When ‘collaboration overload’ strikes, and how to combat it

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Cat Mules

Virtual collaboration platforms are a hero for most as we’ve sought to rapidly adapt and maintain a sense of togetherness in an upturned social and working world. But what happens when day after day of screen time alone feels like too much? We identify four focus areas, with actions you can take now to optimise your virtual collaboration for all it’s worth.

1. Direct your attention.

Collaboration with colleagues, now from a one-dimensional screen, is also scattered with various background chats, works in progress, and web pages, applications, emails. It’s easy to think of virtual calls as an opportunity to get more done in the background, but multi-tasking en-call does little for your productive or collaborative value. A  Stanford study found that heavy multitaskers struggle with remembering things compared to those who focus on one thing at a time.

A more structured approach, blocking out periods of time and closing all other browsers for specific tasks, and taking visual breaks and changes of scene, will help. Follow a clear agenda and take the time to listen carefully in meetings.


2. Remember context.

Humans are social animals: we communicate constantly and what’s happening in the background will influence how we respond. The brain often focuses more on the many non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is fidgeting or whether they are slightly turned away, than it does on the words being spoken. Without this surrounding context, we could become weirdly prone to “non-verbal overload” as we are constantly gazing at close-ups of our colleagues’ faces.

Remember that an optimal video call will involve sustained attention on content instead of context. Look away from the screen if you need to, focus on contributing from your own environment, and don’t read too much into slight gestures or verbal tics in conversation.


3. Maintain focus.

Mental focus can range from too much to too little in virtual calls. According to mindfulness expert Steven Hickman, virtual communication draws on different qualities of our attention than in-person communication. Online, we have to work extra-hard to process the non-verbal cues we can see only in a one-dimensional image – not to mention the awareness of being watched can be incredibly disconcerting.

Don’t let this distract from engaging with the topic at hand. If you’re overstimulated or self-conscious, turn off the camera after you’ve said hello so people have seen you and know you’re there, and turn it on to speak but off when you’re listening.


4. Optimise your tech.

Contextual cues may be lost online, and the video calls where one person speaks while all others must wait to reply may seem strange, stilted and impersonal.  Silence could mean either you’ve made an awkward faux pas or that there’s a technical transmission issue. In another recent study, most professionals and IT decision-makers report poor quality audio as the biggest virtual collaboration barrier, leading to lost time and productivity.

The right audio and video systems are key, so ensure you have what you need to be seen and heard at your best. It’ll also help to test your tech ahead of time and ensure that everyone’s comfortable with the major features. To all get the same takeaway, agree to record meetings and share them afterwards.


Virtual collaboration doesn’t replace real-life interactions, but there are ways we can create and build healthier relationships  – not just with our screens, with the people behind them too. True, some of these tips are easier than others (for me, not surfing tabs mid-call!) but do consider them to prioritise yourself as we adjust and to a new work-life – one that’s more virtual than it’s ever been before.

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Image Credit: Pixabay. 

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Cat Mules

Umbrellar's Digital Journalist, coming from a background in tech reporting and research. Cat's inspired by the epic potential of tech and helping kiwi innovators share their success stories.


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Microsoft is a technology company whose mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. We strive to create local opportunity, growth, and impact in every country around the world.

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When ‘collaboration overload’ strikes, and how to combat it

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