Want to help your colleagues? Try logging off for a while


Here’s a reason to step away from your e-mail inbox as you set out on that big project. Logging off occasionally may actually make you a better collaborator.

A recent study by business researchers at Harvard, Boston University, and Northeastern University found that colleagues who are in constant contact with each other may actually be less effective than groups that reserve some time to work independently.

“Our research suggests that . . . the idea that we should be always on and always connected and always sharing everything actually could be hurting us with complex problem solving tasks,” said Ethan S. Bernstein, associate professor at Harvard Business School and coauthor of the paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.


Bernstein and his colleagues asked several groups of people to use differing collaboration styles to work out the quickest route to travel between a handful of cities. They found that the groups who got together occasionally to talk about their ideas came up with better results than teams of people who only worked alone or only worked together.

The study found that, when they worked alone, people came up with more unique solutions — but while some of them were creative and effective, others were less efficient and brought the average quality down. Teams with constant collaboration, on the other hand, came up with more consistent results, but fewer exceptionally strong ideas.

Groups who had time to work both together and independently got the best of both worlds, the study said. The end results were reliably close to the optimal route and some were of outstanding quality.

The researchers suggested there is “a Goldilocks point” for collaboration.

In an era when many colleagues chat all day and into the night on instant messaging platforms, the study’s results highlight some of the virtues of a bygone era of office life. Not so long ago, open floor plans were rare, meetings were a primary mode of interaction, and colleagues were much harder to reach after dark.


Bernstein speculated that kind of office may actually have been “short on the opportunity to collaborate.”

“Now,” he said. “We’re short on the opportunity not to.”

He said digital tools such a Slack and Yammer are great tools when used in moderation. He and his colleagues, BU’s Jesse Shore and NU’s David Lazer, want further study to determine the right way to structure the interplay between group work and independent problem solving.

But the researchers said they see positive signs in modern offices. The introduction of quiet work spaces in open-concept offices, for instance, or the short group meetings held by teams using popular interdisciplinary product development methods.

Now, Bernstein said, it might be a good idea for bosses to think about ways to help their workers unplug once in awhile. “I think most of us would rather deliver a best solution that we’ve had time to really think through and explore than to copy ourselves into a consensus in the middle,” he said.

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.