How to build team collaboration

by Matt Bochenski

How to build team collaboration

A collaborative approach can help your people work smarter, more creatively and more effectively. Here’s how to get team collaboration right.

Team collaboration matters because - when it works - it can reap big rewards for your organization. Collaborative teams are motivated, efficient and innovative problem solvers. Other collaboration plusses include more engaged and committed employees, better performance, and improved financial outcomes.

But while organizations talk the talk about the importance of teamwork and collaboration, it’s not always easy to achieve. Only 14% of companies are confident that their internal processes for collaboration and decision making are working well.

What is team collaboration?

It’s important to understand what team collaboration is - and what it isn’t. Team collaboration happens when people with complementary skills work together on projects or tasks in a genuinely connected and collective way. It’s this shared responsibility and joint effort that’s the difference between collaboration and teamwork.

In both cases, a group of people works towards a shared goal. But in teamwork, people make their contributions as individuals. When they collaborate, people explore tasks and discover solutions together. The team collaboration process involves setting goals, deciding who does what, forging relationships, and communicating in a discursive, non-judgmental way. It’s as much about culture as organization, with more flexibility and openness, less ego and a more cooperative mindset being a few of the critical elements in a genuinely collaborative team.

And team collaboration lines up perfectly with the more democratic structure of the modern workplace - where the traditional question "who do you work for?" has been replaced by "who do you work with?".

What are the benefits of team collaboration?

Organizations recognize that having people working collaboratively is vital to success - 94% of businesses say that ‘agility and collaboration are central to their growth.’ So how exactly can team collaboration make work better?

Team collaboration and productivity

Employees work 15% faster on average when they collaborate, according to one Deloitte report. And when Stanford University ran a series of studies on collaboration, they found that people who were treated as though they were working together persisted up to 64% longer on a challenging task. Performance and engagement improved too - people were more interested and engrossed in what they were doing and felt less fatigued.

And what’s interesting, especially as many teams continue to work remotely because of COVID-19, is that the people in the studies weren’t in the same physical space. The study just treated them as if they were. Proof positive that working collaboratively doesn’t rely on physical proximity.

Employee engagement

Engaged employees are more productive, better performers and more likely to stay with organizations. And working collaboratively plays a significant role in engagement - people often want to use their complementary skills to work things through together. Research shows workers are up to 20% more satisfied when they have tools that allow them to collaborate.

But while collaboration can increase employee engagement, the reverse is also true. Eighty-six percent of employees and executives say lack of collaboration is one of the reasons for workplace failures. That makes collaboration an employee engagement essential - not just a nice to have.

Innovation

New ways of thinking are born out of collaboration; employees are 60% more innovative when they collaborate - and it’s not surprising.

Collaborative teams bring together people of different backgrounds, with different ideas, experiences, and skills to explore new perspectives. Because people are working jointly, they feel it’s safer to experiment and take risks. And suppose you can get people to collaborate across the organization. In that case, you can help break down the silos that inhibit innovation, share knowledge, and come up with solutions that work across the business - saving you time and money.

It’s not just a matter of collaborating within the workplace either: innovative companies often co-create products and services in collaboration with customers and external partners.

Wellbeing

Employee wellbeing is vital in both engagement and productivity - and team collaboration can help boost it by encouraging people to build relationships, learn from each other and give each other support and guidance.

Collaboration is also a key ingredient in mental wellbeing. UK mental health charity MIND advises workplaces wanting to create a mutually supportive environment to encourage and support a culture of teamwork, collaboration and information sharing.

Supportiveness is key here, though. While working in silos is alienating, working in teams can increase demands on employees and make them feel anxious. So it’s important for managers to be aware of this and ensure workloads don’t become unmanageable.

Recruitment and retention

By 2025, Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce, and Gen Z is following hot on their heels. Forward-thinking companies will want to attract and keep these valuable employees - and collaborative working is what they want. Thirty-eight percent of Gen-Yers and Gen Z say their best work happens in environments that enable them to focus and collaborate with others.

Virtual team collaboration

A lot of thought around collaboration focuses on people being in physical proximity to each other, such as creating office layouts that strike the right balance between providing spaces for working collaboratively and privately.

But while these issues will grow in importance as people gradually return to the workplace, managers are currently grappling with maintaining and growing collaborative teams in an environment changed beyond recognition by the coronavirus crisis. How can team collaboration happen when everyone is working from home, miles away from each other? How can people collaborate when they’re maximizing flexible working opportunities and might not be at their desks at the same time?

People who have managed global teams may have encountered many of these issues before and discovered ways to overcome the challenges. For example, Researchers Pernille Bjørn and Ojelanki Ngwenyama talk about developing shared meaning - establishing common ground in global virtual teams to avoid communication breakdowns caused by wrong assumptions and misunderstandings about ways of working.

Shared meaning builds gradually when people are interacting face to face. But in virtual teams, it needs to be helped along, so people have a mutual understanding about ways of working, and the collaboration can continue. Communication tools that allow team members to see what others are doing and enable the team to interact together are among the cornerstones of getting people on the same page, whenever they are.

Here are a few tips for making virtual collaboration work.

Don’t rely on email. To collaborate with the whole team, and to avoid misunderstandings between team members, it’s preferable to use tools that are built for group communication rather than emailing individuals. It’s also a way of keeping communication about specific collaborative projects separate so they don’t get lost in a crowded inbox.

Provide shared workspaces. An online space where teams can collaborate on and share documents is a virtual collaboration essential. Whatever file sharing system you choose, make sure it integrates with your other communication tools so people aren’t wasting time and becoming frustrated with multiple sign-ins.

Meet (virtually) face-to-face. Videoconferencing will give teams access to the non-verbal cues they rely on for more subtle meaning and is ideal for brainstorming sessions. It’ll make people feel more connected too - just the sight of their colleagues will help them feel they’re not losing touch.

Make time for chat. Water-cooler conversation is where some of the best ideas are born, so your tools need to give teams virtual space for it. Whether it’s setting up a dedicated chat channel, or just making time for idle conversation at the beginning and end of meetings, don’t feel you need to organize every interaction. Give room to let the conversation flow.

Don’t make assumptions. Misunderstandings can happen more easily when people are working virtually. Check that people understand collaboration goals and roles. Make sure you know who’s going to do what after every meeting. And keep communication channels open so people know they can ask questions whenever they need to.

Barriers to collaboration

Nearly 40% of employees believe people in their organization don’t collaborate enough. So what’s stopping them? Here are some common barriers:

  • Lack of buy-in. People need to understand why collaborative working is the best way to achieve a goal. If they don’t see value in it, they might think it’s just additional workload and feel that they can’t make time for it
  • Poor communication. People need the right tools to collaborate, especially in a remote working world. If you don’t have simple document sharing tools or the tools you have don’t allow everyone in the team to make their voices heard, collaboration won’t work
  • The wrong culture. Trust is crucial to collaboration. People need to work in an environment where they feel they can freely exchange ideas and take risks without blame. Culture also needs to be open for people to share ideas and express opinions. Collaboration won’t thrive in a culture that’s closed or siloed
  • Lack of support from management. Managers need to put the right structures in place for collaboration, giving people the time, space and tools to do it. Equally, people need autonomy to collaborate. While collaborative teams need structure, they won’t function well if they feel managers constantly look over their shoulders

Is collaboration a skill (and can you learn it)?

Collaboration isn’t just an activity or a process. It’s a way of being and doing. Collaborating well demands skills in communicating, listening, negotiating and building personal relationships. Using these skills will help teams reach consensus, acknowledge each other’s contributions and keep collaboration flowing.

There are links between Emotional intelligence and effective collaboration. It’s shown to help with everything from managing conflict to building trust and keeping people enthusiastic.

Some people are naturally better at all these things and some have more emotional intelligence than others. But collaboration skills can be improved with practice. Here are a few ways to do it.

Practice collaborating on a task. Pair writing is used by many content producers to cut down the amount of time spent correcting drafts. It’s also a great way to get people collaborating within teams.

A subject matter expert and a writer (or someone who feels they want to write) sit down together to write a piece of content in real-time. If you’re doing this as a collaboration exercise, you can swap around. It’s a good lesson on how to exchange ideas, clarify meaning and build trust.

Hone listening skills. Listening to each other is crucial to effective collaboration. To practice good listening, try active listening exercises. You can do this in pairs. One person talks while the other listens without interrupting, resisting the temptation to fill silences (harder than it sounds!). The listener should ask questions, ask the speaker to clarify points, then, at the end of the conversation, summarize what their partner said. Use these techniques, not just as exercises, but in everyday collaborative conversation.

Learn to negotiate. One thing collaboration isn’t about is having it all your way. There’s a lot of give and take in collaborative teams, so knowing how to negotiate is crucial. You can practice this skill by dividing your team into groups and giving each the job of crafting something - a model made out of paper, for example. The catch is that no team will have all the equipment they need to complete their task - they’ll have to negotiate with other teams to get it. You can add an element of competition by rewarding the team that completes the task first.

Openness is key to collaboration. This isn’t just a personal attribute or skill - it’s an organizational one. To collaborate effectively, individuals need to be open to new ideas, and so do their organizations. Collaboration won’t be effective in a closed culture where people jealously guard their secrets.

5 ways to improve collaboration in the workplace

Identify barriers

Not every organization is the same, so find out exactly what it is that’s holding back collaboration in your company. Is it a lack of time? Lack of trust? The wrong culture or tools? You can carry out a quick survey to gauge attitudes to team collaboration, explore what the blockers are, and gather suggestions for getting over them. Feedback to the team on your findings and explain what you’ll do to encourage collaboration.

Set clear goals for collaborative teams

When the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) looked at collaboration, it found that purpose determines whether collaborative work will be productive. Without a sense of purpose and clear goals, teams won’t have focus. And people can feel overburdened with requests to collaborate if they don’t have a clear idea of what managers expect them to achieve. As with any type of teamwork, goals and deliverables need to be made explicit at the outset of any collaborative project.

Recognize and reward collaboration

Organizations need to show that they value collaboration - and that means rewarding team effort as well as individual performance. Rewards work: high-performing organizations are up to 5.5 times more likely to incentivize collaboration than lower performers. But bonuses and other rewards are often structured around the achievements of individuals rather than teams.

“The lack of incentives and rewards is the most common and powerful barrier to effective collaboration,” says Kevin Martin, Chief Research Officer of i4cp. Review your rewards and incentives and make sure there’s room for recognizing team collaboration so you can show how much you value it.

Focus on knowledge sharing

Over 80% of business leaders say capturing and sharing their people’s insights is one of the most critical factors in business success. It’s also a crucial factor in collaboration - in fact, knowledge sharing and collaboration feed into each other.

Being able to get their hands on the right information when they need it will make people feel personally empowered - and it will make collaboration a lot easier and quicker. Use document management systems that make this happen and communication tools to help information flow freely.

Team collaboration tools and how to choose the right ones

Tools are a collaboration essential, but how do you choose the right ones? Things to think about include the age profile of your organization: 53% of Gen Y-ers say they’d be more likely to accept a job if the employer used the same technologies as they do.

Another thing to think about is how much time you’ve got to train people in using tools. Something they’re already familiar with will be much quicker to get off the ground. Other things to look at include scalability, integrations with other tools like document management and time management software, and translation capacity if you have teams using different languages.

Use cloud collaboration

Using the cloud to store documents means people can work on them wherever they are and whenever they want. It also means you can say goodbye to clunky email attachments and participate equally in collaboration.

  • Read more on how the cloud can help with collaboration.
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