Our attention in the workplace is a precious resource that often falls victim to tools like email, Slack, and so on, which bring a nonstop supply of things to read, things to respond to, things to file, things to loop others in on, things to follow up on, and in general, things to do.

This "always on" dynamic has roots in a desire for increased workplace collaboration and productivity, but as is so often the case, it turns out there is a balance to be struck for optimal results. New research shows that groups who collaborate less often may be better at problem solving.

Once upon a time in the land of business, people primarily communicated through conversations, meetings, and internally circulated printed memos. In the absence of email, Internet, cell phones, and CRMs there was a repeating cadence of connection, then disconnection, even while in the office.

In this case, "disconnected" really amounts to uninterrupted - and able to focus. Without a constant barrage of electronic communication, employees had fewer distractions (assuming no chatty neighbors) and more opportunity to direct their own energy.

In a study titled "How Intermittent Breaks in Interaction Improve Collective Intelligence", the authors use a standardized problem-solving test to measure the contrast between time spent in collaboration mode against the quality and quantity of problem solving results. The group with no interaction predictably had the highest options for solutions, but those solutions were of lower overall quality. The group with high interaction had higher quality solutions, but less variety and a lower likelihood to find the optimal solution. The intermittent collaboration groups found the desirable middle ground to balance out the pros/cons of the no interaction and high interaction groups, leading them to become the most successful problem solvers.

Assuming email and your CRM system are not going anywhere any time soon, it may be best to take a hard look at the demands that meetings place on your employees to offset this collaboration drain. Here are a few guidelines to bear in mind when considering whether or not to call a meeting:

Is group planning necessary?

In environments where product development is conducted through approaches like Agile, a "sprint" type meeting may be the most efficient way to work through roles, deliverables, timelines, etcetera to define a plan of attack on a tight timeline.

Is it a big, long-term project?

At Greenleaf Book Group, we have an annual process to define areas for improved efficiency - and it often results in some large-scale overhauls to how we work. To keep those often daunting projects from being relegated to the back burner, a regular meeting for a check-in (we do monthly) can make the difference between moving forward with improvements or the team ignoring the work and waiting for it to fall off the company's radar completely.

Do you need consensus or a decision?

We've all experienced email chains exploding with opinions, feedback, arguments and concerns but no direction or path to resolution.

If you have an issue requiring group consensus, or if someone needs to make a decision after taking the feedback of the group into consideration, a meeting may be in order to ensure all parties are heard, respected, understood, and clear on the path forward.

Is it a crisis?

Crisis situations look different at every company, but they inevitably create fear, uncertainty, and confusion around problem solving. Whether you have an external public relations crisis or an internal crisis related to interpersonal behavior in the office, a deliberate and well-thought-out meeting is the best way to attend to the emotions and expedited decisions that accompany these high stake situations.

Collaboration is the secret sauce for many of our businesses, and it can bring the best out of strong teams - so long as it is not overdone and is used at the right times. Consider the collaboration load on your team and how you might best mitigate the risk of overdoing it. Doing so will pay off with less stress and higher performance. 

Published on: Dec 14, 2018