Everyone understands that collaboration at work is a good thing for an effective business, which is one reason why (according to HBR) collaborative practices in business have risen by over 50% in the past two decades. This is also because we live and work in an increasingly connected world. The virtual office now spans the globe, crossing time zones, while outsourcing and sharing information are easier and more common than ever.

Yet in some ways, many companies have not yet adjusted to the new collaborative environment. The problem is that the burden of collaboration rests on too few individuals, whose good work is not properly recognised either in terms of credit or protection from burnout. Secondly, many corporate structures still don’t allow the free traffic of communication and authority necessary for true collaboration. Thirdly, despite training courses and manuals, there is still some confusion about what collaboration actually entails.

Collaboration at work typically involves one of three different categories of resources: informational, social and personal. Informational resources are knowledge and skill, which can be shared and retained at the same time. Social resources involve using one’s position in a network to make connections for a colleague, raising awareness and procuring access. Personal resources are time and energy, which are in finite supply. It is this last category that is most often demanded of in collaboration, and which is most easily depleted as a result.

Too often, people demand personal resources from a collaborator when all they really need are informational and social resources. Time is wasted in face-to-face meetings and discussions, document reviews and consultations. As certain individuals get a reputation for being helpful and reliable, so more pressure is placed upon them. A study cited by the Harvard Business Review suggests that 20% to 35% of effective collaborations involve the same 3% to 5% of employees. These key collaborators also have their own solo work to do, and the pressure of being constantly required to help out can lead them to burn out instead.

To avoid key employees becoming exhausted and disenchanted, management needs to monitor supply and demand regarding collaboration in the workplace. The people most at risk of collaborative overload need to be identified and encouraged to set boundaries regarding their incoming information flow. They should be given permission to filter, prioritise and ultimately to say no. Serial requesters also need to be encouraged to change their behaviour. They should act on their own initiative more, and only engage in meetings that have a clear owner and agenda.

Structural changes can shift burdens, redistributing the flow of requests into a more logical, streamlined framework. Allowing the appropriate people to have the authority to make appropriate decisions allows for fewer bottlenecks and quicker connections. Collaborators and “assists” should be rewarded alongside star performers. Women typically collaborate more yet are less likely to receive credit for it. They’re also at higher risk of emotional exhaustion.

It’s easy to mistake cooperation for collaboration at work. It’s easy and good to be cooperative in business relationships – most managers and employees are – but that alone is not collaboration. Bringing together the skills and resources of different individuals and departments is easier said than done. Teams need to work together not just on their individual areas but also holistically. This kind of cross-functional collaboration is essential for genuine teamwork and an effective business.

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