How to Identify Collaboration Overload and Recover Focus Time

Elliot Chan, Digital Marketing Manager6 min read

Collaboration is a critical part of successful teamwork. But it has led to workers spending up to 85% of their work time fielding messages and attending video calls.

And all this collaboration has a significant cost.

Rob Cross—professor of Babson College and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review (HBR)—and his colleagues coined the term “collaboration overload” to define the overwhelming responsibility workers feel to collaborate. This ultimately leads to bottlenecks and breakdowns in organizational workflow, as well as employee burnout.

Collaboration overload isn’t just the result of one project, though—it stems from many small events that add up over time.

Meetings, messages, and emails add to the overall workload, so much so that people don’t have time for their primary responsibilities. Moreover, knowledge workers are experiencing increased levels of stress due to the demand of always being available online.

In this article, we will learn more about collaboration overload, determine whether your organization is facing such struggles, and figure out how to help your team work better together.

The cost of collaboration overload

Businesses are losing $37 billion annually in unproductive meetings.
Not only do these meetings waste time, but they prevent workers from getting into the flow of their assignments. One meeting per day isn’t necessarily a big deal—but as we add more meetings and more people to the equation, the time required to prepare, attend, and recalibrate afterward adds up.

Direct messages are another constant distraction for digital workers. According to Microsoft , the number of chats sent per person via Teams since March 2020 has increased by 32%.

Every time a worker switches away from a task to respond to an email or message (regardless of its importance), it can take between 64 seconds to 23 minutes to regain focus. This fragmentation leads to stress, anxiety, and a decrease in performance quality.

When someone returns to their task after context switching, they are left with a phenomenon called attention residue : Their focus is divided between their current task and what had previously occupied their attention.

Conventionally, workers have two peak work periods: before lunch and after lunch. When those two peaks are filled with collaboration, workers naturally find themselves signing back on between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. to put in extra hours—which has led to the rise in the triple peak day . While this factor can be an advantage of flexible work, it can also have a lasting negative effect on a worker's personal time and well-being.

Collaboration impacts work in different ways—for instance, sometimes it’s helpful in generating new ideas or resolving a pressing issue. But it can also strain workers, keeping them busy but seldom productive.

A common cause of collaboration overload

Humans have been collaborating since the dawn of time. But a lot has changed over the years.

The rise of collaboration tools has led to discussions, feedback, and casual conversations happening instantaneously. And should priorities become misaligned, workers face a barrage of messages all day long.

Most businesses face an endless amount of work. And with multiple stakeholders who have different demands, it’s easy to ping team members and have them jump in to fulfill tasks on a whim. One simple request can snowball into more work, and before long, workers have countless meetings, long threads to read, and an expectation to provide and receive feedback at every touchpoint.

While a CEO would like to put the onus on teams to sort out their priorities, individual contributors don’t have the authority to clear their calendars or opt out of communication tools. When the leader makes a request or changes the work scope, employees are pressured to say “yes,” even when they should be saying “no.”

Unburdening team collaboration

When leaders are unable to measure the time spent and the impact of meetings, messages, and emails, they write off such collaboration as an invisible tax. While they likely keep detailed reports of revenue, budget, and other key performance indicators, they often have no idea how their team is working.

This lack of awareness forces leaders to make blunt, uninformed decisions that have unintended (and unmeasured) consequences. For example, we’ve recently seen major organizations implementing return-to-office mandates on short notice and purging all meetings without considering the full effect of such actions.

Leaders want to solve the collaboration problem with a simple flick of the switch. But without insight into their people’s work patterns, they cannot be certain that new regulations will lead to positive outcomes. And without the requirements to measure results, teams may drift back to their old working model, meaning the collaboration problem persists.

Leaders also want workers to figure out the solution on their own—but the problem can’t simply be resolved on the front lines. There must be structural improvement guided by clear insights. It’s the leaders’ job to provide collaborative intelligence , which then encourages the whole team to analyze digital work patterns and establish a shared understanding of a workday.

Understand your digital work patterns

We all have different work patterns and biases toward collaboration. Thankfully, digital work analytics—like Produce8 —provide a shared understanding, allowing the whole team to see where time is spent in meetings and when messages are pulling people away from focused work.

Also, you want to know which tools are relied on for collaboration and whether those tools are providing the desired results. For example, if your team is spending hours on Slack but constantly mishandling information, then perhaps a new approach to collaboration and tool usage is necessary.

When workers are empowered to share digital data about their well-being with a leadership team, the whole organization can work together to establish a better, healthier working model.

Once everyone has a common understanding of what work looks like, then you can begin discussing which collaboration variables can be optimized. Remember, collaboration is about people, and digital work analytics is most effective when the whole team uses it together.

Conclusion and further reading

There is no getting rid of collaboration. It’s a crucial part of business and life. However, we can start to ask better questions about how collaboration supports organizational goals, team productivity, and individual well-being. Doing this takes a strategic blend of analytical insights, tool usage guidelines, and a refreshed perspective of digital teamwork.

If you are exploring new ways your team can collaborate, we encourage you to take a look at incorporating some aspect of asynchronous work. This model can help reduce distractions during the workday, make collaboration more efficient, and provide a more flexible work experience.

Read more about asynchronous work here .

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