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Well established collaboration tools like email are being augmented with a vast array of technology-driven solutions; the global market is currently valued at $3.5 billion, and is forecast to grow by 70% in the next three years. But we’re not always capturing the promised productivity gains from these interactions.

So what’s stopping us from collaborating, in a world where we’re more connected than ever before?

As barriers to adoption of digital-first working practices have eroded, online collaboration platforms have grown significantly in recent years, with tools such as Microsoft Teams recently hitting 13 million active users and Slack reporting that its software is used by 65 of Fortune 100 companies.

Whilst these tools have been primarily built to support collaboration, there has been very little focus on how people use these tools to arrange their work. Rather than setting in place new guidelines on appropriate usage and outcomes, we end up transferring or duplicating existing inefficiencies onto newer platforms.

As a result, colleagues are increasingly oversaturated with notifications, instant messages, emails, calls and meetings without enough clarity on where, and how to focus their time to deliver value.

How does increased connectivity affect productivity?

The benefits of closer collaboration feel quite self-explanatory. Over the last two decades, additional technologies promised to remove the friction and inconvenience of not being in the same physical space, empowering distributed (and local) teams to deliver at greater pace.

While global provision of such technologies gathers pace, are they having the opposite effect on our people?

Research from Time Is Ltd, a productivity-analytics company, discovered that employees were sending more than 1,000 messages per day across email, instant messaging tools, and collaboration suites. Keeping up with conversations has become a full-time job, often leaving only 1 hour and 12 minutes of uninterrupted productivity time in an average day. Another piece of research by RescueTime discovered that productivity actually increased when there was an outage of collaboration tool Slack.

Productivity pulseSource: RescueTime

The issue is amplified when paired with poor management routines. Existing behaviours and practices prevalent across conference calls, emails and meetings have transferred over to digital-first platforms. Meetings are often held without proper focus on outcomes; they become reduced to broadcast channels and echo chambers, rather than utilised to make effective decisions. Whilst working with one client recently we identified that up to £400m of salaried time was spent in ineffective meetings.

Finally, constant context switching between platforms and tasks fragments our day and reduces focus. In one study, Dr. David Meyer found that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.” Reaching a state of flow requires around 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus time. Whenever this is broken, whether by a colleague walking up to you or by an incoming online message, you have to start over again.

If adding new tools means the addition of further administrative layers, moving teams further away from the objective of leveraging diversity and delivering value, the results can be damaging. Are we duplicating effort, “just moving email to another place”, whilst creating increasing pressure on teams to be responsive to all manner of minor queries?

When ‘more collaboration’ has an adverse effect on your team’s productivity, it is time to re-evaluate the approach used to design and deploy new tools and ways of working.

Improving collaboration

Successful collaboration must facilitate and build strong relationships within and between teams, provide clarity and purpose to people’s roles, and ensure visibility of progress towards shared goals. While intelligent technologies can be powerful enablers, they must earn their place alongside structured management routines.  

Collaboration must have clear purpose

Whether online or offline, clear outcomes need to be defined. Teams coming together to share information without a clear objective will only further exasperate the productivity problem. Structured cultures around meetings and Human-Centred guidelines for use of collaboration technologies will help drive value from each channel. Don’t expect that these channels can be self-managed.

Technology is a powerful enabler, but must have a clear role alongside other routes

Setting clear roles for technology-based solutions, understanding where they can aid productivity and where they add friction, will help build effective, blended solutions. Face to face, voice and email still have powerful roles to play, but without identifying and setting expectations, communication and outputs will simply be duplicated across multiple channels, creating fragmentation and knowledge management challenges.

We recently held virtual customer journey workshops with a client who needed input from teams located across the globe. This relied on significant planning and structuring to deliver specified outcomes from each session, pre-work from delegates, and silent brainstorming. Without the software, we could have never brought multiple people from all over the globe together in one virtual session, but success was delivered by the team working together to achieve clear goals.

By focusing on where and how collaboration can drive purposeful outcomes, by maintaining a view of the overall human experience, we can bring out the best in cutting edge technology and drive further productivity benefits from increasingly diverse and multi-skilled teams.

Never stop learning

Ultimately good planning delivers solid outcomes; technology will act as a tool to give you the flexibility to do this, but it won’t by itself deliver success.

You can find out more about collaboration, and network with business leaders working on the same issues, at our annual conference The Future of Service. Held on 21st November in London, we will explore how focusing on human experience can transform your work for the better.

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Chris Kiff

Chris Kiff, Principal Consultant


Judith Coole

Judith Coole, Managing Consultant

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Dave Heywood, Digital Marketing Manager


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