Has virtual collaboration jumped the shark?

It’s amazing how your perception of events can change over time. When I was a teenager, my first job involved working at a grocery store. I spent most of my time bringing in shopping carts from the parking lot (electric cart pushers did not exist at the time), taking out the trash, and that sort of thing. It was really physical work, but at least I got to spend a lot of time outdoors.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was working in IT for an insurance company. As you would probably expect from such an organization, there was no shortage of meetings to attend. The first few meetings were great. Having come from a job that involved physical labor, I was elated by the thought of being paid for sitting on my bum and chatting with co-workers. Eventually, though, I came to a realization.

When I worked at the grocery, I was expected to do my assigned tasks until the end of my shift, at which point someone else would take over. In a corporate environment, however, I was expected to get the job done, period. There was no one coming to relieve me at the end of the day. I had to stay until my assigned tasks were complete. The meetings, which at first seemed like an acceptable way to goof off, ultimately ended up being a big waste of time. Having something productive come out of a meeting was a rarity, and the time that I spent in meetings could have been better spent working on my real work so that I could go home at a decent hour at the end of the day.

Virtual collaboration: Just another fad?

virtual collaboration

Another seemingly unrelated thing that I have noticed over the years, is that the corporate world seems to have no problem with latching onto fads. Who can possibly forget the “let’s write a mission statement” fad, or perhaps the semiannual corporate reorganization?

For a while, a lot of companies seemed to rightly catch onto the idea that meetings cut into productivity and should be minimized. At the time, there were all kinds of creative solutions adopted in an effort to minimize the duration of meetings. Someone that I know had all of the chairs removed from the conference room. The idea was that meetings will tend to be short if nobody is comfortable. I heard another story of a company scheduling weekly staff meetings for 4:30 on Friday afternoon when they knew that everyone would be anxious to get out the door.

Today, the pendulum seems to be swinging in the opposite direction. Although meetings might have fallen somewhat out of fashion (at least in some companies, others not so much), virtual collaboration (also called electronic collaboration or application collaboration) now reigns supreme as the big time waster. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not anti-collaboration. It’s just that when collaboration is taken to the extreme, it can very quickly become counterproductive.

I think that there are two main problems with virtual collaboration in its current form. The first of these problems is that collaboration comes in many different forms, and many of the options tend to be time-consuming without offering much benefit in return. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, I sat in on a product demo at a tech conference. The company’s spokeswoman proudly showed how this particular product allows you to see what your co-workers have been working on and who their connections are. That way, you can expand your own social network within the company by reaching out to those who are working on projects that are similar to your own.

On the surface, this sounds great. Networking is always good. But the situation changes a little bit when you view the software’s purpose through the lens of productivity. Think about it for a moment… The software (at least as it was explained to me) doesn’t do anything to help employees get their work done. Instead, it provides them with a way of seeing what their co-workers have been working on.

Perhaps in some companies, this type of functionality does have its place, and I’m not trying to bash any vendor’s software. It’s just that I can’t help but be reminded of a professional organization that I once belonged to. Each monthly meeting started with every member in attendance being asked what they have been working on. Even though most people kept their descriptions brief, it usually took well over an hour just to complete the member updates. That is time that might have been better spent discussing the business at hand.

When virtual collaboration becomes a time waster

virtual collaboration

The point is that whether we are talking about meetings or collaborative software, there is a lot of potential for time to be wasted.

The second major problem with the current state of virtual collaboration is that of application sprawl. I have seen a few different studies claiming that the average enterprise uses about a thousand different applications. Some of those applications are obviously niche applications that will be used by a small number of people. The average employee, for example, won’t have access to the payroll software. Even when you put these niche applications aside, there may still be a tremendous number of applications available to the average user.

Application sprawl comes with its own set of problems, such as application abandonment, the potential for licenses to be wasted, and, of course, ever-increasing support costs. The bigger problem that nobody ever talks about is application fatigue. Users may tire of having to work with so many different applications, especially when there are multiple applications that do essentially the same thing as one another.

Let me give you a really simple example. I recently spoke to someone who told me that each workgroup within their company has their own way of sharing documents among team members. Some teams use SharePoint, while others opt to use Google Drive, Dropbox, or something else. So with that in mind, imagine how inefficient this lack of a single, standard document-sharing platform might be for someone who has to share documents with multiple teams. Never mind the challenges that this use of multiple disparate tools creates from a backup/recovery and compliance perspective.

When it comes to virtual collaboration, the problems go beyond simple application fatigue. Collaborative applications have become the norm, and in many companies it is expected that users will be simultaneously plugged into multiple collaborative platforms, ready to respond instantly to any anything that demands the user’s attention.

Although virtual collaboration has its place, requiring users to monitor multiple collaborative environments in real time has the potential to negatively impact the user’s productivity. Some people multitask really well. For others, having to stop what they are doing to respond to a message can be a huge distraction that serves only to break their concentration and inhibit the user’s productivity.

Too much of a good thing

Just as excessive meetings can kill productivity, so too can excessive collaboration. Of course, there is at least one big difference between meetings and virtual collaboration. Meetings last for a finite amount of time. Virtual collaboration is open-ended. As such, virtual collaboration has the potential to waste time throughout the entire workday, and can even occupy a user’s time after hours. As I said in the beginning, I am not anti-collaboration. It’s just that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. When collaboration is taken to the extreme, its benefits can quickly give way to rampant inefficiency.

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