What Is Workplace Collaboration?
Essentially, “workplace collaboration” is organized teamwork: setting processes in place to ensure that team members work together to make decisions. Teams may employ a range of practices depending on the industry, company, or project, but regardless of the tool, collaboration will strengthen the process and end product. Ultimately, the goal of workplace collaboration is to increase success by fostering open communication among all team members across all departments and management levels.
Workplace collaboration became formalized in the 1950s with developments in project management. Up to this point, projects were managed with Gantt charts, which could be overseen by a single manager. However, the development of Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) and Critical Path Method (CPM) allowed for more team members to be involved in program or project oversights. In 1960, the Project Management Institute (PMI) was formed, and its Project Management Body of Knowledge acknowledged collaboration as a successful workplace practice.
With the digital revolution, work collaboration became commonplace. The internet increased cross-organizational knowledge sharing and provided the opportunity to work anytime, anywhere - this is referred to as the digital workplace. As Deloitte reported, “the digital workplace breaks down communication barriers, positioning you to transform the employee experience by fostering efficiency, innovation, and growth.”
Workplace collaboration can be implemented in any type of organization, across all industries: customer service, government, nonprofit and charity, education, and corporate environments. Additionally, employees at all levels of an organization — from entry-level purchasing and payroll to IT to CEOs and executives — can utilize and benefit from collaborative workplace practices.
Types of Collaborative Working
There are several informal ways to collaborate, many of which you may already be incorporated into your projects. Here are a few of the most common forms of workplace collaboration:
- Group brainstorming: This is an opportunity for all team members to share their ideas and ask questions in an effort to make decisions that reflect everyone’s input. This is one of the most elementary forms of collaboration, but is effective in improving communication and building trust within teams.
- Mixed-skilled teams: While it might seem counterintuitive, designing teams with a range of skills and skill levels can actually strengthen your performance. By intentionally selecting workers with varied backgrounds, you invite fresh ideas and also increase the probability of reaching a diverse audience.
- Open discussion: As opposed to the traditional “lecture” style, center your in-person meetings on discussion. This helps break down hierarchical boundaries, keeps everyone engaged, and can lead to more productive meetings.
Below is a list of common collaboration skills of successful team members:
- Listen actively to the concerns of other members
- Analyze problems without assigning blame
- Willingly brainstorm solutions to problems
- Build consensus about goals and processes for group projects
- Compromise when necessary to move the group forward
- Delegate tasks
- Follow through with commitment, meet deadlines, be reliable
- Forgive other members’ mistakes
- Give credit to other members for their contributions
- Maintain a positive attitude and sense of humor
- Openness to new ideas
- Take responsibility for mistakes
Here is a list of tips for leaders implementing workplace collaboration:
- Assess strengths and weaknesses of team members and select compatible partners
- Be assertive but not self-centered
- Define mutually agreed-upon roles that capitalize on individual strengths
- Delegate tasks
- Facilitate group discussion
- Listen to the concerns of team members
- Maintain respectful communication with team members
- Modify roles and processes to enhance efficiency and satisfaction among partners
- Recognize and resolve conflicts within the team
Benefits of Workplace Collaboration
The overarching goal of workplace collaboration is to increase project success. But high-level “success” can be broken down into several smaller, equally meaningful benefits that improve workflow, team relationships, productivity, and efficiency. Here are a few of the top benefits afforded by workplace collaboration:
- Faster-Paced Innovation: The diverse expertise and viewpoints of your team will make problem solving easier and faster. Keeping everyone up to date on project progress, new opportunities, and potential challenges helps spur dialogue, so you can expedite the design and implementation of solutions.
- Increased Efficiency for Remote Teams: Online collaboration tools are especially useful for teams with remote workers, because everyone can routinely update (and stay updated on) progress, from anywhere. Open collaboration also reduces the likelihood that remote employees feel siloed and encourages them to actively participate.
- Employee Skill-Building: When working together and given equal opportunity to share, employees can learn from each other as they pool talents and strengths, thus expanding their skill sets and allowing self-analysis of their own knowledge. And since collaboration often requires input from various teams, you also bolster cross-departmental relationships. In addition, new employees can learn faster when placed on collaborative teams.
- Increased Employee Satisfaction: Workplace collaboration helps create an environment where employees feel valued for their unique skills as well as their input. Having happy employees not only positively impacts company culture, but can also lead to increased retention.
- Big-Picture View: Working with others enables you to see connections between different initiatives and departments so that workers don’t feel siloed and they understand that their work relates to a larger goal than their specific project. This sense of purpose provides value by giving employees a meaningful reason to work together.
- More Satisfied Customers: When employees have greater, faster access to information (via their colleagues in a collaborative environment), they can provide solutions more quickly, which leads to happier customers and, often, continued business relationships.
Other benefits of workplace collaboration include increased teaching and learning opportunities, reduced individual pressure, and heightened flexibility. Companies with a high percentage of millennial employees have even greater adoption and satisfaction rates for collaboration tools. The numerous practical and social outcomes — from faster work cycles to a happier workforce — all illustrate that collaboration is a key contributor to overall success.
Challenges of Workplace Collaboration
Despite the many benefits, introducing collaborative practices can be difficult. Below is a list of common challenges that arise when implementing collaborative practices, as well as possible ways to overcome them:
- Current Workplace Practices: Workplace collaboration is often at odds with a more traditional workplace structure, such as one with stricter divisions of work or an authoritative management style. Employees might resist change, so phase in collaborative practices over time for a smoother transition.
- Different Starting Positions: Not every employee will be comfortable adopting the new practices, and not every team will be able to incorporate them in the same way. Therefore, design a flexible implementation strategy so that collaboration works for everyone.
- More Complex Decision-Making: With more people involved, decision-making can become more complicated. Maintain strong leadership, so you can keep clear, coherent direction.
- Slow Cost Savings: Although cost savings are an advertised benefit of workplace collaboration, don’t expect to reap monetary benefits overnight. Be patient and persistent, and you’ll see results over time.
- Strong Senses of Individuality: If your organization values individuality or if you have many strong personalities on a team, collaboration may be met with some resistance. Create teams with people who complement each other, so you can avoid power struggles.
- Measuring Return on Investment (ROI): Collaboration ROI can be difficult to measure empirically, so take time to define the metrics you want to track.
Additionally, don’t assume that collaboration itself will solve all of your business problems. You’ll still likely need to institute a project management system to keep your work on track — this could be as simple as a project outline or rough timeline to remind you of your objectives and deadlines, so you don’t get bogged down by decision-making.
Best Practices for Workplace Collaboration
While introducing collaborative practices into your company will likely increase overall success, there are several best practices you can apply to ensure you are maximizing your results.
- Lead by Example: As a leader, in order to encourage your team members to collaborate, you must showcase the behavior yourself. This means being open to and respecting all group members’ ideas, showing enthusiasm for creative or innovative options, and inviting critique to your own preferences. This can be achieved by verbal affirmation, but don’t discount the importance of body language when showing interest and openness, either. In addition, be transparent and open about your own decision-making, apologize for missteps, and forgive others for mistakes.
- Set Team Goals: Rather than working toward predefined goals made by management, come together as a team to outline objectives and make actionable goals. Not only will this help each team member feel more purposeful, but it will strengthen accountability because everyone has a stake in the common purpose and end goal.
- Balance Team and Individual Participation: Although you may want to increase the collaborative nature of your business and place group goals above personal satisfaction or recognition, remember to retain some aspects of a more individual-driven workflow. Some tasks may be more effective when completed by a single person, and you don’t want to invite so many ideas that the decision-making process gets bogged down. Additionally, one-on-one communication still has its place, and individual benefit trumps corporate benefit when communicating with employees: Listen to each employee’s needs carefully and give feedback in private.
- Continually Adapt: After introducing collaborative practices, you should remain flexible in your approach. It takes a bit of experimentation to figure out which tools and practices work best for your team or project, so be aware that your processes may adapt over time. Finally, don’t assume that technology will solve all your problems — it’s more important to develop a sturdy strategy than to rely on the latest technology.
- Acknowledgment: Although collaborative work focuses on teamwork, you still want to highlight every individual’s benefit. Be careful not to micromanage workers in your effort to encourage collaboration — people need a degree of autonomy to feel purposeful. To do this, encourage creative thinking, don’t judge ideas prematurely, evaluate the ideas (rather than the person communicating them), and recognize the contribution of every collaborator.
- Communication: Communication is key in effective workplace collaboration. To reiterate, successful communication means participating and communicating accurately, practicing effective discussion and holding effective team meetings, and communicating openly.
Tools for Workplace Collaboration
While you can introduce collaborative practices with any level of technology, several tools have emerged to increase the success and speed of collaboration. Physical collaboration tools (whiteboards, physical mind maps) are useful for in-person meetings, but are difficult to save, reproduce, and distribute among workers.
To combat these difficulties, there are many web-based tools that you can use to collaborate. These tools comprise an online workspace, a concept that has arisen in recent years to accommodate the growing number of geographically dispersed teams. With advances in cloud computing, it’s even easier to make live updates and communicate in real time. Here’s a list of the most popular collaboration tools you can use to get started:
- File Sharing: Rather than creating and storing multiple versions of a document, share your files with team members so everyone can collaborate in real time. Look for tools with multiple permission levels (viewer, editor, etc.), and that allow you to share documents outside your organization so external stakeholders can still weigh in.
- Instant Messaging: Several IM tools have emerged to make it easier to stay connected, communicate quickly, and log important conversations without the clunkiness of an email inbox.
- Video Conferencing: This is especially beneficial to remote teams - rather than reiterating meeting minutes, get everyone’s input by hosting a video call.
- Social Media: You can also take advantage of any social media platform to increase communication within your team. Many companies create company forums, blogs, or wikis to post important information and request internal feedback. You can also build groups on social media, such as with Facebook or Google+, to stimulate conversation outside of the office.
Technology has had an especially big impact on virtual teams, which rely on online collaboration tools more than physically centralized teams. While the above tools offset some of the difficulties of collaborating with virtual tools, you’ll likely still need to do some “human” work to stimulate respect among employees, build trust, and set mutual goals.
Be careful not to adopt too many tools, as project information may become disaggregated and confusing. There are also platforms that can perform or aid many of the above capabilities or act as an information hub to manage all cloud-stored documentation.
How to Build Successful Collaborative Teams
Now that you know the benefits, challenges, and some common approaches and tools for stimulating a workplace collaboration, it’s time to put it into practice. But implementing collaborative practices — especially for organizations that are resistant to change — is difficult. In this section, we’ll walk through the Harvard Business Review’s advice for building collaborative teams and offer additional tips.
- Executive Support: It’s easiest to achieve a community of collaboration when you have authentic executive buy-in. Therefore, company leaders should invest in their social work relationships and demonstrate collaborative behavior themselves (for example, by implementing a culture of mentoring and coaching among employees).
- Focused HR Practices: Since HR manages much of the hiring process, it should actively look for candidates who show collaborative tendencies. But HR can also impact workplace collaboration after the selection process by holding performance reviews and trainings, and building a sense of community (via group events or programs, such as establishing a women’s network or celebrating theme days when everyone can commemorate a company milestone).
- The Right Team Leaders: HBR’s research shows that the most effective managers are flexible, and are both task- and relationship-oriented in their leadership.
- Team Foundation and Structure: Collaboration often happens authentically when teams are composed of heritage relationships (preexisting work connections). However, don’t force collaboration: People are most empowered when they have clearly defined and delineated roles, and can maintain some autonomy in their job.
On top of these structural approaches, there are a variety of best practices for implementing a collaborative culture:
- Set expectations and clarify roles
- Trust each other
- Appreciate diversity (of both experience and skills)
- Use technology tools strategically
- Integrate collaboration into existing workflow (don’t make it an additional step)
- Identify obstacles and address problems cooperatively as they occur
- Measure what matters (focus on the metrics you can actually make into a business case)
- Make collaborative information readily available
- Be persistent
Three Companies Increase Success with Workplace Collaboration
Case study #1: Populous
Populous is tasked with planning some of the largest sporting events in the world, including the NCAA Final Four. Its 12-person event management team must coordinate hundreds of vendors and thousands of details, and was struggling to keep everyone up to date on status and changes.
“We simply had so many activities going on, and were looking for a better way to keep track of everything and keep the entire team up to date,” says Hailee Damp, an Event Coordinator on the Populous team.
With so many ever-changing details, Populous needed a collaborative system to ensure that all stakeholders were on the same page. The event coordinators didn’t have enough time to manually update each individual, so they needed a solution with automatic updates and anytime, anywhere access.
“We needed to find a project management tool that was very easy to use, could be updated and viewed in real time by outside vendors, could send large files electronically without crashing the entire system, and could serve as a repository for important documents,” says Damp.
Ultimately, Populous chose a cloud-based platform to store and track all project information. The team could share the sheet with an infinite number of external collaborators (vendors), and communicate in real time in the app with comments. With its file sharing and storage capabilities, alerts and reminders, and customization capabilities, the platform helped Populous simplify operations, save time, and reduce deadline risks.
Damp says that this workplace collaboration tool “improved productivity, impressed our clients and vendors, and made project management for major sporting events much easier.”
Case Study #2: World Vision International
As a global company, World Vision needed a tool to boost collaboration abilities and visibility for employees around the world. Additionally, it wanted a project-mapping tool to improve the updating and reporting processes, rather than continuing to rely on disaggregated phone calls and email chains.
“We’re running long-term projects that have a direct impact on the future success of the organization,” Senior Strategy Adviser Juan Bertoldi explains. “It’s critical that we’re coordinated and efficient with our people, time, and efforts. Our reputation depends on it.”
World Vision turned to a workplace collaboration tool to solve these issues. The cloud-based platform enabled remote employees to make updates and review changes, improved visibility for all workers, and offered rollup reporting functionality, so teams could more accurately assess their outcomes. Additionally, the collaboration tool featured a mobile app, so teams gained anytime, anywhere access.
“We can see changes at a glance, attach documents, and run reports for a quick snapshot of our progress,” says Bertoldi. “The ease of use and powerful collaboration features make [it] a great tool to support key processes.”
As evidenced by World Vision’s story, a strong collaboration tool can help organizations plan across departments or offices without compromising anyone’s ideas. Comprehensive collaboration platforms offer even more support, from organizing documentation to mapping long-term projects with moving pieces.
“[The collaboration platform] is the glue that helps us stick together, to coordinate better, and ultimately avoid wasting resources,” says Bertoldi.
Case Study #3: Magnolia Bakery
The success of Magnolia Bakery’s first store in New York City prompted the company to franchise. Planning for and opening additional stores across the United States (and shortly, around the world) required the attention of many employees - everything from location scouting to PR efforts. Magnolia Bakery needed a way to manage every aspect of this rapid global growth while maintaining its original mission, branding, and internal organization.
Magnolia also found its solution in a collaborative work management platform. The tool offered managers an easy way to assign tasks to employees and track each task to completion.
“The brilliance of [the tool] is that it was easy for our team to jump right in, and it’s quickly transformed the way we work together,” says Amy Tucker, a Project Manager at Magnolia.
In this case, a workplace collaboration tool became the cornerstone of the company’s expansion plan. Not only did it store and organize all project documentation, but it kept all teams - Marketing, Cross-Store Communications, Operations, Accounting, and HR - up to date on the details, deadlines, and shifts in plan.
“Without a tool like [this] I couldn’t do this job. It’s saved my life,” said Tucker. “And as a company, we couldn’t grow without it. That’s how important it is to us.”
All three organizations - each with different missions and needs - revolutionized their processes and success by turning to a collaboration tool. Streamline processes, improve transparency, and stay on top of details with the correct tool for your project, all while communicating in real time with your team. You can read more about how workplace collaboration changed these and other companies here.
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