A guide to workplace collaboration, from best practices to worst-case scenarios

Human beings are social creatures that rely on cooperation to thrive. Not much has changed over the past 2.5 million years: From caves to villages to cities and boardrooms, we move forward when we work together as a team. The only real difference is, we now eat crudité platters during meetings instead of tree bark.

You don’t even need studies to know collaboration equals success (although there are plenty). Just look at the best football teams and orchestras: They all work together like a well-oiled machine.

Achieving this kind of culture in your company won’t take years of training. With a little practice, the right tools, and everyone on board, you’ll see the benefits of collaboration faster than you think. Sound good? Let’s get started.

What is workplace collaboration?

Workplace collaboration is teamwork with purpose. It involves everyone cooperating to reach a goal. This usually involves making decisions together, sharing the workload, and communicating openly across the entire organization — from the newest intern right up to the CEO.

Usually, there are a combination of processes in place to help people make decisions more efficiently, as well as tools that help teams talk, share work, and keep track of each other’s progress. We’ll go into these in a little more detail later on.

When did workplace collaboration take off?

Humans have always worked together to get things done. But when it comes to the workplace, organized collaboration didn’t really take off until the 1950s when project management became a defined role.

As project managers looked for new ways to better manage their tasks, techniques such as the Critical Path Method (CPM) and the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), became standardized. Then, in the ‘60s, the Project Management Institute (PMI) was formed. It went on to become a repository of knowledge for project managers and team leaders everywhere, helping them promote a culture of collaboration in their workplace.

Three types of workplace collaboration

As workplaces embrace the benefits of remote work, it’s important now more than ever to understand what collaboration looks like in its various forms.

Teamwork

Teamwork is more than just throwing everyone together and hoping for the best. Managers should identify each individual’s strengths and weaknesses and match up compatible people with different skill sets. In fact, encouraging diversity will lead to a stronger performance overall.

Discussions

Holding open discussions that involve people from all levels of the business helps to break down hierarchies. This has the added benefit in letting everyone’s voices, perspectives, and insights shine through: CEOs can hear ideas from interns, coders can give design teams insight into how they work, and project managers can hear how other departments are plugging along. It also helps the workplace feel like a more transparent and engaging place.

Brainstorming

This tried-and-tested technique takes many forms — from word association games to gathering around a whiteboard and sharing ideas. Now, thanks to technology, brainstorming can even be done remotely and asynchronously (or in other words, not in real-time).

What are the benefits of collaboration?

1. Engaged Employees

A 2017 Gallup research survey revealed engaged employees create around 17% more profitability. In addition, there are 41% fewer absences. If you’re not working on employee engagement, you’re not only missing out — but you’re potentially damaging business.

According to a survey of over 19,000 workers by the ADP Research Institute, feeling part of a team plays a big part in helping employees feel engaged and valued. Happier, more fulfilled workers are also much less likely to leave the business.

2. Better Meetings

Meetings are expensive, so the fewer you have, the better. When people communicate, delegate work, and use tools to track their work, the need for meetings will drop. If one does need to happen, it’ll be more efficient because there’s more support and engagement.

Online collaboration tools are especially useful for remote workers because it makes it easy for everyone to tune in, engage, and share work from wherever they are in the world.

3. A productivity boost

Collaborative teams are more efficient. This means a better product and shorter production times — good news for customers and the business’ bottom line.

4. Faster innovation

Encouraging a dynamic workplace with different personality styles and skillsets mixing together has the added benefit of creating a fertile ground for innovation and ideas to flourish.

Pixar is a great example of an innovative workplace: They designed their HQ with bathrooms in the middle, and food and coffee in the middle of an atrium to get everyone talking. “They were very intentional about wanting people who are artists and animators, and the coders, and the music people, and the screenwriters to be constantly bumping into each other in random ways to spark ideas,” says Benjamin Jones, a strategy professor at the Kellogg School.

You might not be able to do an office redesign, but you can take a leaf out of Pixar’s book: One quick and easy option is to create a ‘general’ thread on your office chat app. It gives people a place to socialize — think of it as being like a virtual watercooler.

5. A view of the bigger picture

Working with people from different areas of the business encourages employees to look at the bigger picture, rather than focus on just their own individual project. Having a wider sense of purpose makes work and collaboration feel more meaningful.

6. Improved Flexibility

Collaborative teams are better equipped to deal with change. So when demand shifts, clients change their minds, or someone takes leave, employees have the skills they need to cope with this more efficiently and effectively.

7. Skill sharing

Employees who work together can share skills and learn from each other. It also teaches individuals how to communicate better, support each other, and better analyze their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s also helpful for new employees, who’ll learn the ropes much faster from a supportive, communicative team.

8. More Profitability

Add all of these things up and, at the end of the day, your bottom line will almost certainly look happier. Employees are happier, more productive, and more creative, which means work’s done faster and to a higher standard. In turn, this means customers are more satisfied, while innovative new ideas move the business forward.

Collaboration problems to watch out for

Like all worthwhile things, collaboration takes commitment. It’s also important that teams recognize when issues are cropping up so they can be dealt with quickly before they snowball into bigger problems.

  • A communication breakdown
    Workplaces are made up of different types of people, from different backgrounds and with different communication styles. Sometimes, these differences can cause communication breakdowns. Learn about the barriers to communication to spot and overcome these challenges.
  • Inflexible workplace practices
    Workplace collaboration might clash with current structures, especially in top-down workplaces. If your business is rigid and hierarchical, phase changes in gradually so it’ll be less of a shock.
  • Complex decisions
    The more people there are, the more complex decision-making becomes. This is especially true in bottom-up workplaces, which are less leader-centric. To overcome stagnation, have a strong decision-maker ready to step in and keep things moving.

Workplace collaboration best practices

Whether you’re part of a team or leading one (or several), here are some simple rules to promote a culture of collaboration in your business.

10 collaboration skills everyone needs to master

  1. Practice and encourage active listening.
  2. Learn to overcome common barriers to communication.
  3. Give credit to individuals — and avoid assigning blame while discussing problems.
  4. Learn collaboration techniques, including brainstorming games you can do remotely.
  5. Nurture an open-minded, enthusiastic, and positive attitude both individually and as a team.
  6. Be reliable and committed by working to a high standard and meeting deadlines.
  7. Have a good sense of humor and forgive mistakes.
  8. Give credit for contributions.
  9. Compromise where necessary to keep things moving.
  10. Work together toward a consensus.

9 collaboration skills for managers and leaders

  1. Brush up on your organizational communication skills.
  2. Be personable, approachable, and assertive.
  3. Work out the strengths and weaknesses of each team member so you can put the most compatible together.
  4. Listen as much as you talk.
  5. Encourage group discussions.
  6. Show trust, avoid micromanaging, and delegate work.
  7. Define mutually agreed upon roles and goals, and remain flexible enough to modify these as necessary.
  8. Communicate regularly and openly with the team.
  9. Recognize and resolve conflicts.

Tools that make workplace collaboration easier

The right tech makes all the difference. Pick a combination of collaboration tools that work for your team: Look out for easy interfaces with plenty of in-built support and the kinds of features you need.

Chat apps and video: Phone and email will always be useful, but there are so many more tools designed to boost communication. Chat apps are ideal for quick, informal conversations — whether you’re in the same room or on different continents. Meanwhile, video software is a must for having conversations and meetings with remote workers.

Online diagramming tools: From brainstorming sessions to sharing graphs, cloud-based diagramming software is incredibly useful. With Cacoo, our diagramming tool, team members can log in from wherever they are, edit together, track changes, and share work, all in real-time.

Project management software: It’s much easier to stay on track when you’ve got everything right there in front of you. From real-time notifications to file sharing, wikis, and Kanban boards, good project management tools make it easier for everyone to stay on track, share jobs, and see what everyone else is up to.

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