In modern business, collaboration is next to godliness. Firms shove their staff into open-plan offices to encourage serendipitous encounters. Managers oblige their underlings to add new collaborative tools such as Slack and Chatter to existing ones such as e-mail and telephones. Management thinkers urge workers to be good corporate citizens and help each other out all the time.
The fashion for collaboration makes some sense. The point of organisations is that people can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually. Talking to your colleagues can spark valuable insights. Mixing with people from different departments can be useful. But this hardly justifies forcing people to share large noisy spaces or bombarding them with electronic messages. Oddly, the cult of collaboration has reached its apogee in the very arena where the value of uninterrupted concentration is at its height: knowledge work.
Hitherto, knowledge workers have largely suffered in silence or grumbled in private because their chances of promotion have come to be influenced by their willingness to collaborate. But a backlash is setting in: the current Harvard Business Review (HBR) has a cover story on “collaborative overload”; and Cal Newport of Georgetown University has just brought out a book called “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”.
A growing body of academic evidence demonstrates just how serious the problem is.
…whereas managers may notice the benefits of collaboration, they fail to measure its costs. Rob Cross and Peter Gray of the University of Virginia’s business school estimate that knowledge workers spend 70-85% of their time attending meetings (virtual or face-to-face), dealing with e-mail, talking on the phone or otherwise dealing with an avalanche of requests for input or advice. Many employees are spending so much time interacting that they have to do much of their work when they get home at night.
Some employees are such enthusiastic collaborators that they are asked to weigh in on every issue. But it does not take long for top collaborators to become bottlenecks: nothing happens until they have had their say—and they have their say on lots of subjects that are outside their competence.
The biggest problem with collaboration is that it makes what Mr Newport calls “deep work” difficult, if not impossible. Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem. Many of the most productive knowledge workers go out of their way to avoid meetings and unplug electronic distractions.
Why have organisations been so naive about collaboration? One reason is that collaboration is much easier to measure than “deep work”: any fool can record how many people post messages on Slack or speak up in meetings, whereas it can take years to discover whether somebody who is sitting alone in an office is producing a breakthrough or twiddling his thumbs. The more junior the knowledge worker is, the more likely he is to spend his time doing things that are easy to measure rather than engaging in more demanding but nebulous work. A second reason is that managers often feel obliged to be seen to manage: left to their own devices they automatically fill everybody’s days with meetings and memos rather than letting them get on with their work.
…organisations need to do more to recognise that the amount of time workers have available is finite, that every request to attend a meeting or engage in an internet discussion leaves less time for focused work and that seemingly small demands on people’s time can quickly compound into big demands. Helping people to collaborate is a wonderful thing. Giving them the time to think is even better.