My Top Tips for Avoiding Collaboration Overload

Yes, collaboration overload is a thing and it’s severely impacting our productivity.



Collaboration overload is a relatively new phenomenon that’s become more prevalent in the era of remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s defined as:

“the point where individuals spend so much time assisting their colleagues or engaging in collaborative activities that they are not left with enough time to complete their tasks.” — NTask

Publications like Harvard Business Review and McKinsey are saying it’s sinking productivity and leading to increased stress levels and burnout in employees.

Anyone that has a desk job is probably already thinking about all the collaboration tools they use from day to day:

  • Email

  • Microsoft Teams

  • Slack

  • Webex

  • Zoom

While email has been around for a while, video conferencing and instant messaging apps have increased in popularity over the last decade as a way to make collaboration easier amongst employees in different geo-locations.


Then, when the pandemic happened, it became the only way to keep in touch with colleagues we used to work next to every day. We went from being able to swivel our chair and say, “Hey, got a minute?”, to having to resort to email if the company didn't have a tool like Teams or Slack implemented.


Now, two years since the start of COVID-19, we’re experts in working from home, but we aren’t experts in controlling the collaboration overload that comes with the constant stream of email, IMs, and ad-hoc meetings.


Some argue that IM conversations and ad-hoc phone calls have replaced coffee breaks and watercooler chats, but we still take breaks. I don’t know about you, but I still take a half hour to go make lunch, sometimes taking my full hour to run errands, and take small breaks throughout the day to switch out a load of laundry or go brew my afternoon cup of coffee.


While these collaboration tools have enabled companies to survive having most, if not all, of their workforce remote, they’ve significantly impacted our ability to focus on our tasks and be as productive as we can.


Unlike many remote workers today, I’ve been working from home since I started my career in the tech industry in 2017, so I’ve been using collaboration tools like Slack and Zoom for five years now. With time, I’ve found what does and doesn’t work for me and how I’ve been able to improve my focus and productivity as a full-time remote employee. Here are my top tips that help keep me focused and achieve my daily and weekly goals in the workplace.


Microsoft Focus Assist

Microsoft Focus Assist is one of my favorite features on the Windows platform and it’s one I immediately configure whenever I receive a new laptop. A few years back, I found I was constantly becoming distracted with the email notifications popping up every few minutes. I’d be in the middle of a task and let myself be pulled away out of curiosity.


After recognizing how this was severely impacting my ability to focus, I parsed through the notification settings and stumbled upon Focus Assist. It was a feature I had heard of before, as I’m sure many of you have, but never thought to use.


Focus Assist allows you to prioritize which notifications you will and won’t see during a specified timeframe. You can adjust your timeframe and create a custom priority list that contains your “priority apps”, which are ones you want to receive notifications from, or you can choose to hide all notifications outside of alarms.


This can significantly improve your focus by allowing you to set timeframes where notifications will be disabled so you can stay focused on whatever you’re working on during that time.


Do Not Disturb

The Do Not Disturb (DND) setting on Microsoft Teams is my best friend when I’m working on high-priority items that need 100% of my focus or have a deadline looming. Most IM applications, like Slack and Ring Central, also have a DND setting, so why not take advantage of it?


Many of these applications are integrated with Outlook and/or a softphone application so our status automatically changes from green to red and back to green throughout the day. Something I’ve noticed though is that most of us ignore the red status and message people anyway, regardless of the fact that they’re probably in a meeting.


This is where DND comes in: turning it on effectively mutes IM “pings” along with the pop-up notification if you have it enabled, and sends calls straight to voicemail.


Now, this definitely isn’t a feature you want to have enabled all day, every day, but it can prove useful when you’re pressed for time and really need to shut out the world, i.e. your colleagues that ignore the “busy” status.

Calendar Blocks

When I first became a tech engineer, I started working on projects and quickly found myself juggling day-to-day IT requests and administrative work along with my new project-related tasks.


My manager at the time suggested trying to use calendar blocks: use the appointments feature in Outlook to plan your week out. This might be an “old school” way of staying focused, but in today’s corporate world, we all have a million and one things going on and it can be easy to forget your priorities for the day. You start the day with a plan and before you know it, it’s three pm, you’ve checked nothing off your to-do list, and have no idea what you did for the last six hours.


On Sunday nights or Monday mornings, I like to sit down at my desk and look at my week. What meetings do I have? What tasks do I need to get done this week? Is there any project work I need to focus on?


From there, I plan my days by blocking out my free time and dedicating it to whatever I need to work on. This helps to not only visualize how the week is going to look but also set reminders so you’ll receive the typical Outlook pop-up 15 minutes before your dedicated time block starts.


This gives you enough time to wrap up whatever you’ve been working on and prep for what you’ve planned to work on for the next hour or two.



Listen to Music or a Podcast

Some might read this and say, “no way, that just distracts me more”. I can relate, but hear me out.

I’m one of those people that can’t read or listen to something to comprehend without complete silence and 100% focus on whatever I’m reading or listening to. I am not one of those people that can actively listen to a meeting and work at the same time. Whenever I try, I end up missing something important and being asked a question I can’t answer because the last five minutes of conversation went in one ear and out the other.

My point is, I can’t listen to music or a podcast all day like some people can, but I do put in my earbuds when I need to literally and figuratively block out the world. Typically, this happens when I have a monotonous task I’ve been avoiding and it’s now the 11th hour and I can’t put it off anymore.

Studies have shown that wearing headphones alone improves productivity because it helps block out our surroundings. Are your kids playing in the room next door? Is your partner making a ruckus in the kitchen or living room? Headphones can help block this noise out and leave you alone with your task at hand.

 

My final two tips aren’t tangible, but rather behavioral changes you can make.


The first is to ensure you understand your priorities. As I touched on earlier, most of us have a seemingly endless to-do list, with more items being added every day, in addition to keeping up with the constant stream of email and IMs. And if you work in corporate, you also deal with the constant change in priorities. One day, you’re being told one thing is a priority and the next, that item has been pushed to number two due to something else that needs your attention.


As an engineer, items are constantly being added to my plate. I attend a meeting to talk about one thing and leave with three more items on my list. It’s just the nature of my role, especially being in tech. If I didn’t understand my priorities, I’d quickly become overwhelmed, which is why it’s important to have open communication lines with your manager.


Your manager should be aware of everything you’re working on so he/she can help you prioritize your tasks. No, I’m not saying you should CC them on every email you send, but you should meet with your manager frequently (at least once a week) to discuss the items you’ve finished, have in progress, and are planning to start soon.


This is where your manager can help you shift things around. If a new item drops into your lap, run it by them and ask where that should fall on the list. Understanding its importance in relation to the work you already have lined up is important in ensuring you don’t become scatterbrained and stressed out.


The second thing is learning to say no. While I’m not telling you it’s okay to start blatantly turning down others’ requests of you, I am telling you it’s okay to say, “unfortunately, I can’t do that right now, but I can get to it next week”.


I like to say we’re in the era of instant gratification, but instead of social media likes, it’s IM. Colleagues sometimes expect us to drop what we’re doing to help them when they message us about something. In some cases, their request is simple and quick, like a question or a follow-up, but other times their request takes up 20 or 30 minutes in addition to the 15 minutes spent chatting about what they needed.


While I’m not suggesting you ignore everyone and refuse to offer your assistance, it’s important to protect your time. You can help others while also being cognizant of your schedule and what you need to get done. It’s okay to tell a co-worker you’ll get back to them in a few hours.


The only exception to this is if the person requesting something of me is a manager or up. Otherwise, no one else has the authority to add work to your plate.


Another thing I learned the hard way was learning to say no to meetings. In a previous role, I found myself being invited to so many meetings because my role touched various business functions. I got to a point where I was spending so much time in meetings that I was lucky if I had one to two hours a day to myself to work on my projects.


In a managerial role, this is expected for the most part. But in a technical role, where I have tasks and projects with deadlines, my booked calendar was severely impacting my ability to do my job. I finally decided to start declining meetings I didn’t absolutely need to attend and the result was that I had time back to focus on the work that needed 100% of my attention. Not to mention, the meetings all took place without me having to be there.

 

Collaboration overload is a real thing that many of us are dealing with every day. Most corporate enterprises are opting to allow employees to continue working remotely indefinitely, so these collaboration tools aren’t going anywhere.


In-person meetings are a thing of the past, and if your status is showing online, you bet your colleagues are going to reach out without hesitation.


The corporate environment has changed and it’s up to us to adapt and change our own habits in order to be more productive and focused throughout the day.


Take some time and think about your typical workday as a remote employee. Which of my experiences hit home for you? Where are you losing most of your time in the day? Can any of these tips help you to gain some time back or at least stay focused during the free time you have?


While we like to think we’ve adjusted to working remotely, I can assure you there are areas we can still work on to improve our stress levels and productivity. I urge you to give one or more of these tips a try and see how they improve your work-from-home lifestyle.

 

Originally published at https://katlyngallo.medium.com on February 3, 2022.

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