By Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. 39% of employees worldwide say people in their organisation don’t collaborate enough. Yet 75% of employers rate team collaboration as very important. Only 18% of employees are evaluated for their communication skills at performance reviews. But 73% of business leaders feel soft skills are more important than job-specific skills.
If these workplace facts don’t make you knock down cubicles and dance around the water cooler together, I don’t know what will. Even if in an open office environment, most of us hardly stick our noses out from behind our screens, from where we Slack and Skype our colleagues like fierce social warriors. If you were born between the years of 1980 and 2000, you probably prefer online communication with peers both far and near – and you may perceive that older colleague or manager who walks over to you for a chat, as an oddity who doesn’t even have a Twitter account. (Gasp!)
Old and new world orders
We still follow a world order where office spaces are divided up between functional teams and departments. This is often reflected in a situation where you call in to a business and the voice prompt urges you to dial 1 for sales, 2 for marketing, 3 for finance. If all of us went T-shaped, anyone could pick up the phone at any time and assist a client. We also still have more men in suits and women in pencil skirts than barefoot board members (and I don’t just mean the surfer-cum-investor).
A need to revisit how we do things is growing. If we look at the more recent changes in the history of office space design, we clearly see a global move from cubicles to an open floor space and to mobile workplace design. There is also an increase in the use of social collaboration tools such as Skype, Zoom, Slack and many other IM systems. But, believe it or not, we communicate and collaborate less. We act as part of a silo in a shared space.
From “silo-effect” to cross-collaboration
The “silo effect” easily causes loss of productivity, team-cohesion, brand perception and ultimately, an unhappy workplace ridden with conflict. From my years spent managing and transforming teams, I have learned that silos create an almost unbreakable mindset of separateness, of “the other”, and of a culture of blame: The sales team is upset because “marketing” didn’t create the assets they need to communicate with leads. The marketing team is fuming because “development” didn’t fix the app bugs that have been reported by users via social media messages. Does this sound familiar? What happened to the joint goal that all of the teams work towards? Where is the collaborative spirit?
Is the solution then to throw all job functions of a business into a giant tumbler, shake it all through and regroup teams randomly? While this may work for brave and experimental organisational designers, it would probably be more effective to create entities within a business that are made up of one functional representative each, and
to also have them sit together: one developer, one marketer, one accountant, one supporter, one sales person…
These units may be re-grouped on a regular basis, or not, depending on the nature of the business. This concept also works especially well where work is project-based. But not
everybody may want to move away from the norm this drastically. So a win-win situation for many employers is to keep the basic functional structure, but create opportunities for increased collaboration.
8 Tips for Better Collaboration
- Switch seats for an hour a week: Every employee to chose a task that they have set themselves for the day, and give it to someone else to do. You may swap actual seats and your tools, too, to make it more authentic. Especially so if you’re not too familiar with a task given, and you need a mentor in your host team.
- Review each other’s work: Be it a new wireframe design, a project plan, a documented process, a piece of copy or a financial review – hand it to a colleague from an entirely different team or department and have them review it in your presence so that they can ask questions. This will also help with Quality Assurance, and making sure people who lack your expertise still understand what you’re trying to communicate or showcase.
- Introduce a joint L&D lunchtime workshop series: In my experience, this works best on a Friday. Book half an hour over lunch for an open door workshop where one of you presents a new development, new resarch a new idea or a success story. I suggest a maximum 20-minute interactive presentation followed by a feedback session and Q&A.
- Give each other kudos: If you use social communication tools at work, create a channel or a group where anyone can give a colleague a virtual pat on their shoulders for work well done, and showcase what they did. You can also set up a black-board for this, or have a jar that you stick notes in to which are read at company-wide meetings.
- Run cross-functional projects: Step out from the norm and assign team members from various functional entities to sit together and work on a project. Ideally, team members should be able to concentrate on this joint work only during the allocated time, and not be disturbed by their ordinary daily tasks. This works really well if the ad hoc project team gets to spend 3 days at a mountain cabin!
- Have regular general meetings in person. If you’re not sharing actual space, meet in a digital lounge, or a combination of a meeting area plus digital. If you work in a space where your core staff works together, but others work remotely, maybe also in different international locations, set up a TV screen for live streaming of your office for a certain time of the day. This may get a bit tricky if you all work in very different time zones. No matter how you do it, the trick is not to just use this as an opportunity for the CEO to profile him or herself, but to make sure that everybody gets to have a say.
- Attend industry events together: The next time there is a convention for digital marketing, or product packaging, or client relationship management, or anything else that draws a bunch of experts – make sure to not only send your key staff to these events, but also get someone from a totally different function to tag along and get their insights and reports, too.
- Have fun together: randomly choose 3-4 people on a rotating basis to come up with a fun group activity or a meal to share at the end of a week. Weather permitting, have your fun outdoors and get some fresh air! River Rafting really rocks, I’ve tried it.
A need for better communication and management
None of the above will work if these collaborative improvements are introduced autocratically. Employers and managers need to lay the foundation for output-driven cross-collaboration through selling of the new concept and through explaining expected outcomes. Not least the direct benefit for each individual of being able to grow and showcase their communication and team-work skills – skills that are
often considered when promoting employees.
Managers and employers themselves need to be good at communicating and team-building, as they need to lead by example and motivate. There needs to be an understanding that not every person communicates the same way; while some are the heart of a party, others prefer hanging with their imaginary friend only.
And while social networks for internal communication make things easy, they should not become the only way of how people at a workplace interact; as with virtual communication, crucial communication signals from body language, gesture, tone of voice and other aspects go amiss.
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