Collaboration Overload Is Sinking Productivity,HBR by Rob Cross, Mike Benson, Jack Kostal, and RJ Milnor, September 07, 2021
When the Covid pandemic began, tools like Zoom and Slack became increasingly important methods of collaboration. Uber tracked the usage of these tools and saw: 1) a 40% increase in meetings and a 45%increase in the average number of participants per meeting; 2) a greater than 3x increase in Zoom meetings and Slack messages. These interactions resulted ina 30% decrease in focus time (defined as two-plus hours per day of uninterrupted time that can be dedicated to a task or project). Meanwhile, the team at Uber discovered a strong relationship between employees’ amount of focus time and their productivity, as measured in employee surveys. The data showed a collaborative overload “trap” in which people schedule and participate in more meetings to be more productive. These meetings have the effect of displacing focus time, which as a result can actually make employees less productive.
Uber found that employees were able to take more control over their workloads, and improve their feelings of well-being,when they had both the insights and the tools they needed to be successful. The company is addressing collaborative overload through a two-pronged approach of information and enablement. For example, the company ran an experiment in late2020 where they communicated the impact of focus time on productivity (along with tips for how to increase it) to a group of employees and then compared their focus time to employees who did not get this information. Focus time improved moderately for the informed group. In another experiment, they deployed an application that helped employees define the amount of focus time they needed, and then optimized their calendars for them by moving and managing meetings accordingly (working much like a virtual executive assistant). This led to about a 20% increase in focus time in the experiment group.
While still a work in progress, Uber’s experiments are showing that it takes both information and enablement to combat collaborative overload. Insights are necessary to provide employees with the context for action, but are not sufficient by themselves, because they don’t provide a channel for action. Specific interventions — such as focus time applications and workspace design — can enable more effective collaboration, but employees may not utilize them fully if they don’t understand the context behind why they are important. It takes both tools and context to make a real difference.
As they progress into 2021, Uber is pairing information with enablement to help its workforce collaborate more effectively, to increase their performance and improve their well-being. The company is incorporating insights and tips about collaboration (sourced from their people analytics and other teams) into company-wide meetings and communications,manager development resources, and employee newsletters. At the same time, they are continuing to enable their teams with tools and applications.
General Mills has shown how forward-looking organizations can help employees combat anxiety-driven overload. The move to remote work during the pandemic presented a unique challenge for General Mills. Not only were employees getting used to this new way of working, but demand for General Mills’ core products went through the roof as grocery store shelves emptied due to panic buying.
This created a collaborative context unlike anything the company had experienced in the past. The average time employees spent per week in collaboration at the start of March 2020 was 21.4 hours (based on internal General Mills data from Microsoft Workplace Analytics). By the end of July, average hours spent in collaboration had increased to 25.7 hours per week — an increase of 20%.
When the company combined this collaboration data with employee experience data, they noticed that negative employee sentiment was also increasing during this time. As a result, they were able to understand and take corrective actions to keep stress and burnout from continuing to accelerate.
One specific example, focusing on manufacturing and front-line employees, was branded as “Take Care Tuesday.” This weekly effort provided targeted, prioritized, and focused reminders to all leaders to help support overall well-being and team dynamics. Each targeted message focused on what a leader needs “to know” and quick tips on what “to do” — with the focus rotating each week from taking care of yourself, to taking care of others, to taking care of the business. For example, a recent Take Care Tuesday message —“Take Care of the Business” — reminded leaders “to know” that clearand consistent communication is essential during times of change and offered these tips of things “to do”:
These straightforward reminders, with practical action steps and links to additional resources on a regular cadence have been well-received by leaders and employees.
This was an important step. At that point in the Covid evolution, most organizations were more concerned with engaging virtual employees by piling on more meetings and emails. In contrast, General Mills had appropriate analytics in place to know this would have absolutely been the wrong thing to do — the correlation between fragmented time and both negative mood and employee fatigue was .55, meaning there was a very significant impact of collaborative overload on employee well-being.
The solution was to help people structure time differently, rather than invite them to more meetings. While this is not the sole, silver-bullet solution, General Mills is continuing to use data to help teams and individuals better manage the shifting nature of collaborative demands, especially as new teams are preparing for a more hybrid and flexible work environment.
Three key actions emerged from these analytic insights:
● The implementation of a “Free-Form Fridays”policy. Employees were instructed to leave their calendars blocked starting at 2:00pm every Friday, to provide dedicated space to engage in “deep work", catch-up on emails, and recharge.
● The initiation of more frequent pulse surveys focused on well–being and stress. Targeted actions emerged from a rapid cadence of employee listening. One action taken because of these surveys was more frequent, visible reminders from senior leadership to employees about the importance of prioritizing only the most important work and focusing onself-care. As an example, many senior leaders turned to video messages and a more frequent cadence of unscripted and authentic dialogue with their teams (and the company), in which they emphasized the need for prioritization, self-care, and a test-and-learn mindset.
● The development and deployment of “Ways ofWorking” training and tools for units with high levels of collaboration, stress, and negative mood. The “Ways of Working” interventions began by briefing leaders on the state of collaboration and mood among employees, and starting a dialogue about how the organization might act differently. Then, group sessions were held for each unit, teaching more effective practices and ways to guard against personally-driven collaborative overload.
As a result of these initiatives, General Mills was able to effectively mitigate the risks of collaborative overload increasing during their Covid work-from-home period that is still in effect. For units that received the dedicated “Ways of Working” sessions, results have been especially promising. On average, these General Mills teams have reduced collaboration time by eight hours per employee, per week. At the same time,these groups are reporting reductions in non-value-added meetings, and moreorganized meetings in general — all without any negative effects on stresslevels or moods. Additionally, the lessons learned from these teams are being integrated into new team launches and broader team effectiveness work aimed at supporting employee well-being and helping all teams at General Mills to be more effective collaborators.
Stop the Meeting Madness, How to free up time for meaningful work by Leslie A. Perlow,Constance Noonan Hadley, and Eunice Eun, HBR (July–August 2017)
Many executives feel overwhelmedby meetings, and no wonder: on average, they spend nearly 23 hours a week inthem, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s.
Most people spend almost 12 hours of their 40-hour workweek preparing for and attending meetings.
Most of us spend a ridiculous amount of time in meetings. While this can vary, if you’re in middle management, it’s probably around 35% of your time. For upper management? That figure jumps to 50%.
73%people do other work during the meetings:
HBR, Sarah GreenCarmichael, August 19, 2015
There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overwork does not help us. For starters, it doesn’t seem to result in more output. In a study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. While managers did penalize employees who were transparent about working less, Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.
Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for. Numerous studies by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and her colleagues (as well as other studies) have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep,depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs. Even the Scroogiest of employers, who cared nothing for his employees’ well-being, should find strong evidence here that there are real, balance-sheet costs incurred when employees log crazy hours.
If your job relies on interpersonal communication, making judgment calls,reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions —pretty much all things that the modern office requires — I have more bad news.Researchers have found that overwork (and its accompanying stress andexhaustion) can make all of these things more difficult.
This is something business first learned a long time ago. In the 19th century, when organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased – and that expensive mistakes and accidents decreased. This is an experiment that Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter repeated over acentury later with knowledge workers. It still held true. Predictable, required time off (like nights and weekends) actually made teams of consultants more productive.
Firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.
● Shifting to firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more heavily siloed — with fewer ties that cut across formal business units or bridge structural holes —and that those silos became more densely connected.
● The shift to firm-wide remote work caused synchronous communication to decrease and asynchronous communication to increase.
● Not only were the communication media that workers used less synchronous, but they were also less ‘rich’ (for example,email and IM). These changes in communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information.
● We expect that the effects we observe onworkers’ collaboration and communication patterns will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation.
Redesigning work for flexibility through the lens of employee experience, by Rhonda Elcock, Lesli Jennings and Nisha Buddig | May 10, 2021
Organizations need to start with understanding the fundamentals of their work design – where, when and how work gets done. A new approach – work personas.
People Analytics teams continue to grow – and HR job postings are spiking too (up 52.5% compared to pre-pandemic levels).
6 trends are challenging the way we work. These are: 1. Flexible work is here to stay, 2. Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call, 3. High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce, 4. Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized, 5. Shrinking networks are endangering innovation, 6. Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing, 7. Talent is everywhere in a hybrid work world
Figuring Out SocialCapital Is Critical for the Future of Hybrid Work, MIT Sloan Management Review, by Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson, July 01, 2021
The networks of employee relationships have been depleted during the pandemic, but companies can address this by focusing on three key areas in their return-to-work plans: 1. Think about the opportunities to develop weak ties. 2. Make online team formation a standard.3. Support younger employees in the organization.
4 Imperatives for Managing in a Hybrid World, HBR, by Kalle Heikkinen, William Kerr, Mika Malin, and Panu Routila,June 28, 2021
First, the virtual world does not treat roles and tasks equally, something that spans from how different levels of management experience hybrid work to who gets access to high-end video technology. Second, nuances between people matter even more, both in formal meetings and in everyday interactions. Third, strong central guidance is a must in holding amore nimble and dispersed organization together. And finally, crisis-proof processes must be revisited and adapted to take advantage of what a hybrid organization has to offer.
Lessons learned from companies:
11 lessons learned at Quartz after coming backto the office, the most important lesson: “Hybrid” actually means “remote”
How do people analytics help companies make the hybrid workforce successful?
The first is by starting with science. We actually don’t need to do research ourselves on every question. We can access some of the great work that’s been done already and make sure that we’re applying best practices from external sources to our business.
Other ways that analytics can help is by listening to what employees are saying and what they’re doing through feedback surveys. And then also looking at their behaviors, things like badging data, how often they’re coming into the office, digital exhaust, how well are they communicating across various platforms.
And the last area where analytics can help is through communication and really helping to tell the story of the company to our employees, to give employees confidence that their voices are being heard and actions are being taken based upon their feedback. / Scott Judd | eBay | Sr. Director People Analytics
We also remind ourselves that through impacting our employees at eBay, we’re actually impacting all of our users around the world. So my team of six people can actually be influencing the lives of over 185 million people around the world,which is a pretty amazing thing. / Scott Judd | eBay | Sr. Director People Analytics