If you want to create an environment in which your employees can collaborate effectively, you must avoid “always-on connectivity”, write Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore and David Lazer for MIT Sloan Management Review.
It is now easier than ever before for colleagues to connect. We are “hyperconnected” say the authors.
This is largely down to digital collaboration tools, such as Slack and Zoom. The global market for these digital technologies was worth US$8bn in 2017 and is projected to have doubled to US$16bn in 2025.
Research indicates executives spend 23 hours per week in meetings, more than double the figure 50 years ago, and the average knowledge worker spends 65% of their working day communicating with others.
COLLABORATION: PROS AND CONS
Bernstein, Shore and Lazer conducted an experiment to find out if this hyper-connectedness helped or hindered problem solving, assigning individuals to 51 16-person organisations and asking them to work together to solve a complex problem using collaborative platforms.
The results of this experiment suggested that this sort of “always-on connectivity” allows information to be gathered more quickly but resulted in less innovative and productive solutions.
Coordination worked well for fact-finding tasks, but when it came to tasks that required imagination, it was “impossible to manage the creativity of multiple minds”. Using the collaborative platforms encouraged consensus, with individuals focusing on a small number of potential solutions rather than thinking big.
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
The authors conducted a second experiment to find out if there has to be a choice between efficient fact-finding and effective solutions, challenging a multitude of three-person teams to solve a complex problem. Each team operated under one of three conditions: no interaction; constant interaction; or intermittent interaction.
Groups with no interaction were the most creative, coming up with the largest number of unique solutions. The downside was that the quality of the solutions varied dramatically, from some of the best to some of the worst.
Groups with constant interaction were the most consistent, finding better quality solutions on average than the groups with no interaction, but finding the better solutions less often.
Groups with intermittent interaction “broke the trade-off”. In these groups, individuals experimented during their time working alone, allowing all team members to learn from each other’s solutions when working together. These groups functioned as a “collective intelligence”.
NEW APPROACHES TO COLLABORATION
It is the job of business leaders to “create an effective rhythm that alternates between rich interaction and quiet focus”.
The authors provide three models for effective collaboration:
- The light-switch approach. It is important to provide “coordinated unplugged times for heads-down work” during office hours.“Flicking the collaboration light switch is something that leaders are uniquely positioned to do, because several obstacles stand in the way of people voluntarily working alone,” write Bernstein, Shore and Lazer.
Individuals might fear being isolated or “left out of the loop”. Knowing what their teammates are doing and being able to adjust their behaviour to fit in is comforting. It is not, however, conducive to generating diverse ideas.
There are various ways for business leaders to provide the time for employees to switch off and work alone.
Apple, Google, Nationwide, Nike and Pearson have all introduced meditation spaces.
The Italian HQ of one of the world’s leading fashion houses literally flicks the light switch at 5.30pm each day, plunging the office into darkness, and forcing an end to the working day. If this is not practical, try periods of “mandated quiet time” throughout the working day, turning off collaborative tools and allowing employees to work alone without interruption.
- The Fitbit approach. Technology allows collaborative behaviour to be tracked, analysed and improved.This “relationship analytics” goes beyond simply measuring how much screen time we have had during the working week.
Microsoft offers tracking tools for both individual employees and companies that use calendar, contacts, emails and other Office 365 data to provide valuable information about how individuals are collaborating across an organisation.
MyAnalytics provides individual employees with information about their work patterns and suggestions for how to boost productivity. For example, it tracks how responsive they are to colleagues’ emails and alerts them if meetings are taking up too much of their calendar at the expense of “focus time”.
Workplace Analytics provides employers with collaboration trends within their organisation.
“Just as our Fitbit encourages more physical activity by making our current activity levels visible, these tools affect our collaboration behaviours by making those visible,” write Bernstein, Shore and Lazer.
- The design approach: The same tools that have enabled us to become addicted to connectivity can also help us to manage that addiction.Slack originally allowed complete transparency, with all communications visible to everybody using the tool. Under pressure from users, it introduced private channels and a status function so that users can inform coworkers when they are busy or offline.
Klaxoon is designed to vary the “rhythm of collaboration” depending on the task at hand and the needs of the individual users. For example, users can turn off the user ID and time-stamp features to avoid others judging them on how much they are collaborating.
As the authors highlight, technology companies solve the problems they are asked to solve. So far they have been asked to enable as much collaboration as possible. The more they are asked how to enable intermittent collaboration, the better the collaborative tools will become.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
Business leaders must change the culture in their organisations and make the job of improving the standards of collaboration across their organisations a “collective challenge”.
“Unless individuals feel safe to intermittently disconnect and see that behaviour modelled and rewarded by the leaders around them, they’re more likely to stay too connected, no matter what their managers say they expect and what kinds of tools and opportunities they provide,” write Bernstein, Shore and Lazer.