How to create a collaborative workplace
Collaboration is a fundamental part of business, making tasks meaningful and strengthening working relationships between employees. It’s also highly beneficial to your bottom line. Here's why.
Why collaboration in the workplace is important
In a collaborative workplace, people connect with one another in order to develop their ideas, solve problems and get their tasks done. Collaboration-friendly management, culture and environments mean they can pool their intellectual resources and inspire one another with ideas and suggestions.
The old sayings like ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ and “two heads are better than one” apply neatly to team collaboration, since much of the value in collaborative work lies in the way people connect with and motivate each other, rather than simply the skills each person brings to the table. Creating a culture of collaboration sparks creativity and inspiration and improves employees’ confidence through mutual recognition of their talents and skills.
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Workplace collaboration takes many forms, from group brainstorms and shared idea documents to the commitment of a team to disagree respectfully and hear other points of view. Other hallmarks of collaborative workplaces include an inclusive hiring philosophy that brings a wide variety of skills and experiences to the table, and a culture of transparency that discourages internal competition and siloed factions within companies.
Most businesses recognise the value of collaborative working, but not all of them have been able to fully realise its potential. In this article we’ll explore what great collaboration looks like and how you can nurture it in your company.
How to create a collaborative work environment
Collaboration is most likely to happen when the physical environment, digital environment and company culture all align to support it.
When employees can gather to discuss projects easily, there are fewer roadblocks to collaboration. Meeting pods and communal spaces, plus an atmosphere that’s not too quiet or formal, could be helpful.
At the same time, it’s a good idea to make sure there is peace and quiet when it’s needed. If employees are continually hunting for available meeting rooms or trying to make themselves heard over the sound of other colleagues chatting, they may feel discouraged from collaborating.
Communication channels and shared digital spaces can provide fertile ground for collaboration. According to MIT’s Sloan Business School, collaboration and digital working go hand in hand. The researchers at Sloan found that 70% of digitally advanced companies – those that use digital technology across their business functions – engaged in cross-functional collaboration, compared with 30% of companies who were still at the early stages of digitisation.
As an employer seeking to be more digitally collaborative, it’s important to have modern and reliable systems, tools and services that aren’t plagued by outages or bugs, and to make sure your communication platform’s integrations with business software work smoothly, pre-empting any technical problems that act like speed bumps on collaboration and innovation.
It’s also important to make sure employees are aware of the range of technologies you have available (for example video calling, custom emojis, shared workspaces and work groups) and feel confident in using them. Offer formal training if appropriate, and clearly signpost self-help guides on your intranet or company news feed. It can be all too easy to default to phone calls and email otherwise.
Does your culture recognise the value of conversation, exploration and discussion? Or does every moment away from the day’s tasks seem like a compromise on productivity that employees feel guilty about?
To make sure collaboration can flourish, the culture needs to not only condone it but prioritise it. Employees should feel free to share their ideas with one another and ask for second opinions or feedback on their work. If you can develop a culture that applauds collaboration across teams or departmental silos, so much the better.
Eight ways to improve collaboration in the workplace
1. Adopt a collaborative leadership style
Collaborative leaders are those that work together to make leadership decisions, according to Northeastern University. Heads of department, C-suite and other senior decision makers connect to discuss their challenges and collaborate on how to address them. Northeastern suggests that collaborative leadership is slowly replacing the more traditional top-down approach where leaders make decisions unilaterally and these are propagated downwards throughout the company.
As well as being beneficial in and of itself, practicing collaborative leadership can help you develop a collaborative culture within the company. Strong leaders act as role models for managers and contributors, so their collaborative ways of working can have a direct influence on the wider workforce.
Tip: Discover more about how to build team collaboration here.
2. Make sure people feel safe to share ideas
Feeling safe to express your ideas, whether they align with the prevailing opinions of the group, is pivotal for innovation inside organisations. It’s also essential for avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink. This factor, known as psychological safety, has been studied by people scientists as far back as the early 2000s.
A 2008 review by Harvard Business School found that psychological safety can promote collaborative work, especially in diverse teams, as it helps to make sure every person’s contribution is heard and valued no matter their background, communication style or perspective.
3. Identify and play to people’s strengths
Effective collaboration brings together a wide range of skills and personalities, so if you’re looking to foster collaboration in your workforce it makes sense to start by understanding each person’s strengths and challenges.
Coaching and development, whether as part of a team exercise or in a one-to-one program between contributors and managers, can help employees understand their own unique skills profile and approach to work, homing in on what makes them productive and which roles they gravitate towards in group work.
4. Include hybrid and remote working employees
Hybrid work models need to be managed carefully to make sure online and in-person activity is integrated and nobody gets left out of the loop. Part of the solution may be to view the physical office as a tool for collaborative connection, according to thought leaders at McKinsey. “Some… say the office is the new off-site – the place you get together to collaborate and think forward,” says McKinsey’s Bryan Hancock.
By assigning different activities and goals to online and in-office activity, you can think of a hybrid workforce as a diverse resource rather than a divided community.
5. Set clear goals
Goal setting can help teams come together and unify around a common objective. When setting a common goal for your team to work on together, make it clear that the task should be approached as a group, and offer support to your team members in identifying different roles and organising their time so that different people can approach different aspects of problem solving.
You can even make collaboration part of the goal itself. When setting group tasks, consider asking the individuals to present their ways of working after the challenge is complete, so they can showcase how they assigned roles, solved problems and worked to each person’s strengths.
6. Delegate effectively
Delegating well is one of the most important skills in a manager’s toolkit. Deciding which tasks to assign to others, and how much support – or interference – is appropriate is something many managers do instinctively, while others may need to consciously practice their delegation skills.
By delegating effectively, a leader is playing a collaborative role within their team. Assigning tasks that reports can do as well, or better, than they can frees them up to focus on thinking strategically about the team or delivering coaching and development to help others move forward in their careers.
7. Have the right collaboration tools
Tools and technology have the power to supercharge collaboration, making it quicker and easier to contribute ideas and keep track of shared projects. From Kanban boards and workflows to instant messaging and live video, collaboration tools are a familiar and essential part of today’s workplace.
Selecting which collaboration tools you’ll use for your company should be approached on a needs-first basis. Look for the tools that fit your ways of working, rather than the newest and most sophisticated offerings. It also makes sense to look for a single integrated platform, rather than multiple specialised tools that each has its own login, file storage and user interface.
When considering which kinds of collaboration tools suit your company best, don’t forget about offline tools. Whiteboards, mind-maps and even sticky notes are collaboration tools that are familiar and accessible to almost all employees, although they are limited to physical workspaces.
8. Offer rewards to encourage collaboration
Benefits and rewards can be shaped to encourage employees to collaborate. One way to do this is to tie bonuses and rewards to company values, of which collaboration may be one. Employees who show willingness to share knowledge, help others and who drive collaboration through their behaviours can be rewarded for supporting the company’s collaborative goals.
Sometimes, collaboration is a reward in and of itself. Research at Stanford has shown that collaboration has a positive impact on engagement, stamina and success during group tasks. Participants who were told they would be working collaboratively stuck at their tasks 64% longer than those working alone, suggesting that work becomes more absorbing and meaningful when it’s undertaken as part of a team.
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