When collaboration is confusing, productivity declines

At their best, digital workspaces are collaborative areas in which the need for personal contact is balanced by recognition of the focus and productivity advantages of quiet, more personal space.

Deloitte claims Cisco generated over a billion dollars in business benefits when it adopted Web 2.0 collaboration solutions. The value to your enterprise will be different, but everyone wants to harness locked-in benefits like these. Properly deployed, these solutions unleash productivity benefits: improving communication, enhancing project management, making teams more agile and autonomous, accelerating tasks and boosting employee satisfaction. So, why isn't it working for everyone?

After the gold rush

Think about the digital collaboration tools you use. A 2017 Spiceworks survey claimed organizations on average use 4.4 different services – including web, audio, video and chat – across three different providers.

Most enterprises use email, messaging, telephony and videoconferencing. Many use task planners, cloud applications and online data services. Some use enterprise social networks and third-party collaboration tools.

That's a lot of services trying to grab your team's attention.

The problem is that many enterprises adopt an ad hoc approach to these solutions. Even within a company, different teams may use different solutions. "Humans naturally form into small groups (teams) and larger communities (tribes). People will identify with those groups, often more strongly than the wider enterprise in which they work," Graham Winter, former Chief Psychologist for the Australian Olympic team and Founder of Think One Team told Raconteur.

This creates the danger of silos in which contacts are held in one solution, data in another and communications take place in a third, even though the three services don't work well together. That's amplified if different teams adopt different tools.

Bring the noise

Various studies have shown that looking at email can reduce your focus on your task at hand. A University of British Columbia study found that when you reduce such checks to three times a day, stress levels also fall, which means employees feel more able to complete their tasks. The problem is that when you must monitor multiple channels, the time and stress of just keeping up increases.

That's even before you think about how silos in information, services or organizations create a productivity-damaging knowledge gap. A 2012 CEB survey of 5,000 enterprise employees found that under 44 percent knew where to find information they needed for their day-to-day work.

Not only is it possible that inefficiently deployed collaborative productivity systems may actually damage productivity, but they may also contribute to workplace stress. Workplace stress costs up to $190 billion in the U.S. alone – around 8 percent of national healthcare spending.

Digital privacy loss

What is the cost of digital distraction? Just hearing your phone alert can hurt your productivity by causing "task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering," according to researchers at Florida State. If it takes 15-minutes to get properly focused into a work task following a distraction, then it is reasonable to think every digital interchange an employee is exposed to will create similar concentration problems.

Plantronics Chief Marketing Officer Amy Barzdukas told The Australian that workers in open plan environments "lose about 86 minutes per day due to distractions." A University of Sydney study also found noise and privacy loss to be the main causes of workspace dissatisfaction.

Digital natives coming into the labor market already recognize the need for creative solitude within digitally-connected space. A recent Oxford Economics study found that Millennials want "the ability to focus and work without interruptions" and "less noise in the workplace."

Boosting productivity

It's in an employer's best interest to minimize such frictions. They should adopt collaborative tools that actually work together and must also ensure that an organization's existing silos are not reflected in similar incompatibilities in digital space.

Think about the time saved if an enterprise of 1,000 people reduces the time spent wasted on unnecessary digital tasks by just five minutes per employee per day – that works out to be over 80 hours of lost productivity per day.

Here are some suggestions to help realize better collaboration across your enterprise:

  • Inspired strategies, such as the Pomodoro Technique, in which users break their days into 25-minute focus sessions followed by short breaks are shown to be highly effective
  • Systems (such as Apple's Screen Time) that help employees analyze, understand and optimize how they use their devices may help identify damaging performance bottlenecks
  • Don't confuse notions of "always available" with the idea that all requests are equally important
  • Empower employees with the autonomy to work asynchronously. They will get more done if they protect blocks of time to focus on their tasks, dealing with less essential matters when they can
  • A recent SUNY Buffalo study claims being unsociable can promote creativity, so long as the state is voluntary and the opportunity for access and interaction remains available

If your existing collaboration systems create confusion across your workplace, then they may be undermining productivity. It's never enough to simply throw technology at a problem. To find the right solutions, you must first understand the problem you hope to solve. Now, where's that email?

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Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.