Collaboration Is Great. But Is It Productive?

Collaboration is increasingly used in U.S. businesses — so much so that words like “explosion” are frequently used to describe the growth in it. The days of a single person working with a single manager are over in a rising number of organizations. The team is in.

Collaboration also undeniably has many positive effects. It can increase communication among departments and project members. It can upgrade expertise. It can enhance flexibility.

Collaboration Does Have Some Drawbacks

But collaboration also has some downsides.

The first is simply the increased time and resources that working collaboratively takes. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School notes that 86% of the average employee’s time is believed to be taken up with e-mail, phone conversations, or meetings — time they attribute largely to the demands of communicating with collaborators.

Collaboration can also disproportionately draw on the most talented collaborators, which means they are subject to tremendous time demands. Wharton cites a Harvard Business Review study showing that 3% to 5% of employees generate the most valuable collaborative efforts.

Women as a group can also end up being devalued in collaborative environments. Why? Because collaborative efforts often involve being perceived as helpful and available, qualities women are disproportionately expected to display naturally. They can be viewed negatively if they don’t exhibit these qualities all the time.

Finally, despite corporate America’s embrace of collaborativity, performance appraisals haven’t followed suit. They are still largely geared to measuring individual performance, which can lead to good collaborators whose work may not be reflected through an individual lens being penalized as well.

Firm time structure may be needed to ensure productivity and collaboration at the same time.

How to Increase Productivity in a Collaborative Environment

All these factors noted, collaboration is likely here to stay.

How can productivity be enhanced? It’s a good idea to remember that no individual in a collaborative environment can ensure their productivity entirely alone. Organizations and individual employees need to work together to make sure that the twin business strategy goals of productivity and collaboration are achieved.

First, encourage employees to structure their time. Individual employees can time block periods for individual tasks.

When meetings and teleconferences are needed, plan to structure them as well. Meetings without a time limit can devolve into very long sessions with minimal accomplishment. A half-hour is a reasonable limit for meetings with specific goals.

Second, rotate employees to build experience in different departments. One of the time-consuming elements involved in collaboration is building familiarity with various departments. Rotation is a method that ensures that multiple people are familiar with multiple departments.

Third, encourage employees to recognize trade-offs. It’s likely that some collaborators will become viewed as must-haves for multiple projects. If that happens, the employees in question may commit to many different projects. They may end up having less time for individual tasks, solo projects, or time outside of work. They may become fatigued — or collaboration-fatigued as a result. Make sure they know the potential drawbacks.

Collaboration is valuable to U.S. corporations. It does, however, have some downsides as a method and practice. Organizations can encourage productivity by facilitating structure, rotating employees among departments, and making sure good collaborators recognize trade-offs.