It’s impossible to hide from your coworkers. Whether you work in the office, from home, or at a coffee shop, any of your colleagues can instantly interrupt (and perhaps ruin) your day with a “tap on the shoulder” thanks to a plethora of communication technologies. At Bloomberg BNA Last week, Genevieve Douglas highlighted some new data illustrating the negative impact this constant onslaught of communication is having on a growing number of employees. Many are either missing critical information they need, or are considering changing employers to get away from the deluge of chatter and information.
Douglas points to a survey published in March by the communications software provider Dynamic Signal, in which half of respondents said they felt overwhelmed by the proliferation of these tools and pressured to use multiple platforms. A third of the employees surveyed said they were so stressed out by the state of communication in their workplace that they were ready to quit because of it.
Having personally tracked the reasons why employees quit with my colleague Brian Kropp for over a decade, I’m skeptical that employees will really quit because of poor communication alone. However, our latest research does substantiate the claim that providing employees with “on demand access” to information and HR solutions through more channels and new technology platforms really does hinder their performance.
Business leaders are aware of this problem of communication overload and looking to address it proactively, Natalie McCullough, general manager of MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics at Microsoft, told Douglas. When it comes to enabling employee collaboration through technology, our new research points to a useful rule of thumb: If you want to improve employees’ performance and experience at the same time, focus less on providing new ways for them to communicate and more on enabling them to act.
Adding a communication channel should not lead to more communications, but rather better communications that are ‘effortless’ to process and use. This, paradoxically, requires employers to restrict the sharing of information and communicate in ways that nudge employees to act. We call this “guided action.”
Alex Fradera at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest flags a new study looking at the impact of cooperative workplaces on high-performing employees, which found that “in more cooperative climates, hotshots are actually more likely to get a raw deal”:
Elizabeth Campbell and her colleagues surveyed 350 hair stylists, mainly women, working within a chain of Taiwanese salons. The researchers were interested in how the most successful stylists were treated by their peers: they identified hotshots by asking managers for performance ratings, and then they surveyed all the staff to find out the benefits and threats they saw in each other, and how much criticism and support they received. They also asked stylists about their salon’s working climate by asking them how much they agreed with statements like “there is a high level of cooperation between stylists”. …
The researchers found that hotshots experienced more negative treatment in the form of belittling and criticism when they were surrounded by co-workers who felt threatened. In contrast, hotshots received more help and support if their colleagues saw them as a benefit. The typical high performer had a mixed bag: compared to the typical stylist, they were criticised more, but also received more support. But that support was lacking within salons with more cooperative climates.
This is not the first study to suggest that cooperative workplaces can have a negative impact on standout employees. Last year, management scholars Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant found that high-performing, highly networked employees tend to get overwhelmed with demands for collaboration, which can ultimately hurt their performance by spreading them too thin.
Lisa Baird, a former principal designer at IDEO, put forth an interesting argument at Fast Company back in May, pointing to the rise of a new breed of freelancer she calls a “comprehensivist”—a multi-skilled knowledge worker who can perform tasks that used to require a team of individuals with specialized skills. Baird sees comprehensivists playing an outsized role in the future of the gig economy:
The rise of comprehensivists in some sectors is coinciding with the broader gig economy trend: multi-skilled knowledge workers are increasingly able to ply their trade to a range of bidders on their own terms. Project-oriented fields like design and journalism have seen this coming for some time, in part because the deadlines they operate on make for easily definable gigs. …
Even industries like law and finance are beginning to fray around the edges, with top talent decamping for gigs. But whether a job is gig-able is now less about field and more about role. After all, someone still has to hire the freelancers. Leadership roles share DNA with their organizations and benefit from the sort of sustained, longitudinal engagement that’s harder to imagine a freelance model being able to accommodate. Still, as more knowledge work goes project-based and the normalcy of 1099 labor grows, the more likely top-shelf multidisciplinary workers are to go it alone. Does this portend a future working world split into B-player company teams and A-player freelancers?
At CEB’s ReimagineHR event in Miami earlier this month, management professor Rob Cross spoke about the growing problem of “collaborative overload,” which we’ve also touched on here: that is, what happens when employees are too interconnected, such that collaboration takes up too much of their time and leaves them scrambling to complete their own solo work. In a follow-up piece this week, Baird revisits the comprehensivist concept in light of how workplace attitudes about collaboration have been shifting, positing that comprehensivism may be arising as a response to collaborative overload, or even heralding the end of the collaborative trend: