leg of a relay race, woman running alone with the baton
PHOTO: Zach Lucero | unsplash

There have long been suspicions that a fair amount of unproductive activity occurs in workplaces under the well-meaning but often flawed guise of collaboration. Now we have surveys and studies to support that.

It isn’t just meetings that get in the way of productivity. Having been away from the collegiate surroundings of office spaces for so long, some of us may have forgotten the stream of constant interruptions and the aggregate of time needed to refocus on the task at hand.

We hear a lot more about this now because we’ve just undergone a global experiment on what would happen if we could have our time back, and reset the way office-based work takes place.

That reset is still active. There’s still time left to have a hand in shaping it. And so we’re being exposed to a lot of competing ideas and mixed messages about how to remake collaboration.

Some executives are still mythologizing the way office-based work used to be and yearn for its return. Others claim to have seen the “truth” about collaboration, reaching peak productivity without the meetings and informal office banter, and now proselytize new working models that make use of this reclaimed time.

Where you land on this spectrum may also depend a lot on your personality. The past two years exposed another seemingly black-and-white divide in how people work best. This is increasingly couched as an ideological battle between extroverts and introverts, where the introverts found solace and quiet productivity at home and want to stick with virtual work as much as they can, while the extroverts missed the buzz and excitement of the office and want a quick return.

We really need to get past these hang-ups about nostalgia versus new ways, and about introversion versus extroversion. They are simply obscuring what’s really at stake, which is how we view and enable collaboration from now on, and what we do with the gains from getting the collaboration model right.

Collaboration Searches for a New Direction

Many would agree that we didn’t need a pandemic to know that collaboration had lost its way.

Even before 2020, there was growing recognition that too many activities taking place under the guise of collaboration did not add value, increase productivity or grow revenue.

As organizational consultants Korn Ferry noted, “Too often, the answer to any work issue is ‘let’s meet.’ While collaboration is absolutely what drives innovation and success in today’s global marketplace, it’s time to get creative with how we use our time together.”

In the past two years, what really happened is that we got creative about collaboration. We found ways to collaborate much more effectively, so much so that the time we’re saving now enables us to contemplate new models for work that would have once been off-limits.

Much of this creativity is tools-based.

There has been a huge expansion in the range of software available to us, and in the collaborative methods these suites enable. It no longer matters where people are physically located because we’ve standardized collaboration and feedback mechanisms.

We’ve become comfortable collaborating from behind a keyboard. It can be a more streamlined way to tell a story neutrally with statistical and other evidence to support it. There’s no extended, drawn-out process to get to the facts, and it is faster to canvas opinions and get to the productive part: the reaching and making of the decision.

Looking specifically at our world, where we once might have run collaboration workshops to ask a group of people what they wanted to see in a process to be automated, applications and tools may now be used to draw up a shell of these specifications which can then be put in front of the team. Which is to say that a meeting is not the only way to achieve collaboration; the tools available to us today mean we can collaborate a lot more efficiently and productively than we may have previously considered possible.

Related Article: Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration

What We Do With Our Gains

Across the board, the use of collaboration software tools represents a net gain in productivity. What we do now with that net gain makes for an interesting discussion.

One of the choices is an alluring one: a potential to work less. This is often couched in terms of a move to a four-day work week. According to one recent survey, 92% of U.S. employees see potential in a four-day work week structure (though, tellingly, about half would sacrifice it in exchange for more flexible work generally).

It may be that collaboration gains make this kind of new model possible: that is, we've become so efficient that we’ve simply removed a day’s worth of wasted and unproductive time from a five-day week, and we should be given the opportunity to claim that time for ourselves (without it impacting our pay or existing ‘five-day’ conditions).

The other choice could also be alluring for business owners: that extra day of time we’ve freed up every week can be put back into the business. After all, it’s a 20% time gain, with an equivalent revenue opportunity attached.

Whichever way we go, collaboration will remain a central part of the way we work. We’ll just have the benefit of time (and of hindsight) to show why it’s always worth chasing efficiency gains when it comes to the ways we collaborate.