There’s no doubt that teamwork and collaboration—when done right—can make a huge difference in people’s individual and collective effectiveness.

But there’s a flip side. Teamwork and collaboration, despite all the warm and fuzzy wall posters in the company cafeteria, can produce unintended consequences. Conventional wisdom on teamwork and collaboration has created a kind of “always-on” work environment. For both remote and in-person work, an “always-on” mentality contributes to burnout, anemic performance, weakened innovation, and sinking levels of engagement.

Does this sound familiar?

Rob Cross feels your pain. He’s head of a business consortium of more than 70 of the world’s leading organizations and has invested decades in studying leadership and performance practices at more than 300 organizations.

Rob is author of Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being.

With compelling case studies and research data, Rob can help you reclaim close to a day a week by:

  • Identifying and challenging beliefs that lead to collaborating too quickly.
  • Imposing structure in your work to prevent unproductive collaboration.
  • Altering behaviors to create more efficient collaboration.

If making better use of your time and other resources sounds appealing, consider the tips Rob offers in our recent conversation.

Rodger Dean Duncan:  For generations, “teamwork” has been the goal of leaders in every kind of organization. But you say too much of a good thing (collaboration) contributes to stress, burnout, disengagement, and a marked decline in individual performance. Tell us about the research that leads you to that conclusion.

Rob Cross: In my consortium, the Connected Commons, have worked with more than 300 leading organizations, conducting Organizational Network Analysis to map collaboration for groups ranging from a couple thousand to 100,000. This analytic approach to collaboration helped us see a series of trends.

First, pre-pandemic, people were spending roughly 85% of a given work week in collaborative work—on the phone, on email, in meetings and engaging with various IM and team applications. Through the pandemic this number has gone up five to eight hours and is drifting earlier into the morning and deeper into the evening.

When we overlay either performance measures—such as revenue production, patent counts and HR ratings—or measures of wellbeing—such as ratings on engagement, resilience or career satisfaction, we found that people who passed certain thresholds of collaborative demands experienced stark declines in both performance and well-being.  Not only were they less effective, but it also negatively impacted those around them.

Some did manage these contexts well—remaining high performers and also scoring high on well-being measures. I came to call these my efficient collaborators—those who were 18% to 24% more efficient than their peers—who could then use this freed up time to collaborate in ways that generated greater scale in their work, and reinvest in themselves.

These are the exemplars we learned from to help others better navigate this hyper-connected world.

Duncan: What are some of the most common—and seemingly benign—collaboration practices that do more harm than good?

Cross: There are a lot of these.

One of the things that people often miss is that it is not just the volume of collaborative demands that is crushing us but also the diversity of these demands.  Never have we had more ability for very different kinds of requests to come at us within a given hour—or even minute—than today. These create switching costs that drain more time than we realize. Cognitive psychology shows that just the act of looking down at a text and back up can be a 64-second loss as we get back up to speed mentally. If the interruption is so deep that we lose our train of thought – or what psychologists call a schema – then this can be as much as a 23-minute recovery time.

Rob Cross

This is real time that eats into our mornings and evenings. But our tendency in the moment is to answer the quick IM, keep ourselves available to our team in the collaborative tools or try to respond as rapidly as possible to all requests to show that we are “there” and working. The better answer is to develop a rhythm of work that is effective for you and to block time or put structure into collaborations. For some this means an hour or two-hour block in the calendar for reflective work. For others it means scheduling time to respond to emails three times a day for 30 minutes, communicating to others when to expect to hear from you. The key is imposing some level of structure that lets you be effective and not over-run by the system.

Another thing that has happened to most of us over the last year or so is an effort to cram more meetings into the same work day. So, for example, we have gone from days with eight one-hour meetings pre-pandemic—which felt busy enough and had us working deeper into the night—to days where we have 16 30-minute meetings.

These efforts to cram more in do three things: (1) our intensity in these blocks has gone up as we have to accomplish more; (2) we are switching more rapidly across more domains throughout the day which is draining cognitively and (3) we end the day with a to do list based on 16 meetings and not eight. No wonder we are seeing people’s work lives expand into personal time through this process.

We need to be more intentional in the way we work. One easy practice is to examine your calendar and email threads four months back and look not for the large items but the myriad small ones that are draining your time—meetings you are pulled into that you don’t add unique value to, emails you are answering when someone else should but it feels quicker in the moment, portions of your role that are either not value add anymore or things that others could do and learn from the experience.

Question your involvement. Remove yourself where it makes sense. Look for ways to shift some of the routine interactions to less connected colleagues. The efforts will help take you out of an overload position while also helping pull them into the network and make them a more valuable resource in the future.

Duncan: What role does FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) play in collaboration overload?

Cross: In doing my research for my book, I was absolutely sure the “enemy” of collaborative overload was external—it had to be emails, time zones, nasty bosses and demanding clients. But I quickly found that 50% or more of the problem is us!  Every person I interviewed could recount not just one but many times where overload had happened to them—sometimes with painful repercussions—where they had been the enemy, by voluntarily jumping into the work.

We all have these triggers built up around how we think we add value and need to show up in today’s hyper-connected world. These lead us to jump into collaborations when we would be better off not engaging. For some people this happens from a strong view that leadership and being a good colleague means helping directly, as quickly as possible.  This is noble, but it also leads to overload if you allow yourself to become the path of least resistance for too many problems and requests. Other triggers I found over and over in my interviews included need for status, desire for accomplishment or fear of what colleagues might think.

But perhaps no trigger of collaborative overload reared its head more than FOMO or fear of missing out. Many of even the most successful people would routinely over-load their plate being absolutely sure that the opportunity passing them by now would be the last one of all time!  What I learned is that those people who had greater clarity on what I call north star aspirations were less susceptible to this in the short and long term. By this I don’t mean anything abstract. Just that they were clearer on capabilities they wanted to be using in their work and values they wanted to experience in their careers over the next five years. As one of my favorite interviewees put it, “This anchor helped me turn FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out—to JOMO—Joy Of Missing Out.”

Duncan: In what ways do poor collaboration practices have an adverse effect on people’s mental and physical health?

Cross: What we have very clearly seen is that as people move into their mid to late thirties they tend to fall out of activities and groups that were keeping them healthy.  This is a natural inflection point where home responsibilities are often greatest and careers begin to take off in significant ways. In this timeframe, though, people begin to experience stress in large doses at precisely the point they are losing the activities and people that helped them cope.

What I can clearly see with the happier people in my work is that they dogmatically maintained involvement in at least two and usually three groups outside of work. These groups could come from any and all walks of life—athletic endeavors, book clubs, religious affiliations, civic involvement or music to name just a few. But they played a critical role in adding dimensionality to the person and their identity that enabled them to be broader than the vagaries of work.

In contrast, when people became uni-dimensional around work—in other words, when work success was the sole (or close to sole) driver of life success—the stories never ended well. These people experienced the minutiae of work more deeply and invested less in family and relationships that are a source of well-being. Not only is there a direct link to physical health in this but also to a range of measures of happiness.

Duncan: How can leaders help create a social ecosystem that enables people to produce top-quality results while avoid collaboration overload?

Cross: One problem today is that even though collaboration is the central way to get work done in today’s de-layered, technology-enabled and agile work contexts, we don’t measure it. Think about this a moment. Pre-pandemic, people were spending 85% of their time in collaborative activities and this figure has grown close to 50% over the past decade. What other expense can you think of that would expand this much and CFOs not be all over? Somehow we can track expenses down to two decimal places but we haven’t invested the effort to see where 85% or more of people’s time is spent.

This has to change as leaders create roles and expectations for people going forward.  Too often they are thinking of the task at hand, and ignoring the collaborative footprint of the work. Two tasks can look similar but if one is coordinating within a unit, while another requires someone to collaborate across time zones, engage two units with competing incentives and convince another two leaders that don’t like each other to work together that is a massively different effort. Stopping cultural norms like an “always-on” work expectation, being more mindful of the collaborative footprint of asks, and not putting employees in untenable positions is critical as we move forward.

Duncan: What do people best do with this freed up time?

Cross: So many people focus on collaborative efficiency. But this is only the first half!  It is equally critical to see what the high performers I studied did with that freed up time that was unique. Otherwise, we can buy time back only to do things that are getting us in trouble more rapidly—like today’s 30-minute meeting craze!

What I felt was equally critical about these high performers is that they spent about 20% to 25% more time exploring possible ways of collaborating with others. This means that when opportunities came their way they responded far more broadly with these connections. They ended up winning because they produced a better outcome while simultaneously building a better network that brought them opportunities.

Second, the biggest predictor of my high performers was that they created energy in networks around them. In other words, they engaged with others in ways that energized and supported these high performers’ efforts. As a result, the high performers I studied tended to have better opportunities flowing their way, greater creativity and innovation around them and other high performers that wanted to work with them. So, they were winning not because they were happy people, but because they were getting scale in the network interactions around them.

We’re talking about a fundamentally different approach to networking. People are freeing up time to engage differently, not just jamming more meetings into a packed day. This does require mindfulness and persistence to reduce overload. What do you think the first two things you stop doing are when you are over-whelmed? Exploring in the network and engaging others in ways that spur their energy!

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan