The Future of Work: Creative Collaboration

UC Berkeley Extension
34 min readSep 26, 2023

Welcome to the Future of Work podcast with UC Berkeley Extension and the EDGE in Tech Initiative at the University of California, focused on expanding diversity and gender equity in tech, EDGE in Tech is part of CITRIS, the Center for IT Research in the Interest of Society, and the Banatao Institute. UC Berkeley Extension is the continuing education arm of the University of California at Berkeley.

This month, we’re taking a look at collaborative intelligence. Collaboration is essential, but oftentimes invisible. It can either contribute to the success or lead to the downfall of a project. We collaborate in a number of ways, using a number of different tools in different places.

But do we really understand how to collaborate effectively? What’s the difference between collaboration and coordination? How does collaboration inspire innovation? When does collaboration become overkill and lead to employee fatigue? What can individuals and leaders do to cultivate a collaboration community?

To answer these many questions, we turn to Rebecca Hinds. Rebecca is the head of the Work Innovation Lab by Asana, a first-of-its-kind think tank that conducts actionable research to assist businesses in adapting to the ever-changing challenges of work, both today and in the future. She earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University, focusing her research on the transformation of organizations through emergent technologies such as AI and non-traditional work forms such as hybrid and remote work.

Rebecca was the recipient of the Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship, considered one of the highest honors given to doctoral students at Stanford pursuing interdisciplinary research.

Her research and insights have appeared in publications including Harvard Business Review, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wired, TechCrunch and more. Passionate about a data-driven future of work, Rebecca frequently advises companies on developing remote work, hybrid work, and technology strategies, emphasizing a data-firs and human-centric approach. She has created award-winning businesses that have raised millions in funding. Rebecca’s diverse background also includes being a member of Stanford’s varsity swim team and a semifinalist at the Canadian Olympic trials. Welcome Rebecca.

Rebecca Hinds: Thank you so much, Jill. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

Jill Finlayson: Thanks so much for joining us. I want to start out with telling a little bit about your own personal journey. How did you end up at the Work Innovation Lab?

Rebecca Hinds: Sure. So I think in many ways, the Work Innovation Lab has been inspired by my experiences as a whole, and in particular, my experiences doing a Ph.D. And I became quite frustrated during the Ph.D. Had an amazing experience, but did become quite frustrated by the disconnect that I saw between the great academic research that I was reading about, learning about, and in some cases, producing, and then what was happening on the ground in actual organizations.

And I saw all this great research that I thought had so much potential to move the needle in organizations and drive positive change, and I didn’t think it was being implemented at all, and in some cases, not quickly enough, in organizations. And so the Work Innovation Lab is really trying to bridge that gap between research and practice, and produce insights that are actionable and really do challenge the status quo in terms of how work is happening. It was really founded on the premise that work today, it’s so complex. It’s so dynamic. We’re seeing all of these changes happening and transpiring within organizations, and executives are craving more research, and more data, and more insight to be able to navigate all the pressing challenges that they’re faced with today.

Jill Finlayson: So the Work Innovation Lab is actually part of Asana. What is Asana, and why did they start a Work Innovation Lab?

Rebecca Hinds: Sure. So Asana is an enterprise work management platform that is really designed to help companies work smarter together. So Asana brings together teams to collaborate on a single work platform and connects the work to the broader company and team goals. It’s really about driving clarity, driving accountability and maximizing employee impact.

We sometimes like to think of Asana as offering that air traffic control for your organization, really orchestrating work at scale, increasing the likelihood that projects and initiatives will be completed on time and effectively. And as part of our value and our mission, which is to help humanity thrive by enabling the world’s teams to work together effortlessly, we believe that mission encompasses technology and encompasses Asana as a technology, but it also involves helping our customers and our partners understand the more human practices that are associated with work, and understanding collaboration as a combination of the technology piece and the human piece. So that was the inspiration behind the Work Innovation Lab, to really understand how work is happening, and specifically how collaboration is happening in organizations, and offer our customers, and more broadly, the community, more information and more insight into how they can restructure and rethink their organization to maximize the impact of their employees. Again, both from the technology perspective, and from the more human perspective.

Jill Finlayson: So you talked about the fact that there was all this great research, but it wasn’t being applied in the workplace. Why do you think there was that disconnect?

Rebecca Hinds: It’s for a few different reasons. I think a big one is there are different incentive structures in academia and in industry. And in academia, you’re very much incentivized and rewarded for publishing. There’s this “publish or perish” career trajectory that influences how many academics go about their work.

And in many cases, not all cases, but many cases, you’re incentivized and encouraged to make novel theoretical contributions, which are immensely important. But often, that’s the focus over some of the more practical contributions. And so inevitably, there is that disconnect.

I think another big reason is that the research methods that academics use are so vast and so different. And oftentimes, there’s great academic research that relies on surveys and experiments that are conducted in very controlled environments. And as soon as you leave those controlled environments and enter into the world of organizations, where you have politics at play, you have status dynamics at play, all of these different really complex dynamics that define organizations, it’s very hard to translate those controlled findings that have happened in the controlled environments to a more dynamic organizational setting. So very valuable to glean those insights, but incredibly important to then be able to live and breathe actual organizational dynamics and be able to translate that research.

Jill Finlayson: It’s so true. The workplace is not what I would call a controlled environment, and I think all those dynamics that you mentioned are the reason why it’s such a complex problem to solve. So when you talk about making something actionable, why did you focus on collaboration as the space that you wanted to make some actionable recommendations?

Rebecca Hinds: We decided to focus on collaboration because it really is a practice that defines our work today. At least as knowledge workers, collaboration defines our day-to-day work. And when we look at some of the research and evidence, we see that knowledge workers, they spend upwards of 90% of their time in many cases collaborating at work. And we know that collaboration has increased significantly over the past decade.

Especially one of our research partners has done great research to show that employees spend 50% or more time collaborating today than they did just a decade ago. And so we know that collaboration is this ubiquitous practice. We do it all day long. And yet, consistently we find that it’s broken.

So another one of our brilliant research partners, Rob Cross, has done a lot of research to show how broken this collaboration is within organizations. And one of my favorite insights from him is when you look at collaboration within companies, often you see that 20% to 35%, so roughly 1/3 of collaboration within an organization, the valuable collaboration happens due to only 3% to 5% of employees. So 20% to 35% of that high-value collaboration within organizations can be attributed to only 3% to 5% of employees. So that means often, your highest performers are doing the bulk of collaboration within a company. They’re also most at risk for burning out and for this collaboration overload.

And so there’s this enormous potential to fix this practice that’s ubiquitous in organizations, and I think that really is exciting. And again, it involves technology. It always also involves the human practices associated with collaboration. And it’s an immensely difficult but important problem, how do you rethink the ways in which we collaborate in organizations so that that collaboration is healthier, it’s more sustainable, and it’s more empowering for the workers?

Jill Finlayson: Those are some pretty shocking statistics. So first of all, 90% of your time is spent doing collaboration. And yet, we’re seeing that it’s not — I think 75% is not as effective of a collaboration. Very few people are driving the effective collaboration.

So how did we discover this? What were the signs that collaboration wasn’t working? What were the symptoms that you noticed?

Rebecca Hinds: I think there are multiple different symptoms. I think a good one that is a telling sign is organizational performance. We know that for global organizations, for any organization today, their performance depends on healthy collaboration.

Especially when we think about innovation, you need healthy, you need cross-functional collaboration to enable innovation within companies. And so if you see something broken in terms of how innovative your company is, or how efficient and effective it is, that’s probably a sign that some part of collaboration is broken. Maybe there are silos between different groups. Maybe different groups are overloaded with too much collaboration. But typically, if something’s not working in terms of the outcomes, it can be traced back to some part of collaboration.

A big one is also burnout and overload in organizations. We often talk at the Work Innovation Lab about how collaboration follows this bell-shaped curve where too little collaboration is detrimental. And we know that intuitively to be true.

If we’re not collaborating, then we’re not engaged. We’re not contributing to important workflows. But increasingly so, we have a problem of too much collaboration, or collaboration overload, where we’re in too many meetings, we’re using too many different collaboration technologies, we’re overloaded with too many cross-functional priorities. And that’s where you get the burnout and overload of the employees, which is another very telling sign that something about collaboration is broken within an organization.

Jill Finlayson: So this is a little bit of a Goldilocks problem. You don’t want to have too little, but you don’t want to have too much. What is the difference between, say, collaboration and coordination and teamwork? We often use these words interchangeably, but maybe that’s not correct.

Rebecca Hinds: It’s interesting, because we do often use them interchangeably. However, there’s definitely this halo effect associated with collaboration, such that when we say the word “collaboration,” it has this positive sentiment. And we’ve done some research to this effect where, often, when executives in particular talk about collaboration or reflect on collaboration, they often see it synonymous with teamwork.

And so by virtue of that, often times, there’s this mentality that more collaboration is better. And that’s a very dangerous mindset to have, because collaboration is so cost- and time-intensive. We know that it requires a lot of cognitive work to do and to engage in effective collaboration practices.

Often, collaboration involves resolving conflict and bridging different perspectives. And it’s difficult cognitively to engage in collaboration. And so we do think it’s important to draw this distinction between collaboration and coordination. Coordination, we think of — and again, the lines blur quite significantly. But collaboration is much more, in general, intensive than coordination.

Coordination involves practices such as hand-offs and baton passes, more independent work that can be accomplished independently, versus collaboration often involves that synchronous, in-person, or at least synchronous time where you’re in meetings with one another, you’re collaborating in very intensive iterative ways. I like to talk with executives about the distinction between meetings and emails. And if they’re finding themselves thinking in meetings that meeting could be an email, that’s typically a sign that they’re over-indexing on collaboration versus the more efficient coordination.

Jill Finlayson: That’s really interesting that you have this opportunity to really look at, is it better to be in-person, or is it better to be asynchronous and just collaborate when people can fit it into their schedule, rather than forcing them all together at one moment?

Rebecca Hinds: And it changes dynamically. As the organization matures, as a project life cycle transpires and develops, you’re going to need different levels of synchronous versus asynchronous work. And that’s why I think it’s so important to be intentional about how we collaborate and really reflect on whether the collaboration that we’re engaging in day-to-day is conducive to the type of work that we’re participating in.

Jill Finlayson: I think this is probably one of the most challenging things for new employees, especially new graduates, to learn, how to coordinate, how does coordination happen in this organization. But before they even get there, recruiters have to bring them in. So my question to you is, how, as a recruiter, do you know if a student is good at collaboration and would be a good hire?

Rebecca Hinds: It’s incredibly challenging. I think there are different aspects that you can test for. I think a good one is some of the common interview questions around teamwork and those fundamental practices of how do you work well with others will give you a good sense of whether someone’s going to be a good collaborator at work. If they’re thinking about shared interests, if they’re focused on creating alignment in terms of shared goals, that’s a good initial pulse that you’ll be at least conscious of effective collaborative behaviors. But it’s enormously challenging to test for or predict.

I think increasingly I’m seeing in interviews questions around technology use, and interviewers and interviewees starting to discuss more the collaborative technologies that are ingrained in organizations, and more of a conscious thought process around, do I want to enter an organization that isn’t intentional about building those collaborative tools and that collaborative tech stack? Employees, in particular, and new hires, are thinking more carefully about wanting to join organizations where there is that conscious thought process and reflection on the technologies that organizations invest in.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah. It can be quite overwhelming as a new employee if you’re brought in, and there’s — in addition to email, there’s Slack, there might be some other community channels. There’s direct messaging, or texting. And so, when do you use what, and how does that help provide the collaboration that you’re looking for?

Rebecca Hinds: Mhm. And having those guidelines, it’s shocking how few companies give their employees guidance and prescription around which technologies to use for which purpose. Many of the most successful ones do. And especially when we look at remote-first companies, they’re much more likely to give those guidelines. But it’s still a rarity to be able to have all employees go to some central place of truth and know that I should be using this technology for this specific purpose.

Jill Finlayson: Absolutely. And this all adds up to value for the company if they can give people the grounding and the rules so that they don’t have to figure it out on their own. If we look at the organization as a whole, why is collaboration key to productivity, and how do you actually measure it? How do you measure collaboration?

Rebecca Hinds: So collaboration, for sure, is key to productivity. And again, I think it ties back to whether collaboration is healthy or harmful. We know that — and there’s great research to show that those who work in a collaborative work environment, rather than an individual setting, are much more effective at completing tasks. And I think this.

I was an athlete growing up and through college, and I learned this firsthand, where when you come together as a team, as a company, and you have a really enriching team environment, that can create outcomes that are greater than the sum of the individual parts. And so I think when we think about collaboration, when you do it in a really effective way, it can definitely boost productivity of the organization as a whole. But again, we talked about this Goldilocks problem where if you’re collaboratively overloaded, then that can easily contribute to productivity declines because you’re so overwhelmed by competing priorities, you’re so bogged down by work and overloaded.

And so it’s, again, this interesting trade-off, and very much this Goldilocks problem, where effective collaboration can drive boosts in productivity, but ineffective collaboration can also drive declines in productivity. And so that’s why this measuring collaboration is so important. Adopting this data-driven approach to understanding collaboration is so critical for organizations.

Jill Finlayson: What did you take away from team sports? What can we learn from team sports in terms of building good collaboration? And maybe what can we not take from sports? What doesn’t transfer?

Rebecca Hinds: It’s a great question. And I love the athletic sport metaphors, and they’re just so ingrained in me. I think what I took away, especially from my collegiate athletic experience, is that power of teamwork.

And I learned in my swimming at the collegiate level that it was more important for us as teammates to think about the overall team goal rather than our individual success. And if we walked on the pool deck and were more focused on our individual success than the team success, that was a huge red flag. And I think that type of mentality in an organization is so healthy, where we know that if we focus solely on ourselves and our individual success and our individual productivity, that’s probably going to be at odds with the best interests of the company.

Because if you’re so narrowly focused on your own trajectory, you’re not sharing information, you’re not helping other people grow and develop. And so I think the mentality of, we should be doing our work in service of broader organizational goals and broader company objectives, is so critical. And that’s why I was so excited to learn about Asana and join Asana as a product, because there is this conscious effort to ladder-up individual priorities and goals to the broader company objectives. And rarely do organizations think so strategically and thoughtfully about tying the individual success to the company’s success.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah, I like that. Key responsibility for leadership to provide shared vision so that people can figure out how do they contribute, how does that track toward the ultimate goal. I like also your approach to data-driven. So if we look at velocity, cohesion, resilience, and capacity, how are those metrics that we can use to measure if we’re in that right healthy Goldilocks spot?

Rebecca Hinds: Those four metrics are very much ingrained in a new tool that we’re developing at the Work Innovation Lab that we’re calling the Work Innovation Score. And so we’ve worked with some of the leading researchers to develop this score, again, a data-driven tool powered by AI and great academic research, that predicts how innovative a company is based on how they’re collaborating, and in particular, how they’re collaborating using Asana. And what we’ve found is that there are these four key predictors of innovation within a company.

The first one is velocity. So how quickly do ideas and knowledge flow through an organization? The next one is cohesion. So how closely-knit and connected are different teams within the organization?

The next one is resilience. So how vulnerable is the organization when people or teams disband, or when people leave the organization? And then the last one, which we’ve spoken a little bit about is, capacity. So how much bandwidth does each person have to do their best and most important work?

And what’s really interesting about all of these dimensions is there’s a sweet spot. So for each of these, the goal isn’t to maximize velocity, or maximize cohesion, or maximize capacity. It’s about finding this healthy balance. Because, again, there’s this Goldilocks problem where too little is detrimental, but so is too much.

And so when we think about velocity, you want ideas to flow reasonably freely through an organization. But you also want those blocks and those barriers to be able to rigorously test ideas. You want people to be able to poke holes in things.

You don’t want things to fall — to flow freely through an organization. You want that conscious evaluation of the ideas and knowledge. And so I think, again, this speaks to the importance of a data-driven approach to be able to understand whether your organization is collaborating in these sweet spots, or whether they’re too off-kilter in either dimension.

Jill Finlayson: So how do leaders or companies incentivize the right behaviors? Because we don’t want to end up with, I guess there’s that phrase “business productivity theater,” where people are just sending emails so they look like they’re being productive. How do we know we’re measuring the right things and incentivizing the right collaboration behaviors?

Rebecca Hinds: It’s a really difficult but important problem. I think one way to do it effectively, and we’ve spoken a little bit about this, is to tie the individual success to the company’s success. And if there is that clear association of how my work contributes to my company’s objectives and mission, then that’s starting to incentivize the right types of behaviors, and less focused on the individual, and more focused on the company.

I think as well, starting to evaluate and ask people to reflect on how well other people within their teams and company collaborate is a really effective pulse point. When we do performance reviews in particular, it’s so individually focused. And I’m seeing more and more companies start to do the 360 reviews and start to assess whether people are strong and thoughtful collaboration partners to their peers both within their team, as well as cross-functionally within organizations. It’s very difficult. But I think the more you can start to think more outwardly-focused at the team level and at the company level when you’re assessing performance, that starts to move the needle in the right direction and to encouraging these more collaborative, healthy behaviors, as opposed to the productivity theater.

Jill Finlayson: Yeah. I’m a big fan of the 360 evaluations, because it surfaces the people who are being very effective at collaboration because you’re going to get positive feedback from all of these different perspectives. On the other hand, I often hear that — or I believe there’s even research and data to support that women who collaborate get less credit for that, less reward for that. How do we address that problem?

Rebecca Hinds: There is research to show that women tend to collaborate more in organizations but do get less credit for doing so. And I think, again, it highlights the value of a data-driven approach. As you’re looking at the collaborative intensity within your organization, we talk a lot about collaborative equity within an organization.

And understanding who is doing the collaborative work is incredibly important, and you should be looking at that multiple at different dimensions alongside some of these demographic lines, as well as another really important one is to look at the remote and in-office workers. Because oftentimes, we see a disparity there. We’ve gone through the pandemic and the shift to more distributed work, but still we see these status differences in hybrid companies and in more in-office companies, where the people in the office are afforded higher status and tend to have a leg up in terms of promotions and opportunities as compared to the people who are remote or hybrid. And I think making sure you’re adopting a data-driven approach to understand in meetings and elsewhere, in technology, how are the in-office folks collaborating, and at what intensity compared to those people who are more remote, is often a really illustrative practice.

Jill Finlayson: You often hear about the water cooler, people hanging out at the coffee pot, and sort of ad hoc collaboration. Is that good? Is that bad? Or is it another Goldilocks problem?

Rebecca Hinds: I think it’s another Goldilocks problem, for sure. I’m a big believer in intentional collaboration. And the more you can plan and set up plans for how you want to collaborate with your team, and more broadly, across the organization, that’s a very healthy practice.

But we also know that the workplace changes so quickly, so dynamically. We also need to make room for this very healthy ad hoc collaboration. If our organization is faced with a new problem or a new initiative, the ability to spin up a new team with complementary skill sets, dynamically on the fly, and alongside this ad hoc collaboration, is also incredibly important for success. So I think it’s about finding the right balance. And in more dynamic times, you’re probably going to need to orient more towards some of this ad hoc collaboration as compared to more stable times.

Jill Finlayson: You brought up the pandemic and the remote and hybrid growing. How has that changed collaboration for the better? How has it changed it for the worse?

Rebecca Hinds: It’s a great question, and I think we can look at the research and see both the positive and the more negative. For me, I think it comes back to intentionality. And for the companies that I’ve worked with or interacted with, the ones that have been really intentional about recognizing that the pandemic and the shift to more distributed work has fundamentally changed collaboration and should change collaboration, the more they’ve been intentional, the more success they’ve seen.

I think the companies that have sort of left collaboration to be more organic and haven’t adopted a data-driven approach to studying it and the impacts on their employees, those are the ones where it has had more of a negative impact. And so one of the most effective changes I think that has happened, and beneficial changes, is this awareness of the distinction between asynchronous and synchronous collaboration. “Asynchronous collaboration” was not part of the average knowledge worker’s vocabulary before the pandemic.

We’ve become much more conscious that there needs to be this balance between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, especially if we’re in more of a distributed environment. And so I’m seeing more focused days within organizations, more no-meeting days within organizations, more focus on developing systems and tools that enable work documentation and enable some of the remote folks to access the organizational knowledge base, regardless of whether they’re collaborating synchronously with employees. And so I think that change has been really effective and really beneficial for organizations.

But we also see, on the flip side, some more siloing within organizations. Especially if we look at cross-functional collaboration, we’ve found a lot of the people we talk to in the companies we speak to every day, they’re seeing breakdowns in the cross-functional collaboration, so the collaboration between sales and marketing, or marketing and IT and engineering. I think, in general, companies have done a reasonable job at keeping that strong collaboration within individual teams. But we have seen a significant breakdown in general in terms of the cross-functional collaboration.

Jill Finlayson: That’s a really important point, because people were kind of narrowing down to, who do I actually have to talk to? And then these important coordination connections were being dropped or left by the wayside.

Rebecca Hinds: And often, those are those water cooler moments where you meet someone who you wouldn’t interact with in formal team meetings or in formal organizational settings. Those are — when you meet someone at the water cooler, at the cafeteria, often that’s where those cross-functional relationships form and develop. And so to lose that in-person collaboration, it makes sense that it more negatively impacted the cross-functional collaboration patterns rather than with in-function collaboration patterns.

Jill Finlayson: Another thing you mentioned a moment ago stood out for me. No-meeting days. Let’s talk about meetings. Meetings are at the core of coordination and collaboration. I did a whole talk on how to have fewer, better, shorter meetings, and how to promote more equity from that. You were talking about hybrid, this opportunity for everybody to be the same size, the same shape, and have the same voice in a meeting was really well-preserved in the Zoom environment. So take it away. Talk to me about meetings and how do we make them better and promote greater collaboration.

Rebecca Hinds: I think, Jill, we’re both passionate about this topic. And meetings are a form of collaboration. So in many ways, the Goldilocks problem of collaboration applies to meetings as well.

And similar to collaboration, meetings are this ubiquitous practice in organizations. And consistently, they’re broken. consistently, meetings are viewed as ineffective, inefficient time sinks within organizations.

And so we have all this evidence, even more so than collaboration, in general, that meetings are broken and fixing them matters. And so even if we look at the sheer number of meetings, it’s increased significantly over the past decades. Research has shown that meetings have increased in both length and frequency.

If we look at executives in the 1960s, they were spending less than 10 hours per week in meetings. And now, easily they’re spending more than 20 hours per week in meetings.

Jill Finlayson: How did we get here? What do we do about it? [LAUGHS]

Rebecca Hinds: It’s shocking, right? With the increase in technology and technological advancements, meeting bloat has only gotten worse. And I think this really is at the heart of the Work Innovation Lab. And our belief and passion for challenging the status quo meetings are this ubiquitous practice that we cling to.

If we need to solve a problem, we schedule a meeting. If we need to catch up with someone, we schedule a meeting. And it’s often used as this practice to solve for a whole bunch of different things, when really we can use more effective work practices to solve for.

And so we think it’s really important to fundamentally rethink how meetings happen and be much more intentional about when to schedule a meeting. And if you do schedule a meeting, having those best practices in terms of having an agenda, having a clear purpose. Encouraging debate within the meeting is so important, and it’s shocking that there isn’t more training, more focus on this within organizations, given how much time meetings take in organizations and how ineffective they are.

Jill Finlayson: One of my favorite meeting hacks is just shortening them by 5 or 10 minutes. So if you’re doing a half hour meeting, you meet for 25 minutes. If you’re doing an hour meeting, you meet for 50 minutes.

And it does a couple of things. One, it makes people think about time more valuable, and they think about it at the granular minute level, so they’re less likely to waste time. But it also gives you a very much-needed break between meetings. What are some of your meeting hacks, or what have you tried at the lab?

Rebecca Hinds: I love that strategy. Often, and I’m sure we’ve both experienced this, if you schedule a meeting for 30 minutes and it really only needs to be 20 minutes, it’s going to expand to the full 30 minutes because you’ve scheduled that time. And so really shortening the meetings by 15 minutes, by 5 minutes, by 10 minutes, it adds up, and it also incentivizes you to be really strategic about the time in the meeting.

In terms of the Work Innovation Lab, we’ve done some interesting experiments around meetings. It was really the first area of research that we started with, particularly because there was such an opportunity we saw to improve the ways in which we meet. And so the very first experiment we did focused on meetings we called Meeting Doomsday. And it started as a pilot experiment.

We’ve done multiple Meeting Doomsdays, but the very first one started as a pilot experiment with a very small team, a nine-person team of employees at Asana. And we essentially asked this team of people to delete all their small recurring meetings. So not all their meetings. The ones with five or fewer people, we asked them to delete all those meetings from their calendar for 48 hours.

And then after the 48 hours had elapsed, we asked them to add back the meetings to their calendar, but only add back the ones that they thought were valuable, and also add them back in whatever form they thought would be most valuable. So we saw these interesting changes taking place. We saw some meetings were deleted entirely. Some 30-minute meetings changed to 25-minute meetings. Some weekly meetings changed to monthly meetings.

And that pilot was really successful. So within this small team, each person ended up saving 11 hours per month of meetings just by this 48-hour activity rethinking how their calendars were structured and cleansing their calendars of some of those unproductive meetings. And such a simple exercise to gain back that much time, I think 2 and 1/2 work weeks per year, just by eliminating some of those unproductive, small, recurring meetings, it does really add up.

Jill Finlayson: I like that idea of a calendar cleanse. Kind of the juice cleanse for your work life, [LAUGHS] and really getting rid of the unneeded bulk that’s there. I think you’re also raising a good question. When they put the meetings back on the calendar, they didn’t necessarily make them a recurring meeting, or they had an ending date. They didn’t just make it a perpetual meeting when they thought about it.

Rebecca Hinds: Mhm. Exactly. And I think that one of the really important findings that emerged from this research was people felt a sense of guilt associated with canceling meetings.

We think that if we cancel a meeting with someone, they’re going to take it as a personal affront or a personal insult. And I think one of the really beneficial aspects of the Meeting Doomsday is that it gives people permission to say, I’m giving you time back. Time back is a gift. It’s not an insult to people to cancel time. It really is this gift where you’re giving people more time back into their schedules.

Jill Finlayson: And say a little bit about who should be attending these meetings. How do you decide the invite list?

Rebecca Hinds: It’s a hard question. I love the mentality that you should be mostly inviting stakeholders to meetings, not spectators. I do think there’s room in some cases to invite those spectators for the information exposure and to be able to be kept in the loop, even if they’re not actively involved in different initiatives or projects. But in general, I do think it’s a healthy practice, when you think about who you want to invite to a meeting, invite those people who are the stakeholders, who are going to move the conversation forward, who, if you didn’t have them meeting, it would be less effective. I think the more you can think along those lines of who really needs to be in the room, the better.

Jill Finlayson: Because there’s a real cost in people time. If you involve 10 people versus five people, that’s a lot of productivity that’s sitting in the room not doing other things.

Rebecca Hinds: Exactly. And especially if you have an unproductive meeting as well, often it can carry over past the meeting time. If you feel frustrated, that’s going to carry on through the day as well. And so there’s cost not just within the meeting time, but also the prep time, the follow-up time. It all adds up to a significant financial cost.

Jill Finlayson: And also this idea of giving people permission to decline meetings where they don’t think that they would add value. I think that’s a really important part. Like, come ahead if you’d like for transparency or to hear the information. But if you don’t think this is worth your time, it’s OK. Giving people permission to decline.

Rebecca Hinds: Exactly. And I think it’s really healthy to go both ways. As the meeting organizer, you have a responsibility for adding only the people in general that are going to add value to the meeting. But as an attendee, you should also feel a sense of authority and conviction to step out of a meeting, or decline a meeting, or not show up to a meeting if you don’t think that time is going to be valuable for you.

Jill Finlayson: So you mentioned earlier the tech stack. Quote, unquote, the “tech stack.” So this is the, I guess, asynchronous tools that people use for collaboration. Can you talk about how the tech stack has changed for collaboration?

Rebecca Hinds: I think the biggest way it’s changed is it’s ballooned and it’s become more expansive. We now use more technologies to collaborate and communicate than we ever have before. And especially we saw this during the pandemic, where all of a sudden, we don’t have the physical space as much to collaborate. Let’s invest in more technologies to try to compensate for that.

And so we saw, across the board in general, tech stacks, collaboration tools, balloon. And I think this has created a mess for organizations, because no longer do employees know which tools to use to collaborate and communicate. They have a hodgepodge of different technologies to choose from, and work gets lost in different platforms.

And so we talked about the meeting cleanse. We recently did what we called a “collaboration cleanse” with Amazon, where Asana employees and Amazon employees came together and said, how can we cleanse our tech stack? And the idea was similar to Meeting Doomsday, where, what if we asked people to use fewer collaboration tools, to eliminate certain collaboration tools from their tech stack? How does that change behaviors?

And I think that type of activity, where you’re cleansing your tech stack, what we saw more so in the case of the collaboration tools as compared to the meetings is that leadership matters extremely significantly when it comes to rethinking tech stacks within companies. Because technologies are so interdependent on one another, to have the leadership buy in and saying, we need to fundamentally rethink our tech stack as a company and choose those technologies that work together and encourage that cross-functional collaboration, is incredibly important. And so I think we’ve seen collaboration tools balloon within organizations.

Workers are having to deal with these broken tech stocks. And in particular, the cost is context-switching, so having to switch from app to app, from Slack, to Asana, to FigJam, all as they try to complete their day-to-day work. And there’s great research to show just how significant this context-switching is.

In some cases, workers are switching between apps 1,200 times per day or more just to get their work done. And we also know that if they become distracted as they context-switch, which is often the case, it can take them 20 minutes or more to return back to their original task. And so it’s an enormous time sink, just as meetings are for employees and organizations. And there is a real need for us to strategically think about which technologies we bring into the organization.

Jill Finlayson: And they’re not just tools sitting there. They’re popping up. They’re alerting you. They’re interrupting you. They’re calling you with urgency. Right? Here’s another thing that needs your attention.

Rebecca Hinds: Mhm. And that’s a big problem with many of these collaboration tools, is it’s very easy to mistake urgency for importance. Because you have these notifications, it becomes very blurry which work is most important when you have these constant pings and notifications flying every which way.

Jill Finlayson: Along with the tech stack, we’ve been talking about AI on this podcast. I’m sure you’re talking about AI. I think you published a report on the state of AI at work. How is AI affecting collaboration?

Rebecca Hinds: It’s a really interesting, new dynamic within the organization, because all of a sudden, you have this new technology that starts to become, in some cases, a collaborative partner to humans. And so I think, increasingly so, we’re going to see this conscious evaluation of what do we want that relationship between humans and AI to be. And hopefully it’s a collaborative relationship, where I see the most effective companies who have already started to see success with AI, they’re thinking really consciously and thoughtfully about what is that relationship between humans and AI, and very much creating this mindset where AI should be working in service of humans. It should be a collaborative relationship, but one that humans are empowered for greater success, and the AI amplifies human potential by being this collaborative partner.

Jill Finlayson: That’s amazing to think about. Now you’re not only collaborating with other people, but you’re collaborating with AI to improve your performance, or to get all the data that you need, or to, I guess, draft various versions. My husband does engineering, and we’ll find that AI will suggest different coding options.

And it is a collaboration experience because it’s back-and-forth. He’ll look at what the AI provides, and it may or may not work, or it may need to be adjusted. And so there isn’t just a one-way street. It is a two-way conversation with AI as well.

Rebecca Hinds: Exactly. And we talk a lot about the importance of humans in the loop. And that’s where I see the greatest benefit for AI within organizations, is as humans, we need to be in control of the work.

We need to be delegating work to AI. Humans need to be at the center of it. And the more we can consciously evaluate and learn with AI, learn what works, what doesn’t work, but fundamentally be in control as humans, I think that’s where we’re going to see the biggest benefit.

Jill Finlayson: One of my biggest concerns about AI, of course, is bias creeping in. So having a human in the loop, very important. But how would you say more broadly collaboration practices could be used, or are being used, to promote greater diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Rebecca Hinds: I think it, again, ties back to being intentional about collaboration, and also adopting this data-driven, evidence-based approach to collaboration. The more we can understand the specific types of collaborative behaviors that are happening, the more we can start to identify these areas where we don’t see collaborative equity. And I think data-because collaboration is so invisible, it’s so hard to measure and track without that data, it’s incredibly important to be able to be more intentional and collect the data. Understand, do we see women collaborating more but being rewarded less for their collaborative behaviors? And the only way to do that with greater effectiveness than what’s currently happening is through more data, more insight, and more thoughtful approaches to how we create more collaborative equity within organizations.

Jill Finlayson: So if people want to improve their collaborative IQ, how would companies do it, leaders do it, and individual contributors? Is it all the same, or do we have different strategies for each level?

Rebecca Hinds: I think there are, for sure, different strategies at each level. I think the ideal situation is really if you’re able to take stock of all the different ways that employees are collaborating and start to be able to assess where breakdowns exist. So where teams aren’t collaborating, where there are silos within the organization, where there are roadblocks.

To do that effectively, you really need the technology exhaust data, and you really need to understand how collaboration is happening within the technology within the organization. But I have seen so much success from companies within companies by assessing collaborative intelligence just using survey data. So survey your employees to understand where do they think collaboration is broken, where is collaboration going well.

You can get a lot of information by surveying your employees and understanding where are there opportunities for better collaboration, and where do collaborative breakdowns exist. And I like the survey as sort of an initial pulse point into where collaboration is broken within your organization, because it does provide that valuable information. I’m a big believer that individuals should be in control of their collaborative intelligence and they should have access to collaborative intelligence within the organization.

Oftentimes, companies will track collaborative behaviors or assess collaborative behaviors and keep that information at more of the leadership level. What we’ve seen in our research is that putting that information into the hands of employees so that they understand the extent to which they’re collaborating, how much collaboration they’re engaging in in any given day, and how that compares to people within their organization, those are extremely valuable pulse points that then allow the individual employee to self-correct and self-diagnose when they think collaboration might be too high or too low.

Jill Finlayson: So for companies, this opportunity to use data exhaust, map where collaboration is broken or working, and then doing the pulse surveys. For the leaders, what are a couple of things that they should be doing?

Rebecca Hinds: One we’ve talked a little bit about is being really thoughtful about the technologies that they’re investing in and recommending to their employees. So if your employees don’t have a central place where they can go to understand which technologies they should use for which types of collaborative practices, that’s such a low-hanging fruit to be able to give employees more clarity about how they collaborate. I think the tech stack — tech stacks, in general, are broken within organizations, and leaders have a real responsibility to rethink and streamline their tech stack so that it is encouraging, healthy, sustainable, and cross-functional collaboration within organizations.

Jill Finlayson: And for individual contributors, how can they assess themselves? It’s hard to hold up a mirror for yourself to see. I guess those 360 reviews can help. But what else could individuals do to increase their collaborative competency?

Rebecca Hinds: I think a big first step is to consciously reflect as you go through your day about the types of collaboration you’re engaging in. Maybe do a tally in a day and understand, how much am I collaborating with my direct team, versus cross-functionally? A big pulse point as well is understanding your emotions and reactions to different collaborative practices.

So if you are attending a meeting that you leave the meeting, you’re energized, you’re inspired, that’s a good pulse point that that collaborative behavior and that collaborative practice is healthy. Versus if you leave an interaction or you leave a meeting feeling drained and overwhelmed, that’s probably a good pulse point that something needs to change in terms of that collaborative practice. And I think being more conscious. And we actually saw this with the collaboration cleanse with Amazon. We saw that as people began to more consciously reflect on the tools and the technology they were using to collaborate, it sparked an increase in mindfulness around collaboration and how many tools people were using, and it fostered this more conscious evaluation of the specific technologies that are beneficial to collaboration and which ones really don’t need to be in people’s tech stack.

Jill Finlayson: That’s impressive to think about, how just going from being invisible to visible let people be more intentional and mindful about what they wanted to do, what they didn’t want to do, rather than just kind of rolling with it.

Rebecca Hinds: Exactly. And unexpectedly, what we also saw in that study is that as we were asking people to subtract tools from their tech stack, they also became more what we call “digitally exhausted.” So they became more exhausted as they were going through this process, because it’s hard work to reflect on how much you collaborate. It’s hard work to be able to realize and grapple with all the different technologies that you’re using each day. And so I think it’s hard work, but it’s necessary work to really do that conscious evaluation of how much you’re collaborating, and are you using the right technologies and tools to maximize your effectiveness.

Jill Finlayson: So I tend to be an optimist, so I’m going to ask you the question. What is collaboration going to look like five years from now?

Rebecca Hinds: I tend to be an optimist as well. And I think that, I hope, that we are much more intentional about how we collaborate with each other. We’re using data more significantly to inform how we collaborate with others. We’re thinking more strategically about which technologies we want to invest in and empower our employees to use.

One of our research partners, and a huge mentor to me, Bob Sutton, talks a lot about the power of subtraction. And as humans, we’re naturally inclined to add things, especially in a work context. So we’re incentivized and rewarded and naturally inclined to add meetings, add technologies, add work practices, add people to our teams.

And yet, research shows that when we’re primed to adopt what Bob calls a “subtraction mindset,” it fuels this really positive often behavior change where we’re encouraged to subtract. And I hope that in the future, we’ll think more about which technologies, which collaborative practices and tools we can subtract from our tech stack and our ways of work, whereas especially throughout the pandemic, we’ve been very much primed to add more tools, add more processes, add more collaboration. And then I guess the final hope is that we’ll be more collaborative with AI, and we’ll really start to be intentional about that collaboration between the humans and the AI, such that the AI is working in service of humans and we have this really powerful synergy within organizations.

Jill Finlayson: I think we started out our conversation talking about making research actionable. And I think coming around to the subtraction mindset is one key way to achieve that actionable outcome. Any final thoughts, or ideas, or actionable insights for our listeners?

Rebecca Hinds: I would encourage everyone to think consciously about how they’re working and how their organization is working. And we know that we’ve been working for decades longer than that. Some of these work practices, like meetings, have been around in organizations largely unchanged for decades.

And I think it’s a really healthy practice to poke holes in the ways we’re working and try to challenge the status quo. It might not work, but I’m a big believer, and this is the premise of the Work Innovation Lab, that we need to be experimenting with how we work, and we need to be challenging the status quo of how work happens. And through that experimentation, if it’s intentional and data-driven, it can foster these really powerful improvements in the ways in which we work.

Rebecca Hinds: Thank you so much, Jill. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

Jill Finlayson: And with that, I hope you enjoyed this latest in a long series of podcasts that we’ll be sending your way every month. Please share with friends and colleagues who may be interested in taking this Future of Work journey with us. And make sure to check out extension.berkeley.edu to find a variety of courses to help you thrive in this new working landscape.

And to see what’s coming up at EDGE in Tech, go ahead and visit edge.berkeley.edu. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll be back next month to talk more about the future of work. Until then.

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UC Berkeley Extension

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