A study published in August 2018 found that intermittent collaboration produces better results with more variation than when people constantly collaborate or when people work entirely independently.
Different levels of collaboration affected performance. People who worked independently, with no collaboration, produced the greatest variation in outcome, as well the lowest standard performance. People who constantly interacted performed better, but with less variation in the outcome. However, people who had intermittent interactions not only performed better but also preserved the variation in the outcome.
As the researchers put it, “Broadly speaking, productivity tools encourage people to build off of their own previous best work, and transparency enhancing collaboration and networking tools encourage people to be in constant contact with one another. Extrapolating from our results, one could say that such technology use increases mean performance, but depresses maximum performance in complex problem solving. Although much is gained from keeping people connected, even greater problem-solving performance could be achieved by redesigning technologies to intermittently turn on and off the influence that people feel from social ties and their own previous work.” Read the entire paper (PDF) by Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, and David Lazer.
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The study may have interesting implications for organizations that use collaborative tools, such as G Suite. For example, on some projects, it may make sense to ask different teams to separately work on a complex problem. That has some implications for how you configure and use G Suite’s collaborative capabilities.
First, you’ll likely want to create a separate Hangouts Chat room for each group of people who will work on the project, instead of a single Hangouts Chat room comprised of everyone on the team. For a complex project, the separate teams may increase the variation you’ll get in the results and/or solutions. By separating the teams, you allow each group to pursue problem solving independently.
Similarly, if the project requires access to shared files, and your organization uses G Suite Business, Education, or Enterprise, create a separate Team Drive for each group of people. Otherwise, a shared Google Drive folder with access shared to members of each respective set of people may suffice.
Let the different groups work separately for significant periods of time–that period may consist of days, weeks, months, or years–then, at scheduled intervals, use Hangouts Meet to allow the different groups to share ideas. This adds the intermittent collaboration component that the researchers identified as helpful.
However, make sure that these Hangouts Meet sessions are neither frequent nor routine; otherwise, the distinct nature of each group will be lost. And people will simply have one more mundane update-and-status meeting to attend. These cross-team connections should be rare and well-planned so that members of each team looks forward to each connection and exchange.
Finally, each group might borrow the concept of office hours from academia. Typically, a teacher will schedule specific hours on at least a couple days each week to be available to engage with students enrolled in a class. The same idea can serve to constrain, yet encourage, engagement among team members. For example, each member of a team might set a short period of time aside each week for team engagement. That might be the time that people all commit to being active in a Chat room, or respond to questions on email, or Meet within the group.
Outside of that time, the group could allow people to disconnect. That may mean you configure your working hours in Google Calendar to be far fewer than the actual total hours you work in a week; instead, working hours might reflect the hours allocated for collaboration. To configure working hours in Google Calendar in a desktop browser, select the sprocket in the upper right, then Settings, and then Working Hours (see Fig A).
This idea of limited engagement with colleagues likely doesn’t make sense for every role. But, for highly-skilled teams of people who seek to solve complex problems, time to think and then intermittently sync, may produce the best results.
What is your experience?
Does your organization formally encourage intermittent collaboration? Or does your culture include an expectation that every person will always be connected and ready to collaborate? Let me know how you balance collaboration with individual work time, either in the comments below or on Twitter (@awolber).