The term “collaboration” is becoming as overused and generic as “innovation.” It’s no secret that remote and hybrid environments require more intentional approaches to encourage collaboration. Many of our clients are asking the same question: How do I get the benefits of collaboration in a new environment where employees require flexible and remote ways of working? They wonder, is the only option to require a return? Not likely in an "employees’ market” for job seekers.
In remote environments, collaboration has too often been defined by tools and IT platforms, but collaboration comes from employees and organizational culture—and is only supported by process and technology. Organizational focus and the five leadership actions detailed below can help ensure your culture feeds collaboration.
As a starting point, it’s critical to align on the benefits of collaboration that organizations are seeking to unlock:
- More creative, lasting solutions via the collective wisdom of the group
- Shared success; promotion of a holistic understanding of the business, its mission, values, and goals; and employee sentiment of possessing a personal stake in the company’s overall advancement
- Sense of belonging and human connection
- Loyalty and greater retention
To deliver these benefits, collaboration needs a strategy of its own. Organic opportunities for collaboration are not as common in remote environments as they are in traditional office environments. Because there are no more quick desk visits, chatter in the kitchen, or spur-of-the-moment team huddles and brainstorms, organizations need to be more intentional about facilitating collaboration. Successful collaboration in remote environments is supported by focus, proper design, an organizational culture that depends on it, conscious modeling, and encouragement from organizational leadership.
It is also supported by flexible leadership who are amenable to evolving their management styles. As workforces become increasingly distributed and remote, we are seeing many companies shift away from hierarchical leadership models and towards flattened vertical structures to maximize collaboration and agility. This means leaders need to abandon controlling the flow of information and embrace a model where everyone takes responsibility for the whole. Information is shared organically and leaders habitually seek out and incorporate ideas from the team into their work.
So, how can leaders facilitate collaboration among their teams? Start with these five leadership actions.
1. Create time and space for collaboration
Collaboration requires energy that most workforces don’t have. One in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance and 54% feel overworked. Productivity signals from Microsoft 365 quantify the precise digital exhaustion workers are feeling. Often, employees may elect not to ask for peer input simply because it takes additional time they don’t have, even if they know their deliverable would benefit from outside review.
Tip: Consider helping your teams make the space for collaboration by blocking off time on calendars for team members to collaborate. During your team meetings, have team members share what they are working and facilitate questions and feedback from the group.
2. Encourage networking
Managers should actively encourage meaningful collaboration, relationship building, and networking.
Tip: Consider creating clear parameters around networking by setting expectations with employees. For example, ask that they seek input from at least two colleagues on each deliverable.
3. Assemble cross-functional or diverse teams
Outcomes are positively impacted when team members have access to a wider, more diverse network of employees. We know that the shift to remote work shrunk our networks. Microsoft’s analysis of billions of Outlook emails and Microsoft Teams meetings show that while interactions with our close networks increased, those with our distant networks diminished.
Tip: Be intentional by combating naturally-forming siloes with conscious team composition. Look for opportunities to pull talent from different departments who can offer a variety of perspectives personalities and knowledge. After one client transitioned to a remote environment, we proposed to their leadership team a program to socialize projects available for any team member in the department to work on for learning and development. This helped facilitate cross-team connections and exposure to different areas of work across the function.
4. Invest in digital collaboration tools and model healthy collaborative behavior within them
Collaboration takes time and energy from each team member. Make sure you have the right digital tools to help your teams collaborate in the most efficient ways, and lead by example by using them.
Tip: Share what you personally are working on and ask your team for their input. Collaborative leadership requires some vulnerability. When managers ask for help, it’s an admission that they don’t have all of the answers. In one company we worked with, the CCO made it a habit to share a relevant industry news article with her team on a weekly basis along with several questions to collect the team’s input on how best to apply the learnings to their work.
5. Build a culture of open and transparent communication
The key to fostering strong work relationships is trust. Rigid hierarchy within organizations can act as a hindrance to achieving the best outcomes because employees are impeded by internal politics or dissuaded from contributing their thoughts out of fear. When leadership is intentional about showing trust, such as asking for input from members of their team at all levels, it increases confidence amongst the team and encourages collaboration.
Tip: Encourage your employees to share their ideas freely, without risk of judgment, and encourage idea meritocracy. It’s also important for employees to feel kept in the loop about obstacles that leadership may be facing and important company news. 33% of employees say that a lack of open, honest communication had a negative impact on employee morale. If you don’t already have one, set up a cadence to update your team on important issues. It’s great to make this a regular group briefing and to allow space for open discussion and questions.