Collaboration and systems to enable us to collaborate in the workplace have been with us for a long time. But these past few years have put them center stage, be it Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, Loom, HipChat, or one of the armies of others. We all use collaboration tools. But despite their apparent popularity and ease of use, they are not the panacea their makers would have you believe.

Indeed collaboration software has been with us for decades, going back to groupware in the late '90s. Whereas project management, file sharing and communication tools all have a clear purpose, collaboration software — or at least the universal concept of collaborative work pushed by technology vendors — has always been a tough sell. Though most organizations, large or small, would struggle to work without these systems, many could do with using them much less than they do so today.

Do We Really Need Another Meeting for That?

Last year my firm Deep Analysis ran a survey that asked 500 people working in U.S. software firms about their work from home and hybrid work experiences, focusing on collaboration systems. Back in the day, meetings had agendas, minutes were taken, and action items were assigned to individuals. Pretty basic stuff, if a pain in the backside to do. Even so, most meetings were at least focused, action-oriented and generally productive. Today, many online meetings are none of the above, with multiple attendees wondering why they are there at all. Long story short, a majority of people in our survey were fed up with dealing with the numerous pointless and confusing meetings.

Although it seems counterintuitive to suggest that a boss should simply tell somebody to do something, the zeitgeist instead tells us that we should always listen, collaborate and take on board others' thoughts and opinions. However, both the person being told what to do and the person doing the telling often prefer to give and receive direct instructions. There is a clear line of demarcation, clear instructions and clear goals. There is undoubtedly a time and a place to collaborate and share, but getting on with the task may often be more productive.

One of my Deep Analysis colleagues and I chat around once a week and spend 50 minutes of the hour talking about the state of the world, art and travel. We only spend 10 mins or so talking about work. That's OK. We both enjoy it, and we can all do with a break sometimes. But when it comes down to completing a client engagement, we seldom set up a call with one another. Instead, we get on with the job, and if we need to ask a question, we email one another a short, concise question and, in response, a quick answer.

Related Article: Dealing With the 'Soft' Challenges of Remote Work

Non-Stop Collaboration: A Sign of Organizational Dysfunction?

Modern collaboration technologies have a place in our workplace, but they seldom actually replace what we were already using. For example, if you had Skype before Teams, you probably still have Skype. If you used email before Slack, you almost certainly still have and use email daily. Furthermore, we don't always need to see one another's face or navigate some app to chat — we can pick up a phone and talk. If, for some reason, one of us doesn't want to talk, we can send the call to voicemail, then pretend we were caught up in something essential and call them back later.

In asking the question, do we collaborate too much, we need to separate the act of collaboration from the tools that claim to support and enhance collaboration. The act of collaboration is critical in business. There are always times when it's beneficial to collaborate with other staff members, customers or suppliers. But there are more times when it's unnecessary.

As for the tools to support and enhance collaboration, this is trickier to unravel. It may be a stretch, but it's possible to argue that these tools often serve no real purpose: they are simply an alternative to giving someone a call or email. Nor are they necessarily an improved alternative means of collaboration. Not everyone wants to see my face (I don't blame them), nor does every work interaction needs to be synchronous. The best collaborative work is often done asynchronously. Giving the other party the time to think through and possibly research the best way forward before responding.

Feeling the need to collaborate constantly or to create a more collaborative working environment sounds good. Yet all too often, it can be a symptom of organizational dysfunction. This need to collaborate regularly may, for example, point to poorly defined roles and responsibilities within your organization. It may also be a symptom that some employees are uncomfortable taking on responsibility or setting clear goals.

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Related Article: Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration

A Little Less Collaboration, A Little More Action

To break this down a bit, at Deep Analysis, we engage in multiple product briefings every week. They typically each run for an hour, and in them, we will be shown a demo of the product and a presentation. The briefings could be on Microsoft Teams, Google Meet or Zoom, and they work well enough. My point here is we are not collaborating in these briefings. Instead, a technology vendor is essentially pitching to us, and we have an opportunity to ask questions and gain a deeper understanding of the firm and its technology.

We also provide a free and confidential online counseling service for enterprises and government groups to get strategic tech advice. Just as we regularly work on strategic consulting with our clients. We typically run these interactions on Google Meet, and these meetings are truly collaborative. We are working with them to help solve their problems, and in return, we get some great insights for our research.

The long story short here is that collaborative working and collaboration tools have their place. But they also have their drawbacks. Creating a more inclusive, friendly, and respectful working environment is a laudable goal. But suppose you feel the need to create a more collaborative working environment. In that case, you may want to investigate why you don't already have that in place. At the same time, be aware that there are no magical next-gen collaboration tools to create that for you.

Though I have focused on online meeting tools, collaboration software can come in many forms. They can all be used cost-effectively and can be beneficial, but they are not necessarily an improvement over more traditional methods of communication. Nor is collaborative working a necessary goal for every organization.

So if your organization tends to call frequent collaborative staff meetings, it might be time to take a step back and consider if all these meetings are needed or actually productive. It may be that a little less collaboration and a little more direct action is required.

Related Article: Do You Have the Right Collaboration Habits?

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