Team collaboration brings numerous benefits to a business and is a vital aspect of any company that wants to be efficient in the long term. The ways to improve collaboration at work include both long- and short-term solutions, but if followed, will result in a workforce better able to tackle the complex challenges of the modern world.
Done well, policies for team collaboration can lead to:
Improved professional development for individual employees
Keeping a company ahead of the game
However, with teams becoming more complicated than ever before – working remotely across the world, in different time zones, and potentially even languages – how can your organization build the tools needed for better group collaboration?
Let’s look at why team collaboration is essential, some of the benefits it can bring, and factors you can implement today for a more effective collaborative team.
Why is Team Collaboration Important for an Organization?
William Edwards Deming revolutionized management in the 20th century, coming to recognition in the USA only towards the end of his life. What people took away from his teachings were the 14 points for better management. And, to no surprise, one of the key ones was to “break down barriers between departments” – i.e., improve collaboration.
As a great supporter of improved teamwork, Deming believed that collaboration was essential to a working system where all employees are moving together to achieve a common aim – the business’s purpose – better products and services. For him, this happened in several ways.
First, companies needed to build the “internal customer” concept, in which each department or function serves other departments that use their output – i.e., the other departments are their customers. Deming also argued that to make this collaboration work, the company and its employees needed a shared vision, focusing on collaboration and consensus over compromise.
Furthermore, he believed teamwork could be used to build understanding and limit adversarial relationships, all of which is to say that better teamwork management means a better product, better workflow, and better company.
This all makes a lot of sense, and if most people were asked whether collaborating with colleagues was necessary, they would instinctively say “yes.” However, if asked, “why?”… well, this question is a little trickier to answer.
There are many reasons that team collaboration within an organization is vital for a company’s effective and productive running. However, before focusing on improving team collaboration, let’s first explore why it’s even worth doing.
There are No Great Men
For the longest time, history (and much of the world) has been focused around a few “great men.” That is to say that there has been a heavy focus on individual figures rather than the groups from which they come from or work in. You’ve heard of Napoleon, for example, but rarely do people talk of his armies.
Or, for a more modern analogy, people spend a long time talking about individual football superstars, but at the end of the day, it’s the team as a whole that wins a game. The same is true in the workplace. No one person will drive significant change – even if they are geniuses, it takes a team collaborating to make things happen.
Collaborative Work Reduces Burnout
A recent study by the global job aggregator site, Indeed, surveyed 1,500 U.S. workers from various age groups, experience levels, and sectors, looking at their level of burnout when compared to a similar study in January 2020. Somewhat unsurprisingly, they found that burnout is on the rise.
More than half of the study’s respondents (52%) reported experiencing some sort of burnout in 2021, up from 43% last year. What’s more, over two-thirds (67%) of respondents think that the feeling of burnout has gotten worse during the pandemic. Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways to tackle burnout, and a key one is better team building and collaboration.
A problem shared is a problem halved, as the old saying goes, and this is truer than ever with burnout on the rise. Team members who collaborate well together can provide emotional as well as practical support. A person’s peers are going through the same stresses and demands and are in a perfect position to help.
Different Viewpoints Lead to Better Outcomes
Despite it sometimes being challenging, different viewpoints make for more significant innovation. We’re not talking about a practical level, where you need a designer, coder, marketeer, etc., to launch a product. But social diversity actually helps innovation. An article from Scientific American explains that:
“Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.”
And this isn’t baseless, but rather the outcome of “decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and demographers.” Basically, diverse collaboration improvement means innovation improvement, and in turn, a better company.
Better Collaboration, Better Individuals
Just as diversity in teams – whether social, ideological, or practical – can result in better company outcomes, higher collaboration can also lead to personal improvement. By sharing ideas, knowledge, experience, and everything else that comes with teamwork, individuals are far more likely to learn new skills that they may never have pursued otherwise.
Essentially, improved group collaboration can lead to informal cross-training of employees within a company, which helps individual team members in their careers, the project they’re working on, and the company.
Furthermore, if a company’s collaborative environment is healthy, individuals can receive positive and negative feedback that will help them grow. This would never happen without a focused attempt to build team collaboration.
Support Networks Increase Confidence
Sometimes the most significant ideas come from the most unexpected places, but rarely will these ideas come to light unless the people are offered support. Individually, people don’t want to stand out for something that could potentially blow up in their face. They need a team around them – a group of people who have their back – to give them the confidence required to put forward those real moonshot ideas.
Collaboration Doesn’t Happen Without Help
We know we’ve been discussing the benefits of team collaboration for a while now, and it’s beginning to sound like if you throw a group of people together, then all these beautiful things will happen. But the truth is, good group collaboration requires energy and effort to make it work well.
It has been found that complex teams that come together for complicated projects are less inclined to share knowledge, learn from one another, help one another or even share resources. Basically, they are less likely to work as a team, and the main reason seems to be the size.
A famous example of a company taking this on board is the “two-pizza rule” at Amazon, which states that any internal team should be small enough to be fed with two pizzas (we’re not sure of the size).
Sticking with small teams isn’t anything new—a study back in 2012 tasked teams of two and teams of four with building a Lego structure. Despite the four-person team being almost twice as optimistic about outperforming the other team, the two-person teams completed the Lego structure in 36% less time.
However, teams are growing ever more complex due to the rise in distributed companies and a more global workforce. Not only that, but teams are also growing in size – in direct contradiction to what seems to be needed for effective group collaboration.
All of this is to say that large, complex, distributed teams are not the most efficient or effective way for a company to operate, but in the modern-day, they are unavoidable. The key, then, is figuring out how to increase collaboration between teams, even when they are large or complex.
Eight Factors to Lead to Higher Collaboration Within an Organization
Keeping in mind the benefits that good team collaboration can bring, it’s time to turn our attention to how companies can make it happen. These eight factors are mainly tackled by executives, the HR department, and team leaders. Still, it is essential to remember that everyone has a role to play when collaborating with team members.
Collaboration Starts from The Top – Modelling Collaboration Practices
A team will never collaborate effectively if the heads of a company don’t embody an attitude of collaboration. Executives need to demonstrate that they work as a team with the rest of the company, doing each of the things that an excellent collaborative team should:
- Share knowledge – people in a managerial position are often more senior, and sharing this experience with other employees can show a commitment to collaboration.
- Learn from one another – just as important as sharing what they know, executives should make a point to learn from others in the company. They certainly won’t know everything, and this is how you show that collaboration is a two-way street.
- Help one another – this is referring to practical help! Executives should make a point of stepping in for their colleagues if needed – and doing so in a valuable way.
- Share resources – this should be simple enough! Space, tools, and more should be shared to foster better team collaboration.
Hitting these main collaboration goals is especially important for executives to do because there is generally already an assumption that people must collaborate “up” but not “down” in company hierarchies – an assumption that must be busted!
Almost as important as having a collaborative group of executives is the ability of the company to see them. If the teamwork of those higher-ups isn’t seen, then it fails to model the behavior aimed for in the rest of the company.
Investing in Organizational Relationships
Large, complex teams work best when there are already social relationships that the company has spent time, money, and effort to build and maintain purely to improve the group collaboration within the business. The way companies do this varies, but most will have efficient solutions tailored to their company needs. This can be seen with both physical and digital structures for social relationships as well as operational changes.
Building physical spaces to foster group collaboration
Companies that have complex teams in single physical locations may lean towards creating physical spaces that help develop social relationships among groups. This can be seen, for example, with SOM’s new project 330 North Green Street in Chicago. Set to break ground soon, it is designed to have a southern facade that is set back, creating a five-story “porch.”
The porch will act as a gathering area for employees at the offices, complete with “retractable doors, lounge, and workspaces, and fireplace areas… an outdoor fitness area, paddle courts, an indoor/outdoor café and lounge, and a 6,000-square-foot green roof and terrace.”
All of which will help build social relationships and, in turn, group collaboration.
Building digital spaces to improve group collaboration
The same principles apply in the digital world, which has become increasingly important since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies are attempting to build online structures that encourage social relationships, leading to better collaboration and tighter-knit groups.
Companies are going about this in many different ways, but some common approaches include:
- Creating dedicated channels for developing social relationships at work. This could be, for example, a Group chat where colleagues can share stories, pictures, GIFs, videos, and more without any work context.
- Leaving time at the top of meetings so team members can catch up and talk about their lives before getting down to business. This is where lots of social interaction would happen in person, so don’t be afraid to reflect this in the digital world.
- Celebrating special events in special ways. In a physical location, it wouldn’t be unusual to bring a cake to the office. Of course, this isn’t possible to do when working remotely, but why not ship a little cake kit to those involved? Or mail an actual card?
- Some companies are looking towards shared online experiences to build social relationships between colleagues—everything from cooking lessons to online concerts, to mixology masterclasses.
Building organizational structures to increase group collaboration
Finally, some companies employ structural changes to improve group collaboration and team building. For example, this could include moving executives between offices or physical locations to expand their skill set and increase their ability to interact and work with new teams.
Creating a Mentoring Standard
Mentoring is the foundation for sharing knowledge between groups and individuals. It is the formal and informal launchpad for longer-term collaborations between various members within an organization.
Formal mentorship programs involve people having clear roles and responsibilities. In contrast, mentorship is integrated into an employee’s day-to-day and will have a more significant impact on collaborative behavior in the long run.
In addition to encouraging the sharing of knowledge, mentorships also create a more understanding environment, which can mean teams are more likely to help one another. Furthermore, creating a standard for mentorship can help feed into other factors for improved collaboration, such as building social relationships – between mentor and mentee.
Similarly, a structured mentorship can be a clear example of an executive actively collaborating since they are sharing knowledge with new hires/recently promoted employees.
A brilliant example of a company striving towards these benefits is General Electric’s formal mentoring program, which uses a “Reverse Mentoring” structure. This same structure was subsequently followed by several other companies, such as PwC, Cisco, Procter & Gamble, and in General Electric’s own words:
“allows junior staff to grow their confidence, feel valued, and gain visibility into senior leadership challenges. They can also build a rapport with a manager who can offer them invaluable advice and insights about the industry.”
Not only has this style of mentorship program fostered interlevel collaboration, but according to Forbes, it also:
- Increased the retention of millennial staff – there is a very high historical turnover rate among millennial employees, so finding ways to retain talent is a big issue for many companies. For one company, reverse mentoring saw a retention rate of 96% for the millennials involved.
- Improved diversity and inclusion– numerous companies have begun pairing executives with employees of different backgrounds to build more inclusive workplaces.
- Bettered staff understanding of new technology – one of the original reasons for its implementation, reverse mentoring allows for bottom-up knowledge sharing.
While much of this is through formal mentoring initiatives, companies can try to achieve similar results by fostering a culture of mentorship (both up and down) within their businesses. This could be done using the same methods as outlined for building social relationships to improve team collaboration.
Make Sure the Team Has the Necessary Skills to Collaborate
Sometimes, when a person wants to collaborate, your company has put all the processes and structures in place to allow them to collaborate, and they are encouraged all the time to do so, but they just can’t.
Go back to basics, and consider that teams need the skills to collaborate just as much as the structures or time. There are a wide variety of skills that a team member might need to collaborate effectively, but some of the ones to focus on are:
- Appreciation of others
- Emotional intelligence
- Conversational skills to drive meaningful discussion
- Effective conflict resolution
- Program management
This list is by no means exhaustive but touches upon some of the more essential skills that a person may need to collaborate effectively as a team. These can be developed through mentorships, but a more direct route can be through HR developing specific training modules.
If your company cannot support the demands of in-house training across all these subjects, consider offering employees time and enrolment fees for online courses that give them the skills needed for collaborative ways of working.
Creating, Maintaining, and Supporting a Sense of Community
Another way team collaboration can be fostered in a company is through HR’s support of a social community within the organization. Of course, it’s necessary to implement the physical, digital, and structural changes needed to foster social relationships, but a sense of community can’t always be expected to develop spontaneously.
As such, to improve team-building collaboration, a sense of community must be created, maintained, and supported. This can be done, for example, by:
- Sponsoring group events such as cooking classes
- Workplace parties/events
- Sponsoring out-of-work activities such as sports teams
- Charity drives/fundraisers
- Creating policies and practices that encourage networks or social groups
- Offering company infrastructure for non-company functions
As mentioned earlier, many companies do this, such as General Electric, which has a company-supported Women’s Network. Google is another prime example of making the most of these informal community builders by offering cooking classes, a gym with complimentary classes, and talks. On the other hand, Microsoft gives employees access to social clubs – a much more explicit community-building tactic looking to the long term.
A crucial thing to note about perks to encourage a sense of community is that they are not replacing traditional employment benefits such as good healthcare, retirement funds, parental leave, etc. Or, increasingly, a sense of purpose and meaning a person can derive from their work.
Assign Leaders With Certain Qualities
Company leaders, as we’ve discussed, are vital to team building and collaboration. However, arguably more important are the direct team leaders and their ability to be flexible to the working styles of the whole team.
Rather than being wholly focused on team relationships or strictly on work tasks, the best team leaders for collaboration improvement are those who fall somewhere in the middle. Or, more accurately, those who can transition from one state to another.
In the early stages of a project, a team leader needs to establish clear goals and clarify the individual responsibilities of team members. However, once these are set and confirmed, the team leader must then transition to be more relationship-oriented. As such, the whole team can establish trust and boundaries before moving into a more long-term collaboration.
To make this happen across an organization, the company must put equal emphasis on both skillsets and styles when it comes to training and reviews. In doing so, a business can develop team leaders capable of leading highly productive collaborative projects.
Building on Existing Relationships
When looking for increasing collaboration at work, it can be easy to focus on the significant overarching structures and policies – the architecture and platforms, team perks, and executive training. However, never forget that a team comprises individual employees, and the best way to ensure smooth collaboration is to build on existing relationships.
When a team of strangers is formed, they have to invest a significant amount of their time and energy into getting to know their new colleagues. As discussed, this can be helped along by a good team leader but is much quicker and more efficient if some of the team members already know each other. Again, it doesn’t need to be everyone, but if there are a few connections, then these pairs can introduce other people who can, in turn, train others, and so on.
This is where a holistic approach to team collaboration shines since a company can increase the likelihood that people already know each other before a project by following other recommendations – such as building social channels or sponsoring social outings. This creates a circle by which collaboration improves and remains, even when new team members join and old ones leave.
Clear Understanding of Roles
It can be tempting to fix the aim of a project, form a team of people with the requisite skills, and then let them loose, so they form new ideas and carve out roles for themselves. Doing this, however, actually reduces a team’s overall ability to collaborate.
Instead of letting people loose on a goal and hoping they work their role out along the way, each individual should be given a clearly defined position. This allows those individuals to feel comfortable in their independent tasks and thus better able to focus on the work and collaboration rather than figuring out where they stand and fending off others from standing in that same place.
Strict roles reduce the friction if individual team members feel like there is too much overlap. But, emphasize that it is essential to leave the path to the goal ambiguous enough to encourage creative collaboration as the team figures out how to get there, each from their comfortable position.
How to Build Team Collaboration – a Summary
Building better group and team collaboration requires a mix of long-term commitments, such as building the infrastructure needed for developing social relationships, as well as good short-term decisions, such as who to include in a collaborative team project. These decisions, policies, and practices need to be spearheaded and truly committed to by everyone – from the executives to HR to each team member.
If a company gets collaboration right, it can lead to more innovative ideas, less burnout, individual development, and a stronger company as a whole. Collaboration has always been challenging, but as an increasing number of people work remotely and projects require increasingly complex solutions, we need modern methods to keep things running smoothly.
For more information on how Spike can help you boost collaboration at work, stay tuned to the Spike blog or drop us a tweet a SpikeNowHQ. If you’re ready to take your remote work collaboration to the next level, check out Spike.