Tips for Avoiding Collaborative Overload | Beth's Blog

Tips for Avoiding Collaborative Overload

Digital Wellness, Workplace Culture

What is Collaborative Overload?

The potential for being overwhelmed by technology is magnified in the workplace by something called “Collaborative Overload”  Rob Cross and Adam Grant in a recent Harvard Business Review article. Collaborative overload is defined as the burnout that results from our over reliance on e-mails, meetings and other collaborative technology tools that have, ironically, limited our ability to get stuff done.

As nonprofits become networked and different departments work across silos, we need to connect with more people than ever. While there are many positive aspects to increased collaboration, there is also downside. According to Rob Cross’s research, knowledge workers spend 90 to 95 per cent of their time on the phone, responding to e-mails or in meetings. In comparison, 10 years ago, these managers spent “only” 60 to 65 per cent of their time engaged in those activities.   

Having too many platforms and tools for collaboration can confuse and annoy your team and partners. Research shows that staff often resist using multiple services, often because they don’t want to open one more window on their computer or launch one more app on their mobile device.

More and more we are beginning to recognize the risk of communications overload, and organizations are trying to simplify the workflows for teams. In addition, the creators of collaboration apps and services are tweaking their offerings to enable people to do more work within their suite of products, so there’s less of a need to jump around.  

There are ways of working that can reduce collaborative overload.  Some tip include mapping out a  good process for work flow and using collaborative technology effectively.    Amy Su Jen offers up a great framework for individuals.  It is called the Four P’s:   Planning, People, Priorities, and Being Present.  While the tips are geared for personal productivity, I decided to apply the framework to team collaboration.


Planning is about using structure and rituals to keep organized.  It is important for your team to have the right amount of structure in their workflow. Not enough can lead to being overwhelmed and too much can bog everyone down.    As team, it is important not to simply jump into doing the work, but to have a clear process for doing the work.

  • Make Solo Time A Part of Your Team Culture

Here’s a common scenario: After a long day at work, you come home and realize you didn’t get anything done. By the end of the week, the list of tasks on your to-do list has grown and you can’t explain where the hours went. A quick glance at your calendar shows that you spent hours in meetings, answering emails, or working on shared documents but you can’t remember why.   Sound familiar?

While you can schedule your own power hours for personal productivity,  you have a better chance of doing so if it is part of the way your team works. And that’s why it is important as a team to agree that every team member can schedule solo time to work on tasks during work hours.   Some organizations have a “no meeting times” zone on a particular day or during certain times each day.   For example, the Sierra Club does not schedule staff meetings on Fridays.

Your team may end up scheduling over these solo time blocks, but you all have a better chance of keeping solo time sacred if this solo time is  blocked out on your organization’s or team’s calendar.

  • Establish Look Ahead Team Rituals 

As your team’s projects get bigger or more complex or you are trying to accomplish more with less resources, it gets harder  without more intentional planning. Look ahead rituals can build space into your schedule.  Having a team retreat on an annual basis to map out large projects is also a good idea and anticipating monthly or quarterly key deliverables can minimize stress.    There is even a “look ahead” template for Excel that make this type of planning easier to do.

  • Clearly define workflow for online collaboration platforms and training.

You probably use cloud software to backup your files and share them with others on your team. Popular sharing platforms are low cost and include Box, Google Drive, Dropbox and others. These tools can improve your collaborative performance, but if you use too many different platforms or don’t have a clear work process mapped to the platform or haven’t done training for everyone – it can cause confusion and overload. By taking the step to define work flow, you create order out of chaos.

  • Adopt Good Practices Around Team Emails

Have a formal policy about sending after hours emails.   Research has found that after hours emails contributes to the blurring of work/life boundaries.  Because the communication virtual, you can’t see the stress you are creating for your team members when sending after hours emails.  The research found that it wasn’t so much the amount of time spent on email, but the assumed availability and it is the expectation that causes being overwhelmed and exhausted.  This contributes to poor work performance.   Some organizations have explicit policies such as “no email between 7pm-7am.  If your work requires after hours coverage for emergencies, assigning staff shifts can help avoid burnout.


People is about how you relate to others.  People at work can be source of positive energy or they can be a drain.   It is important to set boundaries and the amount of energy to spend on interpersonal interactions, especially when so much of our work depends on interacting with other people – whether face-to-face or virtually.

Don’t Let Your Frustrations Drive You.

Do you find yourself obsessing, getting angry, or wasting energy because you are constantly frustrated with some people at work? Set a specific time limit for being annoyed or angry.  Give yourself a time out and then shift to a more positive action. Having negative conversations with yourself in your head, gossiping with others, or venting only drains precious energy. Go have a direct conversation, make a request, or make the conscious choice that you won’t let it steal your energy or productivity.

Learn the Art of Saying No Effectively

There are times when you need to stand firm and protect yourself in order to be productive. Setting boundaries is about making clear choices and priorities and standing firm to defend the space and time you need to recharge. Saying “No” more to requests that take up your time can be challenging in the workplace. You can’t always say “No” to your boss or board. But you can draw some clear lines to know when your workload is going overboard, and you need to bring it up to your superiors to make some reasonable adjustments.  Here’s some tips on how to say  no without burning bridges.

Communicate Clearly in Emails

Lack of precision and clarity in emails can contribute to collaborative overload and interpersonal misunderstandings. This guide, “Writing Emails with Military Precision” offers some useful tips that you could incorporate into your team work flow.

Create a Remote Working Team Charter

More and more nonprofits are adopting flexible workplace or have remote teams in different cities.  Having a remote team or a hybrid of on-site and remote team members requires a different way of working. Remote workers are often in very different physical locations, with different working patterns (that fit around the rest of their lives), and different needs. This can contribute to overload unless you have a method to establish a remote work policy.

This tool guides your team through the process of writing a remote working charter, defining the guidelines and behavior expected of people working at a distance. Team members reflect on their own remote working experiences and use that insight to create a shared charter for your nonprofit.


Priorities is about intentionally deciding how to spend your time as a team.  Is your on the same page about what matters most? Are there competing priorities?  The difficult thing about time is that it is not infinite.  Your teams needs to accept that you have to make choices.

Take a trend-line view

Reflect on the past six months or the past year as a team.   Do you have too many back-to-back meetings?  Is the ratio of team/solo time adequate?  Is your team emailing after hours?

Rethink having status update meetings

Many of the meetings we do have end up being a process of going around the table and hearing what everyone has done. Most of this information could be better captured in a dashboard, project document or an email update.  How many times have you sat through an hour long meeting of updates that could have taken ten minutes reading an email?

Sending a short summary of progress made and any issues or challenges ahead of a meeting.  This allows you to focus on what really requires discussion and decision-making instead of spending collaborative time passively listening to status updates. Now your meeting will be short and focused.  Another tip to ensure brevity is to do the meeting as a standing meeting for 15 minutes.

Don’t Schedule One-Hour Meetings by Default

Just because the default setting on your calendar software is for 60 minutes, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need the full hour.   Meetings have a way of expanding to amount of time scheduled.   Experiment with scheduling 30 minute meetings.  This will challenge you to be more effective planning the meeting and staying on agenda.  If you need longer, schedule 45 minutes for the meeting so you have 15 minutes of transition time to write down follow up notes or go the bathroom!


Being Present means paying attention to the people in front of us, focusing on the tasks at hand, and managing our emotions in the moment. It requires us to notice and tolerate feelings of discomfort so that we don’t engage in reactive patterns of distraction, perfectionism, procrastination, or rumination. Your team can do a simple mindfulness exercise by starting a meeting with a deep breath and going around the table to share how you are feeling in the moment.

Work to your energy

Knowing the peaks and valleys of your energy at work can help you identify the best times to be working on the more challenging assignments and when to do lighter tasks until your energy rises again. Get to know your Ultradian Rhythms, the natural rhythms of your body and brain that repeat throughout the day. These differ from your Circadian Rhythms that rise and fall with light and dark and dictate your sleep cycles.

An effective way to manage your energy is to design your team scheduled based around those rhythms. Being aware of everyone’s energy flows and trying to plan out your collective work tasks to align with those cycles can make your team more productive.

Be explicit about white space for all team members

Try to avoid the temptation to schedule every hour of every day with meetings that have a specific work flow and goals.   It is good to include white space or free time that be used for creative thinking or restorative activities or learning.  Make it a policy to have some white space as part of your week.   It isn’t goofing off, but it can help increase your team’s creativity and coming up with innovative ideas.

Create Device Free Zones

By giving your brain and body essential downtime throughout the day and workweek, you are replenishing your much-needed energy to be happier, healthier and more productive. But this can be hard to do in a workplace that is always online.  Having a designated area that is technology free or available for meditation sends the message that it okay to have this much needed downtime.

Have Explicit Policies About Use of Technology At Meetings

Many times we need to use technology to facilitate the meeting, whether it is bring a remote worker or view a presentation.  However, sometimes people tune out during meetings and start scanning their mobile phones and looking at unrelated information.  This is called “Technoference,” the distraction and relationship interference one experiences from looking at one’s devices instead of focusing on the person or people in front of them.

The way to avoid this at meetings is to have a stated, explicit policy around use of devices.   It is okay to check your mobile phone to find information to contribute the meeting, but it is another to use it to answer unrelated email.   This type of policy is especially important if you have remote or virtual team members.

Want to learn more about technology wellness in the nonprofit workplace?  Check out our NTC session”Technology Wellness in the Nonprofit Workplace.”



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