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Are Collaboration Tools Overwhelming Your Team?

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The typical worker checks their email 77 times and receives 121 new emails each day. While doing that, many are also toggling back and forth between applications, bouncing between pings on apps like Slack and Teams, comments on shared documents, and notifications from an array of company web portals.

It’s no surprise then that today’s workers feel numbed by a fragmented, unpredictable, and overwhelming collection of collaboration tools — trapped by the very things advertised to boost their productivity. They know they’re overloaded and feel exhausted but believe there is little or nothing they can do to slow the onslaught of communication.

We explored how collaboration technology bloat impacts employees and tried to help people take control over their work. We called our intervention the “collaboration cleanse.” Here we’ll explore our findings (spoiler: there’s good news and bad) and outline what leaders should do to simplify employees’ collaboration tool use.

The Collaboration Cleanse

This “cleanse” was implemented by Asana’s Work Innovation Lab, in concert with Amazon Web Services. We randomly assigned each of our 58 volunteers, which included both Asana and Amazon employees, into one of two groups. We asked all participants to report the collaboration technologies they use at least once a week for interacting with colleagues (for example, Slack, Figma, and Zoom). We also asked them to evaluate how well each tool helps them achieve their current work goals, as well as how much effort it takes to use each one. Finally, we asked them to choose specific technologies to refrain from using for two weeks. We asked people in the first group to stop using half of their collaboration tools for the two weeks. People in the second group could choose which and how many collaboration tools they eliminated. All participants told us which technologies they planned to set aside and kept daily diaries, recording any occasions when they strayed from their “approved” list.

This cleanse was inspired by research on the subtraction mindset, including our prior interventions at the Work Innovation Lab that helped people eliminate and redesign bad meetings. This research shows that people are prone to solving problems by heaping more complexity and burdens on themselves and others — even when subtraction is a more effective strategy. But prompting them to slow down and think about what they can and should remove from their work helps them overcome the instinct to add instead of subtract.

The Good News: Participants Became More Aware of Their Digital Burdens

As they embarked on this cleanse, participants in both groups became more aware of the digital clutter pervading their lives — clutter that they didn’t think about much or at all and hadn’t ever tried to reduce or remove. Forty-one percent reported (without prompting) that they became more mindful of the impact of using too many collaboration tools on their focus and productivity.

A research scientist put it to us this way: “[The cleanse] made me much more aware of the different tools I was using and the impact that was having on my productivity and sense of focus. There is a subtle cost with switching tools, and that additional friction hurts my focus and productivity.”

In addition to reflecting more deeply on how they used their tools, participants also made small strides toward using fewer collaboration tools overall. More than half (53%) of participants told us they would use at least one tool less frequently as a result of their cleanse. They expected this conscious culling of their tech stack to free up their time and cognitive bandwidth for more focused work.

A customer insights analyst told us the cleanse taught her to be more deliberate about when she uses some particularly distracting collaboration technologies (e.g., messaging platforms) to cut down on interruptions. One change she made was to plan intervals where she would use collaboration technologies intensely for 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes after lunch, and 10 minutes at the end of the day, and otherwise wouldn’t use them at all.

The Bad News: Participants Felt More Helpless and Exhausted After the Cleanse

The intervention also appeared to have some negative consequences that surprised us. After we prompted participants to become more mindful of their tool use, they reported that their feelings of helplessness increased. When they paused to identify digital tools to subtract, many realized doing so would be a time-consuming ordeal, or downright impossible. That’s because so many other people inside and outside their teams expected (or required) them to use particular collaboration tools, so the decision to get rid of these shared tools wasn’t theirs alone (or at all). The awareness triggered by the collaboration cleanse made them want to fight back and overhaul their tools. But many felt stymied by inescapable rules, traditions, and power dynamics.

One project risk manager, for example, said she would try to minimize the use of collaboration tools but didn’t think she would succeed. With different teams using different tools because of their own preferences or company requirements, she and her colleagues were often confused about which messaging tool they should use to communicate with people in different business units.

Participants in both groups reported a sense of helplessness and the resulting exhaustion, yet it appeared to be more severe in the first group, where we asked participants to abstain from using half of their tools for two weeks — a task that proved to be not just formidable, but often impossible. Many participants realized they were helpless to cut their tool use like they wanted to, which frustrated and exhausted them.

Participants in the second group, who were given the flexibility to trim their list of collaboration tools as much as they deemed necessary, also reported feelings of futility and digital exhaustion, though they seemed less vehement in their distress. The task of subtracting tools, we found, is complex and daunting, and becoming mindful about the struggle to achieve it can inadvertently exacerbate feelings of helplessness.

This aligns with the findings from a related study where we interviewed 63 knowledge workers from a variety of industries. We found that feelings of digital exhaustion depended on whether or not employees felt like they had autonomy to decide which tools they would use.

Our takeaway? When people realize they can’t do much or anything to reduce the number of collaboration tools they use (or when and how often they use them), they’re left feeling even more helpless and exhausted. As one software engineer put it, “This is something that’s really hard to change on an individual level.” He went on to explain that, if he decided not to use a tool that other colleagues used, it would be harder for him and his collaborators to do their jobs.

Change Needs to Come from the Top

Many studies show that effective and long-lasting change in organizations bubbles up from the bottom and that strong dictums from management can create impediments for employees. We’ve cited much of that research in our own work, and even produced a fair amount of it, too.

But when it comes to technology overload and digital exhaustion, the best and sometimes only way to reduce the problem is with strong, persistent, and even downright inflexible top-down intervention.

The results of our collaboration cleanse show that the interactive and interdependent nature of collaboration technologies makes it near impossible for individual employees to meaningfully reduce their tool use in the workplace on their own. And as participants in our study made clear, attempting and failing to change how and when they use their digital tools may be worse than never trying at all.

Employees at lower levels often have the best information about which tools to keep and which to eliminate. But those at the top of the pecking order are in the best position to use their authority to make change throughout the organization and help employees stay afloat amid the digital deluge. Here’s how leaders can help employees get a better handle on their collaboration tools:

Provide purposeful constraints.

Set clear guidelines for when employees should use specific technologies. This will help prevent them from spending time and energy second-guessing what type of work to do with which technology.

Establish non-negotiables. For example, leaders in one organization we worked with specified that Slack should be used for communication that’s time sensitive and requires a quick response — and not for less-pressing matters. Leaders in other organizations have banned email completely, or made the decision to use only one project management tool. They key here is to be specific and exacting: Don’t let too many tools clutter people’s work.

Tackle the root cause and ripple effects.

As a leader, it’s crucial to confront both the visible symptoms and underlying causes of tech overload. Initiate a top-down pruning of your organization’s tool stack, eliminating redundant and inefficient technologies. One data scientist who participated in the cleanse described how his company’s leaders cancelled employee licenses for a redundant file-sharing platform, which helped him and others stick to a single platform when working on documents, rather than being forced to keep switching between different platforms that each required different steps and commands.

It’s also your responsibility to help your team mitigate the ripple effects of tool overload. Encourage employees to use features like “do not disturb” and turn off unnecessary notifications to regain some control over their attention. But if you don’t model this behavior, it’s unlikely your employees will do it either.

Fix friction head-on.

Encourage, enable, and even require employees to regularly evaluate their tech habits. Our cleanse suggests this conscious reflection can make your employees more aware of the toll of tech overload. A subtraction mindset can be a powerful catalyst for change, prompting employees to pause and critically evaluate the impacts of their technologies on their productivity and well-being.

Yet our intervention also revealed that this increased awareness can lead to heightened feelings of digital exhaustion if employees feel powerless to make changes. As a leader, your job is not only to promote this conscious reflection but also to provide support and resources so employees can change their tech use. This could involve facilitating discussions about tech habits within teams, providing training on how to use collaboration tools more effectively, or using your authority to revamp the organization’s tech stack based on employee feedback. Be prepared to follow through and hold yourself accountable to ensure that increased awareness of tool overload leads to positive change rather than increased despair.

Beware the credit card approach.

It’s become common for managers to buy subscriptions to digital platforms for their teams — without alerting the IT department — by simply charging the small monthly fee to their company credit cards. Many tech companies design their pricing strategies so managers can make these purchases without going through a lengthy corporate approval process. Although many managers adopt this approach because they think it helps their teams adopt the best technologies quickly, the lack of friction contributes to bloat in each member’s own tech stack and can lead to more feelings of digital exhaustion.

Managers need to be more conscious about how many tools they introduce to their employees and of how difficult it is for them to stop using tools once they start. In one midsize company we worked with, the CTO instructed the accounting team to flag all purchases made to software vendors on the corporate card. Each subscription that was not authorized by IT was cancelled. If the manager wanted to reinstate it, they had to make a formal request to the CTO in writing. Sure, this was a tough top-down approach. But after a year of asking managers not to overwhelm their teams with tools, the CTO finally forced people to tackle the problem rather than just make hollow promises. Six months after the big cancellation, the company was using nearly 30 fewer tools.

. . .

Collaboration technology overload can drown employees in choices, leaving them feeling helpless. The irony is that by constraining those choices, adding frustrating obstacles to adopting yet another collaboration technology, and taking control away from individuals, employees can feel more in control of their work.

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