than ever to actually do their work.

In particular, HBR finds that 20 to 35 percent of value-added contributions come from only 3 to 5 percent of contributors. Those workers are the “extra milers” who consistently go beyond the call of duty. Let’s call our extra-mile employee Janelle. 

Janelle might be a coder who intimately understands the security systems her database is using. She may be brilliant at coming up with snazzy slogans, or the best manager in the workplace when it comes to motivating her team. Either way, Janelle is a hard worker who brings her work home with her at night, never cuts corners, and always offers prompt and thoughtful feedback when it’s requested.

No matter your field, your business benefits from having someone like Janelle on your team. However, as HBR points out, what begins as a virtuous cycle of collaboration can quickly become a vicious one. “Let’s get Janelle’s feedback on this” becomes “We can’t move forward without Janelle signing off on this.” What had originally started as a net boon to productivity is now a dangerous bottleneck. What’s worse, the increased workload on Janelle — in addition to everything expected of her normal role — places her at a higher risk for burnout and eventual employee turnover.

The necessity of work structure

This isn’t the only potential pitfall of an increasingly collaborative workplace. When more people are asked to chime in, it can become difficult to keep track of the whole picture. Let’s say Samit and Aiden are working on a project together. 

Samit, facing a roadblock, asks for help from his coworker Jeffrey in a quick, off-the-record email exchange. Aiden was not made privy to the emailed conversation. When reporting on their project’s progress to their manager, Aiden gives her an incomplete summation. When their manager gives her report in turn, it is similarly incomplete. Nobody in a position to make decisions has a full grasp of the project status.

Do these problems indicate that an increasingly collaborative workplace is destined to fail? Not at all. The struggles of Janelle, Samit, and Aiden aren’t making a case for “no collaboration versus collaboration.” Instead, they are cases for “structured versus unstructured collaboration.” 

Thus far, the increase in collaboration has largely been unstructured. It is neither planned, nor properly documented. Unstructured collaboration is an email that results in a solution, which is never disseminated to the rest of the project team; it is a topic broached in an online conference call that is never recorded. 

Thankfully, the rise of the cloud and increased prominence of collaborative work management (CWM) software enables an alternative. In a structured collaborative environment, the solution Samit and Jeffrey reach is noted on the project reports, enabling Aiden to properly inform the team’s manager of their progress. Similarly, Janelle’s contributions are properly logged. Her supervisor can visualize just how much extra work Janelle is taking on and take steps to forestall potential burnout. Shared documents that track changes and notify relevant parties, discussion groups with multiple participants, automated email alerts and the like — these are just some of the tools to enable structured collaboration.

We’ll look at specific industry trends regarding collaboration in later posts here on the Smartsheet blog. In the meantime, share your experience with structured collaboration in the Smartsheet Community or comments below, and try out a 30-day free trial to get your team on the same page.

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