Ever since I started blogging a couple of years back, “collaboration” has been one of the terms I have used the most. Whether to describe the benefits of a digital workplace, the traits of successful teams and companies, or a host of other topics, “collaboration” has often been mentioned.
The reason is simple: collaboration is important or even crucial to business performance. It is a means to an end and a skill that every employee wants to master. Think of the various actions taken by businesses to stimulate and promote collaboration. Every job description on the internet probably contains the magic term, collaboration tools are increasingly being adopted, and employee handbooks lay the foundation for effective team collaboration in the workplace. Its growing importance is well documented in a variety of studies. For example, according to a study by Queens University of Charlotte, 75% of respondents cited collaboration and teamwork as being very important to the success of their business. Executives as well as employees (86% of respondents, according to a Salesforce report attribute any failure to achieve objectives to a lack of communication and collaboration.
However, although every company seems to realize the importance of collaboration and its key role in achieving business objectives, not everyone is good at it. There are several reasons for this, which I will explain in further detail in a series of blog posts centred around collaboration in the workplace. The series will be divided into five parts:
- collaboration in a professional setting,
- common myths about collaboration,
- its benefits,
- its challenges and limitations,
- and finally, how to build a collaborative culture.
But first, let’s define collaboration and how it has evolved over the years.
What is collaboration?
The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of collaboration is rather straightforward: “The situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing.” In a corporate setting, though, it is much more than that. It incorporates interpersonal skills, enterprise software, and corporate strategies. Collaboration starts with the individual. Employees are required to be great team players with the right set of soft skills and an ability to work well within teams. This is why interviewers often ask questions such as “Are you a team player?” or “How would you describe yourself as a team player?” and put candidates in situations where they can observe their behaviour and decision-making. However, businesses also have a responsibility: to create a collaborative culture and enable their employees to work effectively.
Once all the requirements are in place, collaboration can bring a host of benefits. It helps teams broaden their perspectives and approach towards solving problems. It acts as a platform and a workplace, where employees can freely exchange expertise and learn from each other. I will discuss the benefits of collaboration in greater detail in the second blog of this series.
The evolution of collaboration in the workplace
To examine the evolution of collaboration in the workplace, we must take into consideration three factors: jobs, people, and technology. All three have witnessed drastic changes over the years, and there will most certainly be more change in the future.
If you were to travel back in time to try to work in a good old 1950s office, it is safe to say that you won’t find your present job, you won’t get along with people easily due to the generational and cultural gaps, and more importantly, the technology available to you would be limited. (You can also forget about remote working, that’s for sure).
- New jobs require new ways to collaborate
There is a strong correlation between advancements in technology and the nature of jobs and the way we perform them. Some professions that were dominant in the past have disappeared and been replaced by new ones such as software developers. Multiple other jobs have brought new methodologies and collaboration techniques such as Agile and Kanban. Furthermore, these jobs require specific hardware, software, and processes in order to be conducted properly. Gone are the days of pens and paper, faxes, and pagers to get in touch and exchange information. These traditional tools have been replaced by collaboration platforms, digital workplace, project management solutions and more. Their proven ability to facilitate communication and knowledge sharing and to promote all types of collaboration such as brainstorming and open discussions moved them from being perceived as nice to have to being essential, or even a competitive advantage.
However, they are not the answer to everything. In fact, deploying collaborative tools without having a clear strategy can do more harm than good. Think of emails, for example. When they were introduced to the workplace, they started a revolution in the way people and teams went about their work. A couple of decades later, all the statistics indicate there hasn’t been much improvement in productivity and performance. A McKinsey research study found that an average employee spends 13 hours a week just reading and responding to emails. It is roughly 28% of the work week, and is by far the most time-consuming activity.
- Employees expect the latest tech in the workplace
The surge of consumer apps and software meant that businesses had to provide more or less the same solutions if they were to attract and retain employees. Today’s workforce is mostly tech-savvy and demanding young individuals: Millenials and Gen Z. They want and expect the same treatment in the workplace. If they use social media and messaging apps to have group discussions with their friends, they will most likely ask for the same tech in the workplace to collaborate with their peers. A failure to provide similar apps can lead to a phenomenon known as shadow IT, where employees bypass the company IT infrastructure and instead use their own apps. This can lead to unwelcome difficulties. First, security is at risk, since they might be exchanging sensitive data between personal accounts.Second, using many tools can lead to an overload, making information hard to find. This eventually reduces productivity and performance.
- New generations perceive work differently
When asked about what they value most in the workplace, employees often cite community and team bonding as critical to their well-being. That is the finding of many studies, including a Gallup report titled “How Millennials want to work and Live”. The report found that millennials want to be part of an active community with strong social ties. They also want constant interactions and feedback from their managers in order to feel engaged (which is not often the case). A Slack report “Good collaboration, bad collaboration” shed light on the matter of employees versus company values. The results are similar to the Gallup report. “Being part of a team” is among the top priorities for employees, along with transparency and openness, innovation, and of course efficiency. These findings demonstrate a shift in expectations and willingness to work well within teams. As mentioned earlier, collaboration relies heavily on individuals. Having a multigenerational workforce presents many challenges, that’s for sure. However, if managed properly and provided with a strong knowledge-sharing and coaching culture, the generations can work together and learn much from each other. A new hiree, for example, can benefit greatly from an experienced team member or manager, and vice versa.
- Flexible working arrangements and remote working
With each passing year, work has become more about the “how” and “what” rather than the “where”. There is no longer a single focus on creating innovative office designs to facilitate collaboration. The approach is now centered around employees, processes, and tools. More companies – especially in the tech world, such as Atlassian, GitHub, Basecamp, and Automattic (the parent company of WordPress) – have willingly adopted remote working strategies as their employees asked for change. This means that collaboration takes place solely using platforms and tools. In some cases, like Basecamp, the office was reduced to a place where employees could meet.
The recent pandemic has accelerated the implementation of flexible working arrangements, and has acted as a real test for telecommunications infrastructure and the capacity of some apps to handle ever-increasing demands.
Now that you have an idea about collaboration as a concept, and how it has evolved over the years, the next blog post will address the common myths and misconceptions about collaboration. Stay tuned!