At a glance
The amount of time dedicated to meetings has meant we often work longer days in a bid to play catch-up.
One of the larger studies into the issue of overwork, by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, has gathered data from 16 cities in Europe, the US and Israel, showing that overall meeting attendance has increased by 12.9 per cent as compared to pre-pandemic levels, while the number of people attending meetings has gone up too, by 13.5 per cent.
On the plus side, meetings are becoming shorter and, therefore, possibly more focused.
Rob Cross, leadership professor at Babson College in the US, is convinced the trend towards over-collaboration began long before the pandemic.
“Dysfunctional collaboration”, as he calls it, is when the pace, volume and diversity of meetings, phone calls, email, instant messages (IMs) and other collaborative platforms erodes performance and wellbeing, often leading to burnout and attrition.
Cross’s latest book, Beyond Collaboration Overload, is a practical guide based on the collaborative habits of top performers. Cross says these people are able to reclaim almost a day a week “by structuring their work differently, managing personal biases to collaborative work and engaging efficiently across collaboration platforms”.
Professor Chris Jackson, from the School of Management and Governance at the University of New South Wales, believes that remote working and the emergence of hybrid work models means that communication is becoming more formalised.
“Instead of a two-minute conversation you may have in the corridor, you have to sit down and have a formal meeting,” he says.
Easeful conversation and office gossip suffer as the result, with people more guarded about what they contribute in this more structured environment, and conversations are more above-board, says Jackson.
“Employees also have so many IT platforms they feel the need to watch to stay in the loop. It’s not just email – there can be Slack, Zoom, Facebook and Google group chats. Messages are coming from different directions, and it is time-consuming keeping up,” says Jackson.
Be strategic in your collaborations
The feeling of being overwhelmed by the pressure to collaborate often comes down to our inability to say “No”, says Dr Amantha Imber, founder of organisational consultancy Inventium.
“The tendency to be a people-pleaser who ends up saying ‘Yes’ to everything is common,” says Imber.
“But when you’re overloaded, you’re not going to do a great job.”
She recommends some self-analysis – recognising when a desire to help, a desire to boost your status or even a fear of missing out result in your taking on too much work.
“Be strategic,” Imber suggests. “Consider where you are uniquely placed to add value and whether that aligns with what you are being asked to do in any collaboration.”
Ask the questions many people don’t: namely, how does this cross over with my individual goals, the team goals or the organisation’s goals?
Make your networks smart ones
Cross acknowledges that networks are crucial to good work performance and happiness in today’s hyperconnected world, but he argues that having a large network is a recipe for disaster, professionally and personally.
“The most successful people outperform through a well-invested set of connections,” says Cross.
Leveraging network diversity in the early stages of a project or a problem-solving effort can produce more impactful outcomes among high achievers, he says.
Being proactive in reducing the micro-stressors that leave you exhausted by the end of the day is another key tip. Forbes estimated that an average employee spends more than 10 hours a week on email.
To shift focus onto more impactful work, Cross says you should get agreement with your team on norms around emails or IMs, while Imber suggests only focusing on emails for an hour every day.
When you feel like you are being pulled in multiple directions, Imber suggests following the advice of Adam Grant, management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who says: “I like to start a week by asking myself, what are three things I want to accomplish, and who are three people that I want to help, or three ways I want to be helpful.”