January 29, 2016

The value of greater workforce collaboration

Today’s workplace is a very collaborative affair. Globalisation, employee mobility and the digital transformation have hugely changed how workplaces operate. Team working, collaboration, social networks and tools are now at the heart of most organisations.

When the global consulting firm Deloitte was asked by Google Australia to quantify the value of greater workforce collaboration, the results of its study, ‘The Collaborative Economy – unlocking the power of the workplace crowd’, were impressive:

– $46 billion a year – the value of faster-growing, profitable businesses with collaboration at their core
– $9.3 billion a year – additional value if companies make the most of opportunites to collaborate more.

Furthermore, Deloitte found that companies that prioritise collaboration are five times more likely to enjoy a considerable increase in employment, twice as likely to be profitable and twice as likely to outgrow competitors.

So far, so good. However, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that we have reached collaboration saturation point.

Why? The Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) piece in its Leadership and Managing People section, claims that collaboration is taking up too much time in the workplace. Employees already spend a considerable amount of time on activities that involve interacting with other people – meetings, telephone conversations, video conferencing, email…Add extra collaboration into the mix and how much time is left over for employees to get to grips with any work that demands their own, undivided attention? According to the HBR article, in many organisations, 80% of employees time is chewed up with these social activities. The result? Employees are under increasing amounts of stress to get through the same or increasing workloads, they take work home with them and the hours build up.

More damaging still, the HBR researchers say that collaboration overload is causing burnout among the most helpful, able employees. It says its research of more than 300 organisations demonstrates that up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only a very small proportion of the workforce – 3% to 5%. It tends to be the same people involved in collaboration each time. Those people who become recognised as being willing and able to help are soon swamped with constant requests for collaboration. This can result in those 3-5% of employees not having enough time left to be productive themselves, leading to heightened stress levels.

The research found that employees who have gained themselves the dubious reputation as being good collaborators in an organisation do not reap any benefits from their status. Their employers are not necessarily aware of their collaborative input and they tend to score much lower engagement and career satisfaction scores than their colleagues who are not constantly asked to collaborate. HBR says that this situation ultimately leads to these collaborators either leaving their organisation or staying, but with low morale.

Another repercussion of this over-reliance on a select few is that work and projects can stall until their input has been sought and given.

What can HR and employers do about this? It is a cultural, organisational-wide issue but there are a few small steps that can be taken to help the overburdened and reduce the collective need for unnecessary collaboration.

– Ensure that collaboration is not the preserve of a select few. Help the overloaded collaborators to only collaborate where it is really necessary and where their contribution will make a significant difference. Give them permission to say no to requests and to share out responsibilities with others.

– When they do collaborate, make sure their efforts are recognised and rewarded, to overcome this issue of lower morale and engagement.

– Make sure that your workforce as a whole doesn’t become over-reliant on collaboration. Encourage people to have the confidence to make decisions themselves.