Once upon a time, collaboration in the workplace meant one department gathered around ye olde conference room table to decide by committee how to move forward on a project. The loudest voices in the room held court and, when a decision had been made, it was communicated to the rest of the company what IT or HR or Communications planned to do about a specific issue.
Fast-forward to today’s hyper-digital — and increasingly virtual — workplaces, and collaboration has taken on new forms, mainly in software. Organizational silos have vanished in favor of company-wide collaboration. Employees with different skill sets and perspectives gather to cross-pollinate ideas and solutions. Having strong company collaboration is considered a cornerstone of a successful business.
With more remote workers than ever before, a culture of collaboration is critical, not only to a business’s bottom line but to the productivity and essential well-being of its employees.
When two or more people come together, in person or virtually, to share ideas, information, or solutions for a common goal, that’s collaboration. In its most basic form, it’s the concept of “two heads are better than one”.
In traditional, hierarchical organizations, employees operated in silos, each doing their own tasks without devoting much thought to what their co-workers in other areas of the business did. The advent of technology blew up that system, introducing products and services. It was the power of people and tools that ushered in new ways to work and expectations in a workplace.
People thrive in environments which free them to communicate and work together. When the company environment is focused on collaboration, team members naturally feel a part of something bigger than themselves.
- Psychologist Sherrie Campbell in Entrepreneur
But simply working together in the office or using Slack incessantly doesn't mean you're collaborating successfully. Holding more Zoom calls isn't indicative of getting more work done.
And that's the crux of successful workplace collaboration: ensuring that you're working together and achieving more because of it. You're using collective brainpower to maximize your impact, not just for the sake of it.
The workplace collaboration tactics that do help your team succeed are rooted much deeper and woven into your company culture. We've collected the hallmarks of this type of company culture below. By working on these, your company can achieve successful workplace collaboration — and likely build a happier team, while you're at it.
Nothing kills collaboration faster than a manager who cherry picks “good” ideas from some employees and mocks “bad” ideas from others. An inclusive culture means everyone feels comfortable to take risks, make mistakes, and take action on their ideas. The most innovative people are usually found to have colleagues and leaders who have their backs.
Inclusive leaders and workplaces are committed to diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I), which means they actively recruit employees from all races, recognize the disparities between the experiences of white and the experiences of People of Color in the workplace, and work to overcome it with programs for high-potential employees and de-biasing training.
“Companies need diverse leaders who reflect the changing marketplace. Our research finds that when workplace teams reflect their target customers, the entire team is more than twice as likely to innovate effectively for their end users,” writes Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation in Harvard Business Review.
There’s an exciting alchemy that blossoms when people from across an organization come together and share their complementary talents and expertise. More and more businesses are restructuring to create teams that harness the power of cross-functional collaboration.
Teams may be created to solve specific business problems, innovate new solutions, or simply learn from each other. According to Great Places to Work, financial services company Credit Acceptance, one of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work for, has created Collaboration Teams who gather monthly to share best practices and review existing procedures to identify areas for improvement. And then actual action happens based on their collaboration.
“Once the Collaboration Teams are formed, each selects a chairperson to facilitate monthly meetings and update a tracking spreadsheet with notes. Recommendations generated in these sessions are reviewed by a supervisor, then presented to a senior leader for approval and resource allocation,” wrote Tabitha Wilhelmson Russell for Great Places to Work.
Want to motivate a sluggish cohort of employees or bring shy teammates out of their shells? Recognize, reward, and celebrate collaborative work with formal programs. Ideas include:
Initiating a monthly, bi-annual, or annual awards program for achievements in collaboration
Regularly recognizing the work of teams in employee communications like newsletters or all-hands meetings
Including collaboration goals as part of performance reviews linked to pay increases
Creating opportunities for team members to share their insights in Lunch and Learns or webinars
In his TedTalk How great leaders inspire action, leadership expert Simon Sinek lays out his “golden circle” observation about what the world’s greatest leaders do that others don’t: they operate from the inside out.
“What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?... the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations… all think, act, and communicate from the inside out.”
When it comes to inspiring a collaborative workforce, organizations need to provide a clear line of sight to what everyone is working toward. With a big-picture perspective and a strong sense of purpose, employees are freer to be innovative, collaborative, and take risks to meet the end goal.
You can try:
Mission competitions: Host a “showcase our mission” video contest where the employee who submits the best video wins a prize
Include it in company communications wherever possible: Newsletters, decks, and emails are a great place to remind people of your mission
Callouts for acting towards your mission: Give annual awards (or quarterly) for those who exemplified and furthered your mission
You can’t have a functional, collaborative culture without ensuring everyone is clear on how to give and receive feedback. Some organizations offer employee training on feedback or have documented protocols so the process is streamlined and consistent. Training on feedback is critical for building a team that engages in effective workplace communication.
If you’re creating your feedback mechanism from scratch, a helpful place to look is in academia, where constructive criticism is essential for learning. Here are some tips from Canada’s University of Waterloo:
Receiving feedback effectively
Listen thoughtfully and without interrupting (eye contact and nods)
Be aware of your body language (no arms folded, no huge sighs)
Be open to what you’re hearing (truly take it in and reflect on it)
Make sure you understand (ask questions if you don’t)
Giving feedback effectively
Focus on the work or the behavior you’re critiquing, not the person (no “You are…” statements)
Use the “sandwich” approach (strengths, improvements, strengths)
Be specific (use examples)
Be realistic (if it’s not possible to change, don’t include it)
Be timely (prompt feedback is better because the material is fresh)
A common misnomer about collaboration is that it always happens in a group. A lot of effective workplace collaboration can come out of two people sharing their ideas. Even if your workforce mainly works remotely, it’s important to create opportunities for meaningful 1 on 1 chat through video calls or in-person meetings.
Here at Front, we’ve found that 1 on 1 meetings are a critical part of cultivating an engaged and happy company. In fact, CEO and cofounder Mathilde Collin says they are her most valuable meetings every week. "If done effectively, one-on-ones are an opportunity to show my team that I care about them, their professional success, and their overall happiness." You can download our 1 on 1 meeting templates if you're looking for conversation starters!
No advice on collaboration in the workplace would be complete without pointing out the obvious: technology makes working together easier. Whether it’s an in-house platform where employees can shout each other out, ask quick questions, or solicit each other for ideas or a formal cloud technology solution, don’t be afraid to embrace a good tool.
Popular cloud solutions include:
And, shameless plug here: we'd recommend Front for collaborating on email and all sorts of customer communication. Our CEO Mathilde Collin wrote about the ways using Front has made our own team productive, collaborative, and happy.
No matter what approach or tools you choose to infuse collaboration in your workforce, it’s important to communicate the value of working together to all employees. If teams are accustomed to working in their own units, it may take some time and a few team building activities to get everyone on board. But if you want to create an inclusive culture, improve the health and wellbeing of your team, and ignite new thinking, a decision to be deliberate about fostering a collaborative culture is a winning investment.