No person is an island. Especially in the modern workplace. Whether you work from home or are part of a Fortune 500, you’re going to have to work with other people. But just like every other factor in your work environment, collaborating with coworkers can go right or it can go painfully wrong.
There’s no denying that collaboration is a necessary part of doing good work, which is why we went looking for ways to mitigate the negatives—like interruptions and distractions—while maximizing the positives of collaboration.
Are your coworkers killing your productivity?
The connections, expectations, and workflows you develop with the people around you can have a major impact on what you get done and how you feel about your day.
In fact, a recent study found that 50% of workers said their performance and productivity was directly affected by their coworkers. And not always for the better.
Personal issues aside, there are a number of reasons the way you collaborate with coworkers can have a negative impact on their productivity:
Following up on deadlines
Waiting on other people can kill your motivation and throw a wrench in your daily schedule. In the same survey as above, 75% of people said they often have to wait for coworkers to finish a work-related task.
And that time adds up. Of the people surveyed, 19% reported spending 1-3 extra hours per week just on following up on deadlines. While missed deadlines added an average of 1-3 days to each project.
While bouncing ideas off coworkers and having access to their experience and knowledge is a huge benefit, collaboration can just as easily be a curse. Unproductive collaboration, whether in meetings, calls, IMs, or “collaboration for collaboration’s sake” activities, eat into your already limited time each day.
According to research from Adam Grant and colleagues, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more in the past two decades.
Even worse, they found that the benefits of collaboration are incredibly lopsided, with 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations coming from only 3% to 5% of employees.
Interruptions are an unfortunate side effect of collaboration, and that can be a big problem. In fact, when we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users about workplace distractions, 64% said their most common interruptions were face-to-face interruptions.
And while a coworkers dropping in might only take up a few seconds of your time, researchers have found it can take up to 24 minutes to regain focus after an interruption.
And it’s not just drop-ins that are distracting. People consistently rate workplace noise from coworkers—especially things like only hearing half a phone conversation—as one of the most annoying workplace distractions.
As Scientific American explains:
“The less information we glean from a conversation, the harder our brains work to make sense of what we hear and the more difficult it is to stop listening.”
But collaboration isn’t all bad
So that’s the bad. But what about the good? There are lots of benefits to working closely with other people, and not all of them relate directly to the tasks at hand.
Humans have always been social creatures. And while we like to think creating a separation between business and friendship is the best solution, a little overlap can actually be good for us and our productivity.
In fact, having a good, respectful, collaborative relationship with your coworkers can be a productivity booster for a number of reasons.
In a study from Rutgers University, researchers found that having work relationships that developed into friendships significantly increased employees’ performance. This is mostly due to the fact that friendly coworkers found it easier to ask for advice and have access to information through informal networks.
In the same study, researchers found that “employees with close friends at work reported being in a good mood more often, which could spill over into positive effects on the work being performed.”
Multiple studies have found that happier employees are both more productive and creative. This is especially important for remote teams where you don’t have the benefit of physically being around the people you work with.
How to build better, more productive collaborative relationships with your coworkers
Just like you don’t get to pick your family, you rarely get to choose who your coworkers are. However, these are people you have to see and spend time with almost every single day. (Not just for Thanksgiving or during the annual family reunion.)
It’s in everyone’s best interest that you build a relationship that’s productive, efficient, and respectful.
Besides simply keeping your commitments, hitting deadlines, and trying not to be overly disruptive, here are a few suggestions to help you make the most of your working relationships:
Be a teacher more than a distributor of information
Much of the success of collaboration comes down to how you view the people you’re working with. According to researchers from Wharton business school, there are three different roles we play when it comes to collaboration:
- Informational resources: The necessary information that can be recorded and passed on
- Social resources: Your awareness, access, and position in a network
- Personal resources: Your time and energy
We all want to feel like our coworkers respect our time. Yet unfortunately, when most most people think about collaboration, they default to treating coworkers as simply personal resources. They want their time and energy, rather than spend the time to look for available resources.
But as the old saying goes: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
To be a better collaborator, record your knowledge and information as much as possible in docs, Wikis, or Trello cards. This way, when someone asks for your time, rather than see it as an inconvenience, you can simply point them to the resources they need. (We’ve even put together a basic email template you can use for this).
Practice “bursty” communication
No one wants to feel like they’re blocking their coworkers from doing good work. But too often that mentality means we give up our own focus for our coworker’s sake.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re just getting into a state of flow when Ping! someone asks for your help. You don’t want to slow them down, so you leave your task and respond. No big deal.
But then, 10 minutes later, just as you’re getting focused, Ping! they send a follow up. And an hour later, Ping!
It’s a common scenario, but these drawn out back and forth’s are a major productivity killer.
One way to balance your need for focus, with your coworker’s need for help is with “bursty” communication, or “exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity” rather than being always on and available.
Not only has this technique been found to increase productivity, but it forces you and your collaborators to really think about what you need from a conversation, before having it.
Be open about when you can, or can’t, add value to a project
It’s fair to say we’ve all taken on extra work for the wrong reasons. Whether to impress an influential colleague, fuel our need to be seen as helpful, or just FOMO. But joining a project you know you won’t positively impact just wastes everyone’s time.
As Rob Cross, author of The Hidden Power of Social Networks, writes:
“Efficient collaborators remember that saying yes to something always means saying no to—or participating less fully in—something else. They remind themselves that small wins (an empty in-box, a perfectly worded report, a single client call) are not always important ones.”
Try to set aside time to be reflective about what work is highest value to you, and where you’re most needed as a collaborator. And while it might be hard not to give into the knee-jerk reaction of taking on every project sent your way, it ultimately makes you a better coworker and collaborator.
Use the right tools (and templates) at the right time
When it comes to actually working on projects with your coworkers, the tools you use and the way you use them can either help or hurt the collaboration.
To keep collaboration moving smoothly, try suggesting templates for project emails (like bullet lists vs. long paragraphs) and standardizing response times and expectations.
Take a bit of time to talk with your collaborators about what tools they prefer and how you should use them. Is everyone going to comment on a single Google doc? Or are you going to use track changes?
Status Hero founder Henry Poydar calls this creating a collaboration runbook—a document that outlines collaborative scenarios and how to deal with them.
Collaboration shouldn’t be a productivity killer
There’s nothing better than the feeling of working together and finishing a huge task. But there’s also few things worse than feeling like you’re pulling all the weight in a collaboration.
Collaborating with coworkers is a tricky line to walk. But with a bit of upfront investment you can avoid a lot of the common pitfalls.
The next time someone comes to you asking for help, take time to make sure you’re the right person to collaborate with. You have the right tools and templates in place. And you know how to communicate effectively, efficiently, and respectfully.
How do you handle collaborating effectively with teammates? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.