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Do your team members seem a little isolated? A little too happy to don their headphones and get their head down in individual projects?
Many workplaces encourage this in a culture of getting things done at all costs. But it can lead to archipelagos of creativity; areas full of hard-working, smart people that just don't seem to share anything with one another.
The events of 2020 have shown how much we miss everyday collaboration when it's taken away from us, and how badly a lack of it disrupts productivity. But some aspects of interpersonal communication never change, no matter where you're working from.
The benefits of collaboration in the workplace are numerous. Here are some eye-opening stats on the benefits and drawbacks of team collaboration, along with some tips on how to cultivate it more throughout your company.
While it's not always the most appropriate form of work, teaming up and sharing a workload comes with a whole host of benefits.
Collaboration is a key aspect governing the dynamics of a team; their range of communication styles and abilities to get things done both together and apart. It's not just a case of 'working together is better': organizations built with collaborative structures demonstrate measurable financial success, as you can see from the stats above.
If you're wondering what the benefits of collaboration are, the numbers speak for themselves. But below, we'll dive a little deeper into some of the reasons you should consider making collaboration a key part of your workplace structure. First up - it makes a big impact on creativity and profitable innovation.
Nielsen's research into the consumer goods industry found that the process of innovation was greatly helped by collaboration across functions, departments and industries.
It's not difficult to see why: having more people involved in a single project brings more creative minds to tackle problems and think up new ways of doing things. Bigger teams simply think up better stuff:
"...teams of six or more people generated concepts that performed 58% better with consumers in pre-market testing than the brands’ initial, “starting point” concepts. Those starting point concepts were developed by teams of two people and performed only 16% better than baseline results with consumers."
The counterpoint is of course that too many cooks spoil the broth - there's inevitably a limit to the efficiency of idea-sharing once a group gets big enough. But compared to solo or duo teams, the impact is undoubtable.
The same went for team diversity: teams consisting of members from 4 or more business functions came up with product ideas that were 18% more successful with consumers than those coming from 3 or fewer functions. More skillsets in a group = more opportunities for innovation.
When unexpected circumstances come around, organizations need to bring together experts from different professions. Having a group of people with disparate skillsets is the best way to tackle unique challenges - a broad group perspective allows you to see problems from multiple different viewpoints, and adjust your approach accordingly.
Research performed by Heidi K Gardner and Ivan Matviak looked at a global law firm during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In particular, they studied the extent to which partners worked with others: expanding their networks across departments and industries, and teaming up with colleagues to identify and pursue new opportunities.
They found that collaboration led to sustainably higher financial performance - the revenues of the top 10% most collaborative partners were consistently higher during and after the crisis. The least collaborative partners experienced dips of six to seven figures in dollar revenues both during and after the crisis.
One simple explanation for this is that having a wider range of contacts and projects means that if one goes badly, there's more of a safety net to fall back on. In the words of the researchers, "It’s not that they hit only home runs; it’s that they had more at-bats, and they played different positions as needed."
Collaboration is a smart way of diversifying your efforts so that you're not relying on single projects to bring success. That means it's good for the individual. What about the organization?
Finally, collaboration just for the sake of it won't do your business any favors. It needs to be intentional, well-targeted, and have a goal that can't be accomplished as effectively as solo work.
As Elizabeth Grace Saunders puts it in a HBR piece on remote collaboration,
"The purpose behind team collaboration isn’t for you to always be available. Instead, it’s to make sure that you and your team are aligned on your goals and most effectively moving ahead in accomplishing them. You can collaborate effectively from far apart, even when you have an incredible amount to do, if you collaborate with intention and focus."
Collaboration is unavoidable in the modern knowledge economy.
The stat about spending 70-85% of time giving and receiving information is a good reflection of this. The implication is that the remaining 15-30% of our time is spent doing actual work, or at least, the kind of solo concentration that doesn't involve working directly with others. (You can of course argue that many jobs require communication in the role, so that time isn't necessarily wasted).
As the Economist explains, this sort of always-connected back-and-forth isn't conducive to producing great work. Quoting Cal Newport's book Deep Work, they note:
"Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem. Many of the most productive knowledge workers go out of their way to avoid meetings and unplug electronic distractions. Peter Drucker, a management thinker, argued that you can do real work or go to meetings but you cannot do both."
Lots of professionals know this to be the case, but can't imagine a different way of doing things because meetings are so embedded within their company culture.
So, we need to recognize the value of collaboration in the workplace while also understanding when it's not appropriate. Managers need to understand that working in a constant state of collaborative distraction, and being expected to respond to requests immediately, isn't the way for people to produce their best work. A balance must be struck.
The stats above show a rather counterintuitive concept: open offices decrease workers' ability and willingness to collaborate. They instead turn to electronic communication and miss out on chance conversations that would normally lead to organizational development.
These moments of interaction with no predetermined outcome can be a serendipitous foundry of brilliant ideas. They might lead to a new project to work on, a clever new solution to an ongoing problem, or even a referral to another node in the interpersonal network.
This strategy of 'coaxing serendipity' was one of the original driving forces behind the open-office trend, which hoped to increase creative discussion by virtue of removing barriers between people, literally. Unfortunately its proponents didn't plan for the immense force of distraction that open offices can be, and we've only really started realising that now that it's too late to redesign the entire infrastructure of office layouts.
The spirit of the open office can persist, though, with smart and empathetic workplace design that provides impromptu meeting points in the open alongside comfortable privacy zones for isolated concentration and discrete areas designed specifically for collaboration. The latter would ideally have big tables, tech for presentations and conference calls, and a welcoming space for raucous and enthusiastic conversation.
You might even consider a hotwall to bring remote coworkers together - a large monitor and camera that links two offices together in a casual space. So in a way, the rooms themselves are on a Zoom call and participants can just make their way in and out as they please.
One study looked at the working habits of thirteen geographically dispersed teams, and found a common cause of breakdowns in collaboration: a lack of information sharing.
"Unevenly distributed information interfered with team-level collaboration and caused problems in relationships. Two causes were errors in e-mail addresses and failure to send copies of e-mail to all team members. Team members also may have though they sent e-mail that in fact never went out or was undelivered.
The bucket of information being passed among team members proved to be far leakier than they realized. Wildly different perspectives among team members were created because of differences in the information they received."
These issues need to be identified and patched out quickly or else the 'bucket of information' will soon empty and make a mess of things.
These issues seem relatively low-key. It's tempting to focus on high-concept business philosophy, but you just can't ignore the impact of practical information sharing processes.
In meetings, make sure there's a note-taker (whether that's human or AI, eg. Otter voice notes), and make someone responsible for distributing the knowledge generated during it. That might be an entire transcript, or just bullet points covering the salient topics. However you do it, make sure it includes what was discussed, what actions will be taken by attendees, what actions need to be taken by non-attendees, and what timeframes are expected for each outcome. It might seem like overkill but leaving things to verbal agreements and human memory is a recipe for disaster.
As we saw in the stats above, remote workers tend to feel more isolated than office workers. When all your daily communication is done digitally, it's a lot easier to feel cut off from the world. Without the usual casual interactions of an office environment, you can begin to miss out on the social energy that makes you feel connected and happy.
This counts both socially (missing out on the day-to-day feelings of connection that most people crave) and professionally (the opportunities to network and combine efforts with colleagues).
One way to address this is through side-by-side work. It's in the same spirit as the 'hotwall' mentioned above - opening up a remote call with a coworker where you work on a shared project at the same time. You won't necessarily be talking all the time, but you can speak up whenever you need to discuss something. It's a good way to work together without the pressures of an intense meeting.
If you're in a position of management, regular check-ins are more important than ever. Not just performance evaluations, but friendly check-ins to say hello and see how people are feeling. If you help colleagues feel that they're recognized and valued, they're more likely to come out of their shell and participate in collaborative conversations.
Not everyone collaborates the same. Some people are more comfortable in group environments, while others tend to prefer solo work. Both are equally valuable in a team setting; you just have to make sure the different communication styles are being catered for properly.
Those that prefer group environments are more productive with people around them. They gain energy from regular social engagement, and like to interrupt or be interrupted to help or be helped. Solo environment lovers prefer spaces without distraction to get stuff done, and find themselves 'in the zone' more when nobody's nearby to steal their attention.
When you put these two styles together, they can disrupt each other's productivity if it's not addressed. Solo workers will be distracted more than they'd like, and talkative group workers will feel antsy and ignored by colleagues who prefer wearing headphones and working in silence.
In remote settings, this is more of a drain on the group workers, who might be tempted to ping over Slack messages more often. Management can try to satisfy their social needs by putting group workers together on projects so their styles complement one another. Solo workers can also work together on shared projects; they'll just communicate differently, perhaps through more asynchronous messaging than live conversations.