Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
February 05, 2020 · 9 min read

Overcoming collaboration overload: How to choose (and use) the best collaboration tools for your team

Overcoming collaboration overload

Collaboration overload and why to avoid it?

It’s become a bit of a running joke in modern office environments that “work” gets in the way of actually doing any work. There are plenty of scapegoats when it comes to busywork, but there’s no denying that the increased use of collaboration tools hasn’t helped.

I’m talking about the huge proportion of our day that we spend on email and chat, in meetings, writing documentation and doing administration work—in other words, the collaboration overload that can feel much more like busywork and much less like actual productivity.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, at most companies, workers spend 80 percent of their days in meetings and on emails and calls,

“leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own.”

That 80 percent figure is scary enough on its own, but let’s make it a little scarier.

In an 8-hour workday, that means workers only have 96 minutes for “real” work like coding, designing, or writing. Throw in an hour-long lunch break and a couple of coffee breaks, and suddenly you’re looking at just 78 minutes of truly productive time a day.

Workplace collaboration isn’t going anywhere. So what can you do to make sure your team has both the time they need to collaborate with each other and do the work they were actually hired to do? While there are plenty of strategies and tips out there, one of the easiest to implement is simply choosing and learning to use the right collaboration tools.

In this guide, we’ll look at everything you need to know to empower your team—and yourself—to make the most of any workday without feeling completely drained, from how to watch out for collaboration overload to what collaboration tools to use.

What is collaboration overload? And why does it happen?

Just about every high-level boss in the world, from a start-up CEO to the owner of an artisanal cupcake bakery, has become attuned to the idea of workplace culture and the importance of relationships. Ensuring your team feels supported and heard is one of the keys to retaining high-performing players as well as keeping everyone productive and motivated.

Yet while effective teamwork is essential in the workplace, there is a flip side to a highly collaborative environment.

Collaboration overload is when a worker spends so much time engaging with colleagues and responding to their requests that they have little time for their own work. This can happen in a variety of ways from seemingly endless meetings to too much documentation to being bombarded daily with emails.

Even more, the increasingly ubiquitous demands of technology—and the need to engage any time you hear that familiar “ping”—paired with unreasonable expectations from bosses, clients are coworkers can compound an already challenging situation.

And, of course, some workers are their own worst enemy.

The more skilled and efficient the employee is, the more likely they are to be hit by collaboration overload.

Juggling all of these competing demands for your time can be particularly challenging if you haven’t honed your communication skills to ensure that interactions are as efficient as possible. And poor time management skills can leave you struggling to set priorities, letting demands for collaboration into all aspects of your day.

Even worse, collaboration overload can have a lopsided impact, disproportionately tying up the superstar performers who tend to be called upon the most. That means that the more skilled and more efficient an employee, the more likely they will have their workflow interrupted by demands for collaboration.

The results can be bad for both an employee and the business. Here’s how the Harvard Business Review explains it:

“Performance suffers as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks.”

In other words, collaboration overload doesn’t just impact your work productivity, but also your well-being. Left alone for too long and suddenly collaboration—which was designed to help us be more efficient and effective—can lead to burnout.

The ultimate collaboration tool stack: Every tool your team needs to properly collaborate (and how to use them)

There are lots of ways to deal with collaboration overload and the risks of burnout, including learning how to more effectively set priorities, limit distractions, and manage motivation. But there’s a crucial top layer to all of these strategies you have to consider: the collaboration tools you use.

Productivity apps are a double-edged sword. While they were designed to help bring your team together and get more done, they can just as easily introduce added stress and noise to your day.

The constant ping of your inbox or chat app kills productivity and collaboration, even if those messages are important to the project you’re working on.

In fact, according to studies by computer scientist and psychologist Gerald Weinberg, taking on additional tasks simultaneously—even just bouncing between your inbox and your IDE—can destroy up to 80% of your productive time.

Additional tasks destroy productivity

That’s why it’s not just the tools you use that matter. But also how you use them. Choosing tools that are less disruptive, built for focus, and integrated with your other apps means you can streamline your day instead of losing precious hours to collaboration overload.

Here’s our list of the most important collaboration tools to add to your stack, and how to make sure they’re actually making you more productive.

Project management tools can empower greater productivity

Let’s start with the big one: Project management tools.

Your project management tool takes the top spot when it comes to the collaboration tools that have an outsized impact on your productivity. When used correctly, a project management tool (like Planio!) helps offset collaboration overload in a number of ways.

First, collaboration overload often happens when people don’t know what to work on or are spending too much time on non-urgent and unimportant tasks. With Planio, you have all your tasks, issues, and bugs in one backlog so you can easily delegate tasks and balance your short- and long-term goals.

Collaboration overload doesn’t just impact your work productivity, but also your well-being.

When the time comes to work together on something, Planio’s powerful task management system helps you easily delegate and track issues, add important information like status, priority, assignee, category, and start and due dates, as well as track the time spent on it.

Planio Issue Tracking with the Agile Board

Not only does this help you stay on track of what’s being worked on and by whom (to see if anyone on your team is at risk of overload), but it also teaches you what a realistic workload is for each sprint.

Lastly, you can even define each user’s workflow, guided by a predefined list of next steps—thereby increasing clarity and reducing the number of follow-up planning meetings and emails.

File sharing to keep everyone on the same page

It’s impossible to collaborate properly if you aren’t working on the same files. (Even worse is wasting hours of your day working on the wrong document or design file).

That’s why you need a cloud storage and team file sharing solution as part of your collaboration tool stack. This isn’t just about access, however. The right team file sharing tool empowers collaboration with essential features like:

Planio’s new Cloud Storage feature is designed around these features (and more). Not only does it allow users to share essential documents, spreadsheets and other files with both clients and teammates but any changes are automatically updated and accompanied by an easy-to-trace history of who altered what and when.

Planio Cloud Storage

This way, you’ll always be working on the most recent version of any document, and you’ll have a transparent process for making and viewing changes. With a few clicks, you can accomplish a level of collaboration that otherwise might require any number of meetings, emails and even phone calls.

Lastly, it is tightly integrated with Planio, meaning all your files and docs can be accessed directly within your project management tool.

Team chat and communication streamline interactions

Inefficient communication in the workplace can be an enormous time suck whether it’s bouncing emails back and forth for hours trying to decide on which color to use in your website redesign or getting hung up on unimportant details in a chat conversation.

Much like the “quick” meeting that ends up taking up all day (and all your mental energy), always-on team communication tools can hurt your productivity as much as they help it. While much of this comes down to how you use these tools (we cover some best practice in the next section), the tool itself can influence your behavior.

This isn’t to say that chat is a total productivity killer. In fact, being able to have a quick real-time conversation can save hours of confusion over using other platforms.

For example, Planio Team Chat streamlines that process into a single interface, ensuring that quick updates or questions from your team are just a click away. You can keep conversations archived in the relevant project, and user-friendly search functions ensure you’re never cross-referencing emails or files to find what you’re looking for.

Planio Team Chat

And when you need to bring a colleague in on the chat, they will simply receive a notification to come online—a simple, minimally disruptive way to interact that can help stave off feelings of collaboration overload.

Shared docs and wikis make it easy to collaborate on your own time

Everyone’s experienced the sheer hell of working on a shared doc. Edits come out of nowhere, notifications of changes overflow in your inbox, and whole sections disappear right in front of your eyes. But shared docs and wikis are also one of the best, low-impact collaboration tools out there.

Instead of the always-on nature of most other collaboration tools, shared docs are a place to store knowledge for the long-term. Even better, they’re self-serve, meaning your team can choose to access them at their leisure and when needed, instead of having their workday interrupted.

80 percent of most working days are spent on collaboration. Add breaks and that's only 78 minutes of productive work a day.

In Planio, wikis are a centralized gathering place where team members can share information and ideas, and then bring those ideas to life through rich text, formatting tools, and image support. You can also keep track of changes, lock a file to prevent inadvertent changes from other users, and consult the document’s history to compare page modifications.

Planio Wiki

Whether you’re using it to maintain technical documentation, as a knowledge management solution, or as a knowledge base, having a flexible, easy-to-use wiki at your disposal is a powerful way to keep your team collaborating without burning out.

Collaboration best practices: How to collaborate without burning out

Of course, collaboration tools are only part of the equation. In order to not let them become just another source of collaboration overload, you need to know how to use them properly and detect when you’re struggling.

No matter what’s in your collaboration tool stack, there are a few best practices you need to follow:

1. Get clear on what you need to accomplish

In order to avoid unfortunate (and recurrent) time sucks in collaborative environments, get really clear on what you’re trying to accomplish in every interaction—whether that’s an email, meeting or site visit. This is especially important for remote teams who don’t have the luxury of casual in-person communication.

By going into each interaction with a teammate prepared with a core question and need you can limit the time spent collaborating and quickly get back to your core work.

2. Make sure responsibilities are clearly defined and reasonable

Optimum organization—supported by the right tools—is key to keeping collaborative overload at bay. Before you start any project, make sure every team member knows what his or her responsibilities are and that those responsibilities are evenly distributed.

Your project management tool (like Planio) can obviously be a huge help here by showing you which tasks are in your current sprint and who has a heavy workload. But just as important is being ultra-clear in how you write tasks, issues, and bug reports so there’s no ambiguity or opportunities for people to misinterpret what’s expected of them.

3. Work in bursts whenever possible

While most collaboration tools today promote always-on use, research actually indicates that we work best intermittently. In other words, it’s better to collaborate in short bursts rather than constantly.

Collaborate in bursts

A great way to think about collaboration is that it’s not your full-time job. Instead, make yourself available for collaborative interactions at certain points of the day, and also make sure you carve out some highly guarded time where you are exclusively concentrating on your own isolated tasks.

This can apply to all aspects of workplace collaboration, from when you’re available on chat, to when you check your email and project management tool for updates.

4. Overhaul your meetings

Meetings are the original “collaboration tool.” But that doesn’t mean they’re always productive.

While meetings absolutely can enhance your workplace productivity and the quality of your work—they often play out as an hour or more of waffling and unguided discussions that end in no real movement. Don’t do that.

Instead, get smarter about your meetings. Make sure you have a clear agenda complete with shared objectives, set the meeting for the minimum time necessary, make sure the meeting stays on task, and know what the next step is after your meeting (hint: it’s probably not another meeting).

5. Be selective and only use the essential collaboration tools

The productivity tool space has exploded over the past few years, with the majority of workers now using more than five apps at any given time.

App overload is real. And just because some new piece of technology claims to solve all your current problems doesn’t mean it won’t just add a whole host of new ones.

Be selective in what you use. Talk to your team about how they use apps, which ones actually help them, and which feel like a slog. The more you can streamline and integrate your collaborative tools, the more you’ll actually be able to collaborate.

The philosophy at Planio has always been to do exactly this. To provide users with a streamlined platform which combines a useful set of well-integrated tools all under one roof. Planio reduces app switching and constant pings killing your productivity and instead encourages productive collaboration without the feeling of being overloaded.

Your collaboration tools shouldn’t lead to overload

The point of avoiding collaboration overload isn’t to silo yourself and avoid interactions with other people; it’s to make those interactions as efficient as possible to ensure that you can maintain a reasonable workflow and maximize productivity.

No one was hired to be a professional emailer. And by implementing a few boundaries, assisted by the right suite of collaboration tools, you can make sure you have real time for getting your most important work done each day.