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What is collaboration overload and how to strike the right balance
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What is collaboration overload and how to strike the right balance

Discover what collaboration overload is, the signs, and how it negatively impacts your teams. Then, learn how to overcome it and boost productivity.

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Have you ever stacked cards to build a pyramid? If you have, you know that each carefully placed card contributes to the stability and structure of the pyramid. But stacking too many cards too quickly can destabilize the whole foundation. 

Just like an overloaded card pyramid is prone to collapse, too much collaboration without thoughtful planning and balance can jeopardize the success of a team or project.

Collaboration overload comes in many forms: maybe you have too many meetings, or maybe you’re drowning in Slack messages and notifications when you should just enter a quick huddle. 

Leaders of highly collaborative teams need to learn how to strike the right balance between async and synchronous work to reduce the burnout that comes with collaboration overload and increase productivity.

In this article, you'll learn what collaboration overload is, the signs, and how to fix it and improve teamwork. Then, you'll learn how an async-first collaboration platform like Switchboard helps you strike a better balance. 

Work together without the overwhelm.
Switchboard stops collaboration overload by letting you communicate in context and move projects forward async. 
Learn more

What is collaboration overload? 

Collaboration overload is when individuals or teams are inundated with collaborative meetings, emails, instant messages, and tasks—to the extent that it negatively impacts productivity and well-being. 

Collaboration is highly valued at work because it increases creativity and innovation among team members–which trickles down to overall performance and decision-making. But there's the risk of overwhelming employees with too many collaborative demands, which can seriously harm their ability to do their best work. 

Signs of collaboration overload 

Balancing collaboration with the need for individual, focused work is crucial to keep projects moving forward and employees healthy. Let's take a look at some of the signs of collaboration overload to effectively stop it in its tracks. 

Too many unproductive meetings 

Back-to-back meetings and unproductive discussions can contribute to a sense of exhaustion among team members. Too many bad meetings can pull people out of meaningful focus work and keep them bound to their calendars

Burnt out employees

The pressure of managing multiple collaborative tasks and projects without breaks or downtime can contribute to burnout. Maybe that's why more than 50 percent of managers feel burned out. This can cause stress, fatigue, and a decline in overall well-being especially if leadership sets an example of an "always-on" workplace culture. 

Working across fragmented apps 

Excessive emails, notifications, and messaging can lead to information overload and communication fatigue—and distract people from deep work. This can make it difficult for you to prioritize tasks and respond effectively to messages or notifications.

Pro tip: Use Switchboard to unify all your people, projects, and tools in one async-first collaboration platform so you can cut down on context switching and stay focused. 
Google Slides and Videos in a Switchboard room
Switchboard's persistent rooms let you give feedback and make better decisions so it's easier to move projects forward as a team. Source: Switchboard

6 ways to fix collaboration overload and improve teamwork

Based on Harvard Business Review research by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, time spent on collaborative activities like emails, meetings, and collaboration tools, has increased by 50 percent over the past 12 years.

According to  Brain Border, VP of Marketing, Internet Brands, "When there's overlap with certain regions in terms of when you're both online…That time is, is gold, I mean, it's super precious." So, you need to be mindful of the work you can do separately and what needs to be done as a team to be more productive. Here's how. 

1. Audit your tech stack

As mentioned, too many tools can make it hard to keep people focused on urgent tasks. For example, if a design team uses Figma and InVision for design work and prototyping, they might lose valuable time locating scattered information. They might also struggle to consolidate feedback from both platforms, leading to duplicated work and a fragmented design process.

It's not just too many–but also, the wrong tools–that can complicate collaboration and create confusion around where to share and find important information. This causes you to toggle between multiple tools just to find what you're looking for. And it's not a small price to pay: companies lose up to four hours per week switching between tools, apps, and notifications. 

To streamline teamwork, you need online collaboration tools that let you move faster with fewer meetings. For example: 

  • Asana for project management 
  • Notion for document collaboration
  • Google Workspace for knowledge sharing and storage
  • Mural for creative visual collaboration
  • Figma for design and prototyping
  • GitHub for collaborative software development
  • Switchboard for async-first collaboration
Pro tip: In Switchboard's interactive rooms, you can talk face to face or catch up async. Just hop into your designated design review room, add your virtual whiteboard, Figma prototypes, and project management tool. Then, record yourself in the room while giving feedback, and get your team to check it out async before your next meeting.
Working on a design review in a Switchboard room with Google Docs, a virtual whiteboard, and Figma open
Switchboard makes all things team collaboration straightforward and accessible. Source: Switchboard

2. Establish clear communication guidelines

To create an environment where people feel comfortable working closely together, you need to establish clear guidelines around team communication. This involves training people when to work async and when to work in real time. 

Part of this is defining when to use email, project management tools, or synchronous meeting tools. For example, Slack for non-urgent synchronous updates; Switchboard for async project work. Some messages, like company-wide announcements, may be better suited to email. Things like team shout outs are better suited to a Slack channel. 

Then, set expectations for response times to make sure everyone knows when they need to take action or when it's time for focus work. 

You'll also need to train your team to set healthy boundaries and take ownership of their schedule. Knowing when to cancel a meeting or turn an email into a meeting can help your team free up time for more meaningful work. This lets them make the right decisions for their workload, instead of wasting time in unproductive team meetings.

3. Make time for focus work

People who collaborate well get back 18 to 24 percent of their time. This means they're more likely to carve out time for focus work, which can increase productivity and add to a sense of purpose. 

Here's how to create time for individual tasks: 

  • Time blocking. Schedule specific blocks of time in your calendar for focused work and treat these blocks as non-negotiable appointments. This helps you set aside dedicated time without interruptions.
  • Prioritize tasks. Focus on high-priority and challenging tasks during your peak energy hours when you're most alert and focused. 
  • Communicate availability. Let your team know when you're open for collaboration, such as in the morning or during specific hours, and when you need uninterrupted time for focused work. 
  • Be intentional about collaboration tools. Turn off unnecessary notifications, mute non-essential channels, and use tools that integrate well to avoid duplicated efforts and information silos. 

4. Cancel more meetings

Border asks us to consider whether synchronous meetings really are the best use of team collaborative time and, what, if anything, "can be handled more asynchronously?"

Considering 50 percent of employees believe meetings interfere with their productivity, reduce focus, and are a source of stress, Border is clearly onto something. Like the idea that canceling meetings won't ruin your company's culture—it can actually improve it. 

Here's a framework you can use to know when to cancel a meeting and engage in asynchronous communication

  • Share async—like docs, slides, or code
  • Review async—add comments or make video walkthroughs
  • Discuss and decide async or together—either converse in comments or meet to talk as a group

Another method you can try is called "meeting doomsday"—where you conduct a meeting audit and get rid of all the meetings on your calendar for 48 hours. Then, start repopulating your calendar, but only with meetings that genuinely add value. This lets you determine which meetings move projects forward and helps keep team collaboration focused and necessary. 

Check out our blog post for more on when to use asynchronous communication.

Pro tip: Async-first collaboration platforms like Switchboard give everyone access to persistent, host-free rooms that save your work. This means people can check project updates async and progress on their own time—while making the most out of working together.
Team project room with Asana and instant chat open
In Switchboard, you can move collaborative work forward without being online at the same time. Source: Switchboard

5. Promote a culture of boundaries and respect

As mentioned, leaders need to set the stage for healthy collaboration by respecting boundaries themselves. This means prioritizing work-life balance, setting reasonable expectations, and being a positive example. 

For example, a product manager on a software development team might decide to cancel their next code review and make it an async check-in, instead. Re-evaluating how you work can help create positive collaboration habits that show team members their time is valued and respected. 

Other things you can do to promote a culture of respect include:

  • Set realistic deadlines. Work together as a team to establish achievable timelines that consider the complexity of tasks and individual workloads.
  • Offer training. Collaboration training, like team-building or group problem-solving activities, lets employees build teamwork skills so they're less likely to overload themselves. 
  • Acknowledge personal boundaries. Avoid pressuring team members to work beyond their established hours or during personal time. 
  • Show appreciation. Recognize and appreciate the efforts of team members. When employees feel valued, they are more likely to be motivated to contribute without feeling overwhelmed.

6. Find the right tools to work in context 

Collaboration overload is often the result of using too many tools. It's also relying on tools like Slack that turn asynchronous working into synchronous back-and-forth messaging—distracting you from focus work. 

If you're using Switchboard, you can share and work in context by keeping tools, docs, and conversations all in one place. You get to pick and choose when you want to engage in collaborative work—or when it's time to go at it solo—because it's all right there. No more relying on team members for access, the right documents, or updates. 

Switchboard room filled with scheduling, action items, memos, and project proposals
Switchboard lets everyone contribute to collaborative projects when it suits them best. Source: Switchboard

Overcome collaboration overload to increase productivity

Much like the importance of finding the right balance in card stacking, you need a solid foundation for team collaboration to ensure sustained productivity and well-being.

When it comes to collaboration overload, you might have too many meetings, or you might be drowning in Slack messages and notifications when you should just enter a quick huddle.

That's why leaders need to learn how to strike the right balance between async and synchronous work to reduce the burnout that comes with collaboration overload and increase productivity. They can start by auditing their tech stack, making time for focus work, and canceling more meetings. 

Then, they can promote a culture of boundaries and respect and find the right tools, like Switchboard, to work in context. This way, you can move faster with fewer meetings while cutting collaboration overload.

Work together without the overwhelm.
Switchboard stops collaboration overload by letting you communicate in context and move projects forward async. 
Learn more

Frequently asked questions about collaboration overload

Can you collaborate too much? 

Yes, you can collaborate too much, which is referred to as collaboration overload. This is when teams don't have the time management skills to manage collaborative working, and end up spread too thin in a stressful workflow and work environment. 

What is the problem with too much collaboration? 

Too many collaborative activities without the right guidelines and foundation can make it difficult to focus on productive work. This can lead to micromanaging, reduced productivity, and negatively impact decision-making. 

How can we avoid collaboration overload? 

We can avoid collaboration overload by focusing on employee well-being instead of high performers. For example, here are some things you can do to improve mental well-being and cut down on collaboration overload: 

  • Audit your techstack 
  • Establish clear communication guidelines
  • Make time for focus work
  • Cancel more meetings
  • Promote a culture of boundaries and respect
  • Find the right tools to work in context 

All of these can help restore your well-being by cutting out context switching and the burnout that comes with collaboration overload.

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Work together without the overwhelm.

Switchboard stops collaboration overload by letting you communicate in context and move projects forward async.