Is Collaboration Dead?

Danielle Beurteaux

The most recent reports on how things are going at Zappos, which began the switch from a hierarchical leadership model to holacracy in 2013, are mixed: The company has a high turnover (although the company says the turnover is about average)—30 percent last year—and some employees reportedly feel unmoored by the lack of a clear, conventional hierarchy and reporting structure.

There’s research that shows many employees like a conventional structure: It grounds them and gives ambitious workers a sense of where to go next (up the ladder, hopefully). The “flat” structure of holacracy—in which no one has a defined, permanent role—is collaboration-focused, which is one reason Zappos made the change.

How timely, then, that the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review features a cover story about excess collaboration. Collaborative Overload details the large increase in meetings and other workplace activities that can be considered collaborative, and how collaboration can skew workplace responsibilities, leading to inefficiencies and inequities. The article’s authors found that only 3 to 5 percent of employees are responsible for one-third of “value-added collaborations.” Employees become tired and overwhelmed. If they stay, their work engagement and happiness tumbles. If they leave, they take all that valuable knowledge and experience with them.

Co-author Rob Ross says that technology that enables (and sometimes encourages) 24/7 access, the global economy, and corporate structures have combined to create a situation where collaboration is overused. He calls it “an interesting organizational phenomenon, because it’s kind of invisible – you’ve got this massive drain on a key resource, and everybody knows it, but there are no formal mechanisms for dealing with it.” (He actually does offer some recommendations for how to handle too much collaboration.)

The HBR piece seems to have hit a nerve. The Economist’s response, titled The Collaboration Curse (spoiler alert: they’re not a fan), points out that the cost of excess collaboration includes spending excessive amounts of time in meetings, answering emails, and performing other collaborative exercises. This in turn leaves no time to get actual work done and leads to longer work days.

Another causality of collaboration, The Economist points out, is the ability to engage in focused work, distraction-free. Georgetown University professor Cal Newport wrote a new book on this subject: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He describes Sophie Leroy’s research, which finds that when we quickly switch from one task to another, we’re left with “attention residue”—our minds remain stuck on what we just did rather than what we’re trying to do now. As we switch to new tasks, the residue snowballs. As Newport writes, “the attention residue concept…implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-​distraction is potentially devastating to your performance.”

We’ve come to associate busyness and distraction with productivity and responsibility, but we already know that multitasking doesn’t work. So why do we keep valuing it?

Will companies begin to institute periods of deep work to balance out collaboration? Maybe. But if we want our employees to perform at their best, we should really think about it.

Want more insight on managing collaboration in the workplace? See The Relationships Between Collaboration And Mobility.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.