How to collaborate without burning out: We asked 500+ people about effective workplace communication

There’s no denying we’re living in the age of collaboration. According to research, over the past two decades, time spent on workplace communication and collaboration has increased 50% or more.

But you don’t need a study to tell you that. If you’re like most people, your days are already filled with collaboration. You email, message, comment, Zoom, Slack, meet, and call your way through the hours.

And, like most people, all that collaboration leaves little time for anything else. In fact, at many companies, people spend 80% of their days in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails: “leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own.”

Collaboration was meant to connect us so we could be more creative, inspired, and motivated. Yet, it’s ended up doing the opposite—making us busier, more stressed, and vulnerable to information overload. But it doesn’t have to.

The most productive people collaborate effectively without burning out or spending their nights catching up on “real” work. To find out their secrets, we spoke with 500+ knowledge workers from companies of all sizes about the best ways to collaborate and communicate effectively.

Want to know how much time you spend each day on email, Slack, or social media? RescueTime gives you deep insights into your habits so you can take back control of your day. Find out more and sign up for free here

Most people say they spend just 29% of their day on email and IM. The actual number is much higher.

There’s often a gap between how we think we act, and what we actually do. And that’s definitely the case when it comes to time spent on communication. On average, respondents to our survey said they spend 29% of their workday on communication. That’s around 2.25 hours.

How much time on email and IM

However, when we looked at the actual communication trends of 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found a different number.

According to actual data, most people have just 1 hour and 12 minutes a day without using or being distracted by communication tools. Given that knowledge workers on average spend 5 hours a day on digital devices where they use collaboration tools, this means 76% of your day is impacted by email and IM.

(This number doesn’t even include other collaboration tools like project management software, Google docs, video calls, or meetings).

70% of people keep their inbox open all day (while only 20% have a deliberate plan of how to deal with emails)

So what creates this gap between how we think we act and how we actually do?

For starters, we never really give ourselves a break from communication. According to our survey, more than 70% of people keep their email inboxes open all day. Yet, 80% don’t have any sort of plan or structure around how they engage with it.

When do you check email

Most people admit to checking their email first thing in the morning and then periodically through the day—usually a few times an hour or “whenever they’re bored.”

How often do you check email

Looking at opposite ends of the email-checking spectrum, 30% said they only check email when they get a notification, while 8.3% of people said they check “pretty much constantly.”

Here are just a few of the responses we got:

“When I remember about email, I check it. I don’t schedule it at all.”

“First thing in the morning. First thing after lunch. Last thing at the end of the day. And sporadically throughout the day.”

“When the phone buzzes, I check.”

“I usually check my phone in the morning then check email every hour after that. After 8pm I probably only check one or two more times.”

“Notifications are muted because it would be too distracting, so instead I just kind of constantly check.”

63.5% of people expect a response within the hour. Yet, 3/4 have never talked with colleagues about their expectations.

Not only are we leaving ourselves increasingly exposed to our inboxes, but we’ve also set unrealistic expectations around how we communicate and collaborate. We found that 63.5% of people expect a response to an email or IM within an hour (with 34.5% saying within a few minutes!)

All this creates a culture of urgency around communication. In fact, 68.5% of people we spoke to said they think a fast response to communication helps them work better. However, despite having high expectations, no one really talks about them.

According to our survey, 75% of respondents told us they’d never had a single conversation with a colleague about communication and what a reasonable response time is.

Only 10% of people say they feel “in control” of how they spend their day

So what does this all add up to?

For the most part, people spend more time on communication than they think they do, keep their inboxes constantly open with no plan or strategy around effectively dealing with it, and expect responses to their own messages within an hour or less.

This is a recipe for disaster. Especially given how much collaboration and communication has taken over our workdays.

How in control of your day do you feel?

In fact, according to our research, only 10% of people say they feel “in control” over how they spend their time each day. Even worse, more than that (12.8%) say they feel like they spend all their time reacting to other people.

How the people who feel “in total control” of their time collaborate and communicate at work

These survey results paint a pretty bleak picture of workplace communication and collaboration. Rather than empower us, communication tools take over our days and slow us down.

More time checking emails means less time to do your core work—the things you were hired to do. This means more temptation to work longer hours, ignore your own well-being and health, and get stressed over work.

It’s an unsustainable cycle. But not everyone treats communication and collaboration tools in the same way. And those people who said they felt more in control had a few specific characteristics:

In or out of control

  • They work the same amount but spend less time on email and IM. Despite spending the same amount of time at work each day, people who feel in control of their time reported spending less than 2 hours a day on email and IM, or just 24% of their day.
  • They’re more likely to keep their inbox and IM client closed during the day. A full 10% more people claimed to keep their communication tools closed during the day, while 30% said they have a specific plan as to how they engage with these tools (vs. the average of 20%).
  • They have lower expectations around response time. 54% of people said they don’t have any expectation around when they get a response to their communication (much higher than the average of 36.5%)
  • They’re more likely to talk with colleagues about issues. Most surprisingly, 32.5% of people who feel in control of their day said they’d had a conversation with coworkers about response time.
RescueTime helps you take back control over how you spend your time every day. Find out more and sign up for free here

Less collaboration isn’t the answer. But more strategic collaboration might be.

As organizational researchers Rob Cross, Adam Grant, and Reb Rebele, write in Harvard Business Review:

“Collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges. But more isn’t always better.”

If there’s anything we can take away from our survey results it’s that we’re all facing issues with collaboration. Yet the people who feel more in control of their days are active participants, not reactive.

So how can we be more strategic in our communication and collaboration?

In the past, we’ve written about the power of working in “bursts.” According to multiple studies, constant communication actually decreases our productivity. Instead, the most creative teams alternate between moments of collaboration and isolation.

As the authors of one study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries, wrote:

“During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas. Conversely, during longer periods of silence everyone is presumably hard at work acting upon the ideas that were exchanged in the communication burst.”

Along with knowing how to effectively collaborate, the best teams are respectful of each other’s time. In one example, the team at Dropbox decided to cancel all recurring meetings for 2 weeks—forcing everyone to assess the true importance of that time.

A few years later, researchers from Stanford found that although the company tripled the number of employees, its meetings were shorter and more productive. As the study’s authors wrote:

“Resetting norms regarding when and how to initiate e-mail requests or meeting invitations can free up a great deal of wasted time.”

Lastly, we need to understand how communication disrupts our workday. A tool like RescueTime will show you exactly how much time you’re spending on collaboration tools so you can make better choices with your time.

There’s a reason one of the first things we’re taught as children is how to play well with others. Most of us spend our entire professional and personal lives navigating relationships. Yet, few of us talk about it.

“Soft” skills like communication (or even how to set up your tools like Gmail and Slack for focus) are seen as things you “should just know.” But as jobs continue to shift from repetitive tasks to more creative thinking and collaboration, it’s necessary to know how to communicate effectively, without losing even more of what little time you have each day.

What do you think about the results of our survey? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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