At work, group collaboration is essential for achieving success. A group of people with different skill sets and areas of expertise can work together to achieve great things, each bringing their unique perspectives and experiences to the table. This meeting of the minds can be extremely impactful, allowing diverse perspectives to come together and spark new ideas, while also ensuring that projects are completed on time and goals are not just reached, but exceeded.
But effective collaboration is easier said than done. Even the most passionate teams — the ones that are bought into a shared vision and work together toward a common goal — can fall short at collaboration if they aren’t very intentional about teamwork.
Of course, this isn’t a new challenge. But in today’s hybrid and remote work environment, these age-old collaboration challenges are felt more acutely than ever. Ironically, teams have more project management and communication tools than ever before, but most still struggle to collaborate, much less innovate.
Why is this?
First, let's define some key terms
One of the hallmarks of collaboration is clear communication — so before we dive in, let’s define a few key terms to get everyone on the same page.
Collaboration design refers to the practice of facilitating intentional teamwork through playful and provocative methods of visual thinking to take ideas from imagination to activation. This discipline inspires teams to connect and innovate together.
Collaborative intelligence is a systematic approach that connects teams to unlock their genius — taking insights and ideas from possibility to reality. Collaborative intelligence combines proven practices with digital collaboration spaces and insights into how teams work together.
Workplace vs workspace
For our purposes, the term workplace can be literal (i.e., the physical office where a team works) or metaphorical (i.e., the company or organization itself). A workspace, on the other hand, is where collaboration truly happens. Workspace can refer to a meeting room where a team gathers, as well as a digital space where teams work together virtually — like a MURAL workspace.
Asynchronous (or async) collaboration allows teams to communicate and work together without having to do so simultaneously in real time. Team members are able to contribute at different times. For example, they can add their own ideas and information to a shared MURAL whiteboard when it’s most convenient for them — without being online at the same time to work on it together.
Hybrid work models accommodate team members working both face-to-face and remotely. Many hybrid organizations allow all employees to work from home part-time, while other companies have both full-time remote employees and employees who always work in the office. While hybrid work is not necessarily new, what is new is entire organizations making hybrid collaboration their official workplace policy.
Understanding today’s collaborative work environment
In this article, we’ll look at six must-haves for successful collaboration. First, we need to understand why teamwork is so challenging in the first place. Let’s look at the current state of the workplace in 2022 and why teams struggle to do their best work.
The truth is, it's easy to take collaboration for granted. People often think of it as a given — a byproduct of work rather than the driving force behind it. Even when team managers, trainers, project managers, and coaches advocate for effective teamwork, it’s easy for team members to get wrapped up in the day-to-day minutiae and let intentional collaboration fall by the wayside. This disconnection is particularly apparent on remote, distributed, and hybrid teams. In 2020, 56% of employees worldwide felt disconnected from their organization and their colleagues due to remote working. Disconnection and poor collaboration can ultimately lead to disengaged employees, siloed work, missed deadlines, and a fragmented customer experience.
Poor collaboration also impacts the bottom line. Businesses lose as much as $541 billion worth of resources when people spend time in pointless meetings — so improving collaboration in meetings is crucial.
Benefits of workplace collaboration
A team is greater than the sum of its parts. By fostering productive group collaboration, teams can make the most effective use of everyone's skill sets. With systematic planning and effective communication in place, group collaboration truly has the potential to take your work to new heights.
That's why collaboration design is so critical. Taking the time to purposefully orchestrate collaborative experiences — meetings, workshops, projects, and processes — allows teams to do their best work. It gives them the space to identify the problems that need solving, brainstorm and ideate the best solutions, test and iterate on their ideas, and ultimately deliver results that positively impact the business.
When you get it right, you’ll realize the benefits of collaboration for everyone: employees, teams, organizations, and even customers. By building connections and building trust with coworkers, employees are more likely to stay engaged and go the extra mile to get things done. By breaking down organizational silos and ensuring that team members are working toward common goals, organizations can experience increased employee engagement, increased efficiency, and better alignment across departments.
As a result, a healthier and more enjoyable work environment leads to higher employee retention. Overall, a company culture of effective collaboration is a key driver of success and should be prioritized by managers at every level.
To summarize, the benefits of collaboration can include:
- Increased connection and trust among team members
- Higher employee engagement
- Higher employee retention
- A more inclusive work environment
- Fewer silos and more cross-functional alignment
- Increased innovation
- Faster decision-making
- Increased efficiency
6 keys to collaboration for high-impact teamwork
There are six collaboration skills that teams need to prioritize in order to make collaboration work — the building blocks of teamwork, if you will. In this post, we'll give an overview of each of these principles and how it impacts team collaboration. If you want to take a deeper dive, we discuss them in much more detail in our interactive resource Collaboration That Works, along with case studies and templates to help you put these principles into action.
Teams crave connection — can’t exist without it. Being free to fire off ideas, troubleshoot problems, express concerns, and activate opportunities. We talk to be heard. We listen to understand. Through conversations over coffee, ping-ponging messages over chat, sending a funny GIF, or writing a brief or building a diagram about a project, connection makes it all happen.
Connection is at the foundation of collaboration. It leads to building trust, creating a sense of shared purpose, and aligning across the work. Through connection, teams are able to imagine together and creatively solve problems. They’re able to mobilize and take action.
With so many communication apps and tools, connection can feel like a solved problem. This is an illusion — confusing the ability to connect with actually connecting. In fact, a whopping 65% of workers say they feel less connected to their coworkers in the wake of the pandemic. Lonely employees have a higher risk of turnover, lower productivity, more missed days at work, and lower quality of work.
True connection requires not just the right collaboration tools, but the right team culture and mindset. It demands empathy and the ability to see things from others' points of view. But most of all, it requires effort. Building relationships takes work — and that work can sometimes feel wasteful. It looks like being patient with others, making small talk, encouraging moments of fun and even silliness. Believe it or not, these small moments go a long way toward fostering a sense of belonging and strong relationships among team members.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
– Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
Nothing kills collaboration quite like a lack of trust. This can manifest as micromanagement, miscommunications, second-guessing others' ideas, and competitiveness among team members. It can also breed possessiveness and lead to siloed work when people see projects as solely theirs instead of as belonging to the entire team.
For teams to build trust, they must inherently take risks. Putting faith in the action of others and letting go of control can be scary. Trust takes time to build, and it requires everyone to be a little bit vulnerable. For those reasons, it needs to be a top-down effort that starts with management. Trust needs to be a value the team shares, not just an empty concept.
One way to intentionally build trust is to take small risks together. This can be as simple as doing a warmup exercise in a meeting that asks people to lower their defenses and share something personal (but not too personal) or try something new that they may not be good at.
Another way to build trust is to provide ample opportunities for people to speak up when they have questions, concerns, or ideas. Practice sharing insights and ideas even if they're risky — and don't punish people for unpopular, untested, or out-of-the-box ideas. This ensures that important information is heard, risks are revealed early (when they're least harmful), and the team is set up for long-term success and transparency.
“When a team has trust, they operate together as a cohesive unit. They look for ways to help each other, and they have healthy relationships with each other … A remote team that doesn’t trust each other is doomed.”
– Lisette Sutherland, Director of Collaboration Superpowers
Without a shared sense of purpose, team members may feel like their work isn't meaningful and can even become apathetic. The work itself becomes disjointed, and everyone ends up working on different initiatives that don't serve a common goal. However, when a team knows its purpose, everyone is more motivated to do their best work and strive toward a shared outcome.
Creating a sense of purpose takes more than internal wikis or a mission statement on an office wall. It takes top-down commitment to rally everyone around the same purpose, consistently and emphatically. On the flipside, team members have a responsibility to become invested in that purpose.
This doesn’t just apply at the company level. It applies at the team and individual levels, too. Does everyone understand their team’s purpose, and their own? Can they see the impact their work is having? Because no matter how well you get along with your team, no matter how much you trust them, it’s near-impossible to do innovative work if your purpose is murky. The organization’s goals should inform the team’s goals. By the same token, team goals should inform individual team members’ goals.
Here’s a quick litmus test to evaluate sense of purpose. How would your team answer these questions?
- Why does our company exist?
- Why does our product exist?
- Why does my role exist?
- Why are we spending 40+ hours a week doing our jobs?
- What are my goals, and how do they impact the business?
“A clear and compelling purpose is the glue that binds together a group of individuals. It is the foundation on which the collective ‘we’ of a real team is built.”
– Linda Hill & Kent Lineback for Harvard Business Review
Even when organizations agree on their purpose and their goals, individuals or teams might have different ideas about achieve them. That can cause teams to adopt different strategies, tactics, processes, and workflows that are not well-aligned. In order to create alignment across an organization, cross-functional teams must do the work to understand both the problems they're solving and how they're solving them — together.
There are many schools of thought that dictate how to align around an overarching strategy and the tactics needed to achieve the team's desired outcomes. The approach you take will depend on how your organization is structured and what you're working to achieve.
Alignment also extends beyond strategy, to the day-to-day work that team members are doing. Are there clearly defined workflows and processes that they follow? How do they collaborate with other teams in the organization? How is important information documented, shared, and consumed by stakeholders? And when change happens — because it's bound to happen — how does each team or department adapt while staying aligned with one another?
It's critical to create (and enforce) processes and that will keep everyone aligned and informed. That doesn't mean leaders need to micromanage their teams — in fact, effective processes and well-structured meetings actually give team members more freedom to do their best work without forcing them to reinvent the wheel.
Common methods and tactics to promote alignment include:
- Jobs to Be Done: Called JTBD for short, this is a framework that businesses can use to better understand the needs of their customers. At its core, JTBD is an approach focused on solutions rather than features or benefits. By aligning around the "jobs" that customers are trying to accomplish and the reasons they might choose your product or service over other solutions out there, you can solve your users' (or clients') specific challenges.
- OKRs: Defining your objectives and key results (OKRs) for a project is an important part of effective planning and project management. By clearly articulating what you hope to achieve, you can ensure that everyone involved is working towards the same goals.
- Asynchronous collaboration: In order to include everyone, even if they can't attend a live meeting, you can have folks collaborate asynchronously in MURAL, create quick videos with Loom, or communicate via Microsoft Teams or Slack. Async is great for status updates, communicating information that isn't time-sensitive, and other points of alignment that don't require face-to-face interaction.
- One-on-one meetings: As a manager, meeting one-on-one with your direct reports on a regular basis is a simple and effective way to support alignment.
- Project briefs: By outlining the overarching goals, objectives, and scope of a project, briefs provide a clear and cohesive picture that all team members can access and refer to on a regular basis. They also serve as a single source of truth for important project information, such as timelines, budgets, requirements, and deliverables.
- Retrospectives: Retrospective meetings give team members the opportunity to reflect on completed projects. By discussing common goals and roadblocks, teams can work together to overcome obstacles and move forward more efficiently as a unit, helping the group to stay on track with respect to their overall alignment.
“Great teams ensure that everyone’s ideas are genuinely considered, which then creates a willingness to rally around whatever decision is ultimately made by the group.”
– Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Rational, linear thought is prioritized by our educational institutions and employers. While imagination comes naturally to children, we tend to move further away from applying creativity and imagination later in life. After all, we want to be taken seriously, and imagination just doesn’t seem to have a place.
But the fact is, imagination is what drives innovation. You don’t have to look further than the need for business resiliency during the pandemic to highlight the imagination imperative. Literally overnight, businesses were compelled to rethink their business models, how to survive, and even why they exist. Irrespective of the pandemic, work is uncertain and unpredictable. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.
In order to collaborate effectively in a world that's always changing, teams must prioritize imagination. This can manifest as brainstorming sessions, using warmups and energizers to get creativity flowing, and continually trying new things. It means encouraging half-baked ideas, asking "What if?", and rewarding creative problem-solving.
“Work can't only be about output. You have to give time and space for imagination. If your together time is only for tasks, you don't get collective imagination. Teams need to rethink what ‘productivity’ really means and extend the definition to include time to exercise their imagination, like a muscle."
– Laurel Farrer, CEO and Founder, Distribute Consulting
Having great ideas is meaningless if you can’t act on them. The follow-through to imagination comes from team mobilization, a commitment to realizing innovative concepts and putting the power of imagination into motion. It’s not enough that teams are coordinated and managed. Collaborative teams must act with strong, self-sustaining momentum and autonomy to get the job done.
Mobilized teams are motivated, having a bias to action. They don’t stop at experimentation; they take what they learn and put it into action, and they see tasks through to completion. They leave meetings with a sense of accomplishment and clear next steps. Through alignment and focus, they create a natural momentum that comes from all of the working parts moving in synchronicity.
The hard work of collaboration requires coordination, not only within the team but also across related teams and departments. This goes beyond a basic need for a project plan and task management. There is also clarity and focus on related components: customer needs, cross-departmental cooperation, and strategic goals. Mobilized teams are well-orchestrated in a way that the activities of teams move in harmony with other groups and with the organization as a whole.
Take steps to make collaboration easier
No matter the team or the problems they’re solving, six common drive collaboration:
But embracing these principles of collaboration doesn’t have to happen all at once. Whether you work in-person, with virtual teams, or something in between, it's important to take steps toward making team collaboration easier so you can solve the hard problems with your team.
Collaboration That Works is a resource that explores all six of these topics in detail. From using the right apps and collaboration software, to project management, to facilitating challenging conversations with a group — we cover it all. You don't need to read the resource all the way through to find value from it. Jump around to find the case studies, templates, and checklists that will be most impactful fore your team. Happy collaborating!
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About the authors