What does employee autonomy mean for team collaboration?
On a Wednesday evening just over three years ago my workday ended as usual. I fired off the last emails of the day, shut my laptop, unplugged my double monitors, and tucked my chair beneath my desk.
My commute playlist, which had accumulated over 543 songs or the equivalent of nearly 32 hours of music, buzzed through my AirPods, the only buffer between me and the hoards of employees marching to the subway station all blissfully unaware that our otherwise ordinary evening commute would be the last of its kind.
The next day, that playlist provided the only sense of normalcy as I walked from bedroom to kitchen table, as I muddled through the workday without those double monitors, without a conference room to book, without a row of coworkers stationed beside me, and without the office chair in which I had grown accustomed to rolling over to my teammates’ desks with questions, ideas, or even just to catch up.
In the weeks that followed, the 543 songs that once acted as bookends for my in-office work days became the background music to a daily reality of emails, Slack messages, and Zoom.
That commute playlist became a reminder of how I used to work and, in many ways, magnified everything I’d lost.
I found myself grappling with the dissolution of the physical barriers that separated my work and personal life on the one hand and the physical proximity to my team on the other. That playlist became a reminder of how I used to work and, in many ways, magnified everything I’d lost.
The absence of physical distance between my office and home gave way to longer work days spent in virtual team meetings, an uptick in Slack message notifications after work hours, and, in turn, the onset of digital burnout. Without the ability to ideate, innovate, and problem-solve in-person and in near real time, I experienced firsthand how the entrepreneurial and agile nature of my team rapidly shifted to one that was far more executional.
Is technology helping or hindering team collaboration?
On a functional level, the digital collaboration I had grown accustomed to in the office led to a somewhat natural transition to fully remote work. To an extent, the only thing different about team collaboration was the context. But like millions of other knowledge workers experiencing the overnight shift to remote work, I felt a more fundamental change that went beyond the functional aspects of collaboration – one that couldn’t be solely attributed to a mere change of context.
Social psychologist and author of Collabor(h)ate: How to Build Incredible Collaborative Relationships at Work, Dr. Deb Mashek, provides an apt metaphor for characterizing the tangible change in my collaboration experience. “I liken the jarring transition from in-person work to remote work to closing time at the bar,” Dr. Mashek said in an interview with Forbes. “As the bartender flips on the harsh fluorescent lights you see – perhaps for the first time – how grimy the space had been all along. The only thing that’s new is your ability to see them. COVID, likewise, turned a harsh light onto collaboration problems that had been there all along.”
Dr. Deb Mashek, Social psychologist
COVID turned a harsh light onto collaboration problems that had been there all along.
Organizations were hitting the limits of their collaboration approaches even prior to the pandemic. Layering on more meetings and more tech reactively has simply led to less autonomy, less productivity, and less accountability. In other words, collaboration technology alone has proven to be far from a strategy in itself – and, in fact, can be detrimental.
Although I had the flexibility over where and when I worked along with the technology resources to support it, flexibility on paper did not guarantee autonomy in practice. In an environment where more meetings were seen as a solution to a lack of in-person collaboration, I watched my productivity, sense of individual empowerment, work-life balance, and connection to my colleagues suffer. In hindsight, the shift to remote work was not a catalyst for collaboration problems, but rather, a tipping point that prompted an urgent need to rethink existing ways of working.
Intentional collaboration, not more collaboration
According to research conducted by Harvard Business Review, my experience is far from unique. In a 2022 study, researchers found that 92% of employees consider meetings costly and unproductive, while 70% of all meetings keep employees from working and completing their tasks.
On the flip side, the benefits of fewer meetings show that intentional collaboration – not more time spent collaborating – is key. In the same HBR study, researchers discovered that employee productivity was 71% higher when meetings were reduced by 40%, ‘largely because employees felt more empowered and autonomous.’ The result? Employees could hold themselves accountable, communicate more clearly and effectively, and consequently felt valued, trusted, and more engaged.
It has become increasingly clear that applying legacy work models to a hybrid future isn’t the answer to solving collaboration challenges.
Redesigning collaboration for the future of work, however, is not as simple as reducing the number of virtual meetings nor is it one-size-fits-all. Deliberate collaboration depends on elevating the role of human emotion – and that means that technology is only part of the answer.
According to Gartner, “the [employee value proposition] for the post pandemic workforce must orient toward employees as people, not workers; provide an exceptional life, not work, experience; and focus on the feelings, not just the features that match employee needs.”
By delivering what Gartner calls “the human deal,” organizations have an opportunity to help all employees – regardless of work location – feel understood, autonomous, valued, cared for, and invested in. In this context, employee autonomy and intentional collaboration are not at odds, but rather work in tandem to help organizations invest in individuals and, in turn, invest in team collaboration at large.
Although I didn’t have the years of virtual collaboration experience to understand it then as I do now, I look back on my commute playlist as not just a relic of an outdated way of working, but also as an emblem of what is needed to make team collaboration in the future work better: Intention.
By continuing to question why we collaborate and how we collaborate, we can rethink team collaboration for the better – and deliberately design it to unlock the full potential of teams and individuals.