Imagine you’re faced with a tricky task at work. What’s your first reaction?
If you’re socially minded, perhaps you’d fire off an email or Slack message to a co-worker, hoping to pick their brain. Or if you prefer solitude, maybe you’d shut yourself in a conference room to puzzle through the problem on your own. Either of these strategies could yield good results — but a new study, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says the best strategy may be a blend of the two.
“With our smartphones and all of these technologies now, we’re constantly able to collaborate, and so we do,” says Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School and a co-author of the new paper, along with Boston University’s Jesse Shore and Northeastern University’s David Lazer. “The assumption behind [constant collaboration] is that’s a good thing for the quality of solutions we’re developing.” But the new study suggests that’s not always the case.
In the study, the researchers asked three groups of people to complete a complex problem-solving task: mapping the best route for a person who must travel to 25 different cities.
The first group was told to solve the problem in isolation. Some of these people came up with very good solutions, Bernstein says, while others reached very poor conclusions, resulting in a lower average quality of work overall.
The second group worked in near-constant collaboration with colleagues. The average quality of work in this group was higher, since lower-performing individuals could apply better ideas to their own work — but the cohort never found as many great solutions, perhaps because its members tended to latch on to the best idea at a given moment and run with it, Bernstein says.
In the final group, people were allowed to interact with their colleagues only some of the time. “The intermittence allowed us to get the best of both worlds: getting lots of good solutions and, at the same time, raising the mean,” Bernstein says. That’s because — unlike in the collaboration condition, in which talented workers were immediately copied — those in the intermittent communication group had to puzzle through the task on their own at least some of the time, producing more variety. And — unlike in the solitude group, where ideas couldn’t be shared at all — even high-performers benefitted from that diversity, Bernstein says.
The study didn’t pinpoint the optimal amount of workplace communication, but there’s evidence that Americans might be overdoing it. A 2016 report from Adobe found that the average white-collar worker will spend 47,000 hours on email over the course of their career, suggesting that collaboration has become a huge chunk of many office workers’ days, and might be eating into employees’ times of solitude.
Dialing back a 24/7 work culture by unplugging from constant collaboration likely has other benefits, too. Research has shown that off-hours emailing can contribute to higher levels of stress and burnout, and even take a toll on employees’ romantic relationships. Unplugging, then, may come with a variety of benefits, both personal and professional.
“Managers are now at a point where they have to be thoughtful and deliberate about how they use constant, always-on communication,” Bernstein says. “At what point in time might they want a little bit less of it?”