Collaboration is no longer a nice-to-have, it's an organizational structure that defines our work environments. Whether we're talking about cross-functional teams, silos breaking down, virtual meeting rooms, huddles, stand-ups, or the myriad technologies that boost teamwork, collaboration has never been more essential to operations. The team - not the individual - is the secret to business success. 

But sometimes, despite your best intentions, employees can suffer from collaboration overload to the point of burnout. This happens when a team member becomes so overwhelmed with collaborative duties that she can no longer see above the parapet. Meetings, slack notifications and the avalanche of requests for input can leave your employees with little time to do their own work and can seriously damage their quality of life.

What does this mean for your team, and what can you do to prevent it?

Collaboration Overload - Death by 1,000 Cuts

According to the Harvard Business Review, collaborative responsibilities now take up around 80 percent of the average working day, leaving employees with little time for all the planning, analyzing and knowledge work they must complete on their own. Time is finite, but we seem to be wasting it on activities that add the least value to the organization.

This last point is emphasized in the HBR article which points out that a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. These 'extra milers,' while crucial to business success, are actually part of the problem, since projects often do not move forward until they've weighed in, even if the subject is outside their competence. If your top collaborator is so overburdened with collaborative responsibilities that they become ineffective, they essentially create a bottleneck where work does not progress.

For employees themselves, the situation is even more dangerous. Research by HBR shows that people who are in highest demand as collaborators have the lowest career satisfaction and engagement scores. Women are particularly at risk, since they carry the lion's share of collaborative work. Women are stereotyped as cooperative and caring, so they're expected to help others in need, provide mentoring, train junior colleagues, and jump from one ad-hoc meeting to another.

As a result, women use up far more of their personal resources as good corporate citizens and experience greater collaborative burnout than men.

How to Prevent Collaborative Burnout

Here are some tips to help ensure your team collaboration is healthy and efficient:

Balance 'we' time and 'me' time

Review what your organization is actually doing in the name of collaboration. Does teamwork simply mean more meetings? If so, rebalance the time spent on speaking, listening and working toward consensus with the time people need to spend alone in deep thought. Give weight to such unplugged tasks as analyzing, thinking and planning which can often be short-changed in a highly collaborative environment.

Keep meetings short and to the point

Make sure you only have the essential people present at meetings, which usually means those with subject competence and those with decision-making responsibilities. Keep your meeting agenda lean and be sure to circulate a status summary ahead of time. This gives everyone the opportunity to focus on what really needs discussing instead of wasting collaborative time passively listening to information that could have been disseminated in writing.

Don't aim for consensus

Often, managers assume that the best way of making collaborative decisions is to achieve full consensus. In reality, getting unanimous support for everything is unbelievably time consuming and virtually impossible to achieve. Instead, take a majority rules approach. Teach staff that it's OK to disagree, and set a deadline for those personalities who won't make decisions in a timely way - those who demand more information and more meetings, which creates a lot of work for others.  Encourage dissenters to support and promote the majority decision.

Communicate via project technology

Many organizations waste a lot of time on status update meetings where everyone goes around a table explaining what they are working on and what they have done. This information could be better captured via the dashboard of your collaboration technology or even via the dreaded email. Try to streamline the communication process as much as possible to cut down on facetime. Technology can reduce the pressure on Guardian personalities who might unconsciously create a situation of collaborative overload for themselves by always seeking to do the right thing.

Track data

One of the best ways to prevent collaborative burnout is to track the data about employees' workloads and the time they spend in meetings versus solo work. This can provide a big picture view, helping to identify people who are most at risk for collaborative overload. Employee surveys, CRM programs,  electronic communications tracking and a thorough review of your approval processes can all provide valuable data on who is doing what and where collaboration requests are coming from, so you can make the necessary structural changes.

Block out thinking time

Most of us are in the habit of scheduling meetings, but we tend to use 'white space' in the calendar for quieter work. The problem is, white space can be quickly overtaken by other appointments. Empower team members by encouraging them to purposely block out time for thinking, preparation and analysis instead of jumping on every meeting. This shows that you hold contemplation time sacred and empowers your people to say 'no' when they're in collaboration hyperdrive - especially valuable for the Introverts on your team.

Summing It Up

Healthy collaboration strikes a balance between team time and knowledge time for each individual team member. If you suspect that your team is feeling collaborative overwhelm, call a moratorium on meetings and spend some time implementing the strategies that will reduce the number of collaborative responsibilities. You might even find that you collaborate better when everyone has the opportunity to step back and think deeply about the big picture, next steps, and new ideas they may wish to contribute.

Jayne Thompson
Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.