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As the saying goes, “teamwork makes the dream work.” That’s the essence of collaboration at work. But why is it so important, and how do you underscore the importance of collaboration in your workplace?
What is collaboration in the workplace?
Collaboration in the workplace is about people working together. That might mean individual contributors working together or with their managers or supervisors to achieve the team's goals. Or it might mean people of various levels from different parts of the organization working together to achieve a larger outcome for the business.
It's more than just sharing the load. Collaboration is a productive way of bringing people together to accomplish something they couldn’t on their own.
Collaboration makes use of a range of skill sets, resources, expertise, and perspectives to achieve better outcomes and greater impact. Collaboration can spark creativity and innovation and lead to more informed and thoughtful decision-making. Collaborative workplaces tend to be more effective, have higher retention, and are often more profitable.
Why is collaboration at work important?
Collaboration is key for delivering better products and services to customers and improving performance for the company.
In order to be successful, individuals in a business or organization need to be able to work together as a team (whether in a remote setting or in the office together). When people collaborate successfully, they’re able to accomplish better results and create more impact than they could by working alone.
Collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean less effort, but the quality of the work — ideas, solutions, execution — tends to be better.
Another important reason to collaborate is for the people involved. Effective collaboration is energizing, rewarding, and empowering for employees. Team members can learn hard skills and gain relevant insights and tacit knowledge by collaborating with others from different and diverse backgrounds.
Collaboration also helps to foster a sense of belonging. Each team member feels valued for their contributions and takes greater ownership of the work produced.
As workplaces transition to a hybrid-remote model, focusing on collaboration is even more important. There is growing concern about the impact of remote workplaces on collaboration and innovation. However, out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind.
With intention — and thoughtful use of new technology — the benefits of collaborating can be found and amplified in any work environment — in-person, remote, or some combination of the two.
The benefits of workplace collaboration
Perhaps the number one benefit of workplace collaboration is innovation. Magic happens when people connect and work on solving a tough problem together. Teams produce better, more interesting, and unique solutions together than individuals working apart do.
The shared resources of the team create an environment that promotes problem-solving, generates creativity, and allows innovation to thrive.
Employees working together feel a greater sense of purpose, ownership, camaraderie, and belonging than those working alone. When working in a team, it’s much easier to see how your ideas and work contribute to the success of the organization.
Employee engagement and belonging are associated with increased productivity, job satisfaction, and employee retention.
By working together, your employees draw on their greatest learning resources — each other. New employees are able to learn from seasoned professionals, in context, as they contribute to team goals.
Collaborative environments ease the onboarding process by providing a natural environment for learning and skills-sharing. It also provides an incentive for veteran employees to keep their skills sharp and seek out new opportunities for growth.
Principles of effective collaboration
Collaboration is a worthy goal, but just getting everyone in the same room won’t make it happen. The company culture has to reinforce and reward team collaboration.
Here are 5 guidelines for effective collaboration:
Accountability is critical to a collaborative workplace. Although no one wants to feel like they’re doing all the work alone (remember group projects in school?), people also don’t want to feel like their good work has gone unnoticed. Accountability helps provide clarity and sets the stage for recognition.
The biggest upsides of collaboration are creativity and innovation — but those don’t come without trust. Creating an environment where people feel psychologically safe is a prerequisite for successful collaboration. Without trust, people won’t share their ideas or feel comfortable taking risks.
There are two approaches to problem-solving. Some people treat it as an inconvenience and work as if their backs are against the wall. Some teams, however, treat problems as opportunities for growth.
Going into any project with a positive, optimistic outlook will make a huge difference in the types of ideas you brainstorm and the experience of getting there.
Collaboration thrives in a fast-paced environment. People rapidly lose enthusiasm for projects that stretch on and on without any end date in sight. Completing projects quickly pushes people to come up with new ideas and better ways of executing them by immersing them in the work at hand.
Finally (or maybe firstly?), make sure the problem is significant or complex enough to benefit from collaboration. Designing a product launch campaign? Collaboration-worthy. Writing an email? Probably not. Nothing kills the passion for working together faster than making every task a group task. If there are side reasons — such as onboarding a new team member or freshening up the approach on a big account — make those goals clear to everyone involved.
How do you demonstrate collaboration in the workplace?
As with many aspects of a busy workplace, actions speak louder than words. It’s not enough to say that people are expected to collaborate. There are circumstances that allow collaboration and teamwork to thrive — and some that undermine a creative, cooperative workplace.
Here are 6 tips to improve workplace collaboration:
- Keep teams small. A small group of people means that each person gets more opportunities to be heard. It also means that individual contributions shine more. Team members on smaller teams also have an easier time connecting with and getting to know one another.
- Set clear outcomes. Prepare your teams for success by giving them guidance about what the end goal is. Even though you’ll boost their creative output by giving them as much freedom as possible, that doesn't mean they won't benefit from clear goals. Let them know what type of impact matters (and how you would measure that).
You’ll make it easier for them to work together productively by giving them a common goal and telling them what you expect in terms of timing, budget, or scope. Keep this loose — simple parameters like a presentation, proposal, or action list are fine.
- Offer lots of ways to contribute. Not everyone learns or thinks the same way. Offering a number of ways that team members can contribute allows everyone to step up in ways that they feel comfortable. It gives each person a chance to shine in their own way.
- Celebrate wins. As you develop a collaborative environment, be sure to celebrate every milestone along the way. Depending on how your team currently operates, this may be a departure from what they’re used to. Praise and acknowledge them for stepping out of their comfort zone as your team develops their collaboration muscle.
- Equip and empower. Listen for real-time feedback from your teams and provide them with what they need to be more effective. As they become more comfortable, they may ask for specific communication tools, resources, or input and feedback from leadership. Work with them as much as you can. Always turning down requests will dampen enthusiasm around new ideas.
- Include everyone (but not at the same time). Traditionally-minded employers often express doubt over whether remote employees can successfully collaborate with their colleagues. However, with so many virtual collaboration tools available now, this shouldn't stop you from making sure every employee has opportunities to collaborate, regardless of their work arrangement.
Collaboration can be asynchronous — in fact, it may be beneficial to encourage quieter or more deliberative participation. Make use of video conferencing and file sharing tools that help remote teams connect easily. These online workspaces allow remote workers to work together across time zones and geographic distances.
- Keep it fresh. Routine and stagnation dampen innovation. Don’t always assign the same types of projects to the same people — mix it up to get better results. Collaboration isn't just delegation or task assignments. Try to assign projects that are interesting and provide a break from the same old, same old while also thinking about which projects (and co-workers) could benefit from an infusion of a new perspective.
4 blockers to effective collaboration
- Micromanaging. When organizations begin to step away from a traditional work environment, they begin to worry that their employees won’t be as productive. Some managers try to compensate for this with micromanaging — a surefire way to kill creativity and trust.
Collaborative teams are self-managing teams. You’ll be surprised how motivated people are with the right projects and tools in front of them.
- Poor project management. Tackling projects out-of-the-ordinary can be a fun break from the routine, but it’s not a break from work. Be careful of assigning lots of special projects while expecting your team to maintain their normal workloads. Try to balance collaborative assignments with individual responsibilities so that no one teeters too close to burnout.
- Busy work. On the other hand, people won’t respond well to getting assignments just for the sake of optics. A busy professional’s most important resource is their time, and they won’t appreciate it being wasted. Show them you value their time by connecting their projects directly to the bigger picture.
- Punishing. You can’t collaborate “wrong.” If your team members are engaged, excited, and thinking about their work in a different way, you’re experiencing the benefits of collaboration. If people don’t feel comfortable taking risks, speaking up, or showing their enthusiasm for a project, they won’t — simple as that.
Collaborating for a culture of innovation and belongingPeople are social creatures, and we’re designed to work together. The secret to innovation and creativity is collaboration at work. Prioritizing spaces and opportunities for people to feel safe, empowered, and appreciated will create ripples of success and excitement throughout the entire organization.
BetterUp Staff Writer