Although I do the majority of my work independently, I have other resources that I lean on from time to time. This weekend, I had the rare pleasure of traveling with one of them as we headed to a job. I enjoyed having another person to talk to while we traveled as well as being able to use the time to plan some upcoming work.
Although he’s more of an infrastructure expert, we share a lot of the same battles: dealing with corporate doublespeak, figuring out how to deal with other people’s emergencies, and having to explain to people why we can’t deliver solutions until we know what the business requirements are.
Both of us have recently had some interesting experiences with collaboration. A recent article in The Economist covers some of the ways in which collaboration goes too far.
I’ve experienced the collaboration curse several times. The IT department at my hospital was notorious for embracing collaboration tools at the expense of actually getting work done. We were so busy with Google Hangouts and HipChat and being collaborative that no one bothered to document requirements, decisions, and outcomes. We had a mix of workers at various career stages, some of whom weren’t terribly skilled with collaboration tools.
Our leadership didn’t want us to spend the time getting everyone on the same page. Add to that an inability to manage logins and permissions adequately (it’s hard to collaborate on documents you can’t edit) and it nearly destroyed some of the teams.
My travel partner experienced it on one of his contract assignments, where management responded to a lack of in-person meeting attendance by instituting compulsory collaboration. Teams of largely remote workers were forced to come into the office one day a week, where they sat on conference calls with other teammates that were working from home on those days. After that, management forced everyone to come in on a single day of the week, where many of the workers ended up sitting in cubicles all day and talking to no one.
I don’t disagree that collaboration can be a good thing. There’s no substitute for being able to work as a team and use diverse skill sets to move a project forward. Nor is there a substitute for getting to know one another as more than just a disembodied voice on the phone or a choppy image on a video conference.
But simply putting people in physical proximity isn’t necessarily going to achieve that outcome. Teams have to be able to work together productively and have to be freed to focus their efforts in the right direction in order to be most effective.
I once worked with an IT support team that estimated their non-productive overhead at 40 percent. That seemed high until I took them through the exercise of documenting all the non-value-added work they were performing on a daily basis. Inefficient corporate requirements sucked away valuable time. Just looking at the cost of highly-paid engineers who had to battle inefficient timekeeping and project tracking systems, we could have paid for a part-time administrative assistant and allowed the team to focus on their work.
When I perform consulting engagements where I look at IT team processes, I usually see at least 20 percent of the time spent on non-productive activities – scheduling, timekeeping, logistics, waiting for people to arrive at meetings, and rescheduling due to lack of key participants. That doesn’t take into account the productivity loss when people have constant interruptions due to misused collaboration tools – the productivity cost of instant messenger and email notifications has been significant for many of my clients.
Some of my favorite consulting work is helping clients fix this problem – developing communication plans, helping teams set boundaries, and assisting them in figuring out how to collaborate but still allow time for productive individual work.
I’ve written previously about the challenges of open office design, and have seen a couple of companies that are moving back towards more traditional workplace arrangements. Others are allowing employees to work at home more regularly in order to increase individual productive time.
One of my clients recently hired scheduling assistants to deal with competing meeting requests. The effort is part of a larger initiative to increase meeting productivity and it seems to be working. Rather than having dozens of workers trying to schedule around conflicts, time off, and available rooms, team members have to send a meeting request to the central scheduler. In addition to the participants and desired time frame, the request has to include an agenda with the purpose of the meeting and expected outcomes. They’ve actually seen the number of meetings start to decline.
It’s hard to sort out all the causative factors, but staffers cite fewer meetings where key people are double booked or unavailable, which lets them actually get decisions made the first time so they can move forward. The need to have an agenda and outcomes formulated before requesting the meetings has also reduced the number of meetings that didn’t need to happen in the first place.
It was a difficult transition, though, as people had to give up a little bit of calendar autonomy while adding scheduling discipline. Individuals had to clearly identify which appointments on their calendar could not be moved or modified while trusting the schedulers to make things happen for the greater good.
The concept isn’t that different than that of using centralized scheduling for radiology, diagnostic testing, or medical consultations. The schedulers can see all the available resources as well as the queue of requests and look for creative ways to work through constraints. It’s not something I’ve seen in the corporate environment though more than a handful of times. There has to be a balance between collaboration and focused work time as well as between tasks that have to be done personally vs. those that can be centralized.
How does your employer make the most of collaboration? Email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.