Why is it so hard to collaborate in today’s workplace? Reb Rebele explains why FP&A workers can’t get their work done.
It’s easier than ever to connect with your co-workers and theoretically get things done. You’ve got email, text, private messaging, conference calling, and more.
So why, in reality, is it so challenging to collaborate at work? Robert “Reb” Rebele calls it the paradox of the connected workforce. We are so connected yet at the same time so disconnected, he argues and adds that employees are suffering from collaborative overload.
What can finance executives do about all this? Rebele will offer his advice when he speaks at FinNext 2019, March 17-19, in Las Vegas.
A researcher for Wharton People Analytics who teaches in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, Rebele recently was a guest on AFP Conversations podcast. Here is an excerpt of Rebele’s conversation with host Ira Apfel:
Ira Apfel: How might a CFO or a FP&A executive check to see if his or her workplace has a strong collaborative culture?
Reb Rebele: I think if you’re at that level of the organization, one of the key things to think about is what are your sources of data on the people and collaboration side. A lot of CEOs or CFOs could tell you a lot about their financial metrics and the suite of financial metrics that they could look to could tell them whether things are going well or not. Do you have the same range and quality of metrics on the people side and the collaboration side? do you actually know at an individual employee level who’s performing well and who’s not? It’s actually a less common thing than you would expect. Organizations have all sorts of productivity metrics in a lot of cases. But they’re not always actually that useful in identifying which individuals or in the context of collaboration, maybe even more importantly, which teams and groups are working most effectively.
So part of it is performance and productivity. But then part of it is engagement, motivation, attention, and energy. Some of the low hanging fruit in terms of where to collect some of this data, we talked before about communications meta data, that’s one place where you got some existing data that you could actually start to analyze. Things like 360 or network surveys within organizations are really helpful. So getting employees to talk about who they actually interact with to tell you here are the people I’m actually interacting with day to day. And you’ll be surprised at how often that doesn’t map onto any kind of organizational chart. And you’ll be surprised at how often some of the people who you think are your star employees are far more isolated than you would necessarily want them to be in an ideal world once you start to ask them who are you actually connecting with and how helpful are you all being to one another.
Ira Apfel: When you started to do research on this topic, did you hypothesize that there was a problem, or were you surprised at the level of dysfunctionality?
Reb Rebele: I’d say yes! I think we heard a lot about this from talking to lots of people as they went about their day to day work lives. You could just hear people complaining about meetings or talking about their inbox being overloaded. And starting to connect the dots that hey, these are all different flavors of collaborative activities, right? It just sounds like communication, right? It’s like people are in meetings or responding to emails. But it’s all part of the like just ground level work that goes into collaboration and what it means to work together. I heard some people including ourselves talking about, “Hey, this is a challenge.” that led us to think, “Yeah, there is an issue here.”
Highly collaborative employees then feel burnt out by all of these collaborative demands, by all of these help requests and end up leaving the organization or staying and being less effective and potentially grumpier and therefore spreading ill will among colleagues. That’s actually a much more substantial cost I think than we necessarily would’ve hypothesized going in.
Ira Apfel: What’s the first step a finance executive should take to address this problem?
Reb Rebele: If you’re in a leadership role, I would start by looking at your data infrastructure on the people side of things. If you invest in a robust data infrastructure on people management and culture and collaboration issues, you’ll set yourself up to be able to ask lots more questions going forward. As it stands, if you don’t have reliable, easy to access data in terms of how engaged people are, where their time and attention is going, what the sort of productivity and output benefits are from that, then even if you come up with an answer, it’s going to be an educated guess at best. And sometimes that’s all you have to work with. But the more you can invest in data infrastructure, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
At sort of lower levels and even at the individual employee level, I think the one piece of advice is to just start paying attention to where your time, attention, and energy is going. There’s an exercise that turns into a sort of structure activity that you can do in like an hour and a half called the job crafting exercise where you just sort of map out using effectively post it notes to say, “Here’s where my time, attention, and energy’s going right now. Here’s what I’m good at, what I value, what sustains my energy and productivity,” and then you sort of recraft your existing job to better align with those things and look for what are the small changes that I can make that will make a big difference. Even something like doing that for an hour/hour and a half, or just like paying attention as you go about your day and saying, “Could I be a little bit more efficient here? Can I do this in a way that’s actually less efficient but more productive and more enjoyable?” That reflective attitude will help you identify places where you can make some changes.