Collaborate, but first communicate

At Google, where there is arguably such thing as a free lunch, employees can expect to wait in line for three to four minutes for their organic, chef-prepared meals - and it’s not because the canteen is short staffed.

The powers that be have used data to discern that forcing your workforce to queue for this length of time leads to conversation.

At a conference in 2013, the search giant’s then UK MD Dan Cobley explained: “We know people will chat while they’re waiting. Chats become ideas, and ideas become projects.”

While Google knows it cannot force or schedule innovation, it does everything possible to create those moments it calls ‘casual collisions’. It is why staff sit at long dining tables to eat.

There’s a reason open-plan working is now the norm, why laptops have replaced desktops, and break-out spaces are ubiquitous. Now, people-led data underpins office design, and new initiatives to encourage collaboration and innovation are being trialled all the time.

One that endures is Facebook’s ‘hackamonth’, when employees can leave existing teams and join others, offering their fresh perspectives to projects in progress. Some end up staying with their new teams permanently – which the company quite rightly considers a win.

Today’s corporate giants are also investing millions in encouraging ‘watercooler moments’ through architectural design. Google’s plans for a new London HQ – dubbed a ‘landscraper’ because it’s longer than the Shard is tall – has sports facilities worthy of Olympians and a roof garden so big there’s space for a meadow. Encouraging employees to exercise and socialise together, will create even more opportunities to casually collide than canteen queues, snack stations and beanbag-strewn breakout spaces.

Why are big businesses willing to invest so much money in collaboration? A 2009 report by Frost & Sullivan suggests companies deploying and using collaboration tools gain a positive ROI, on average 4.2 times the initial investment. Interestingly, the return on collaboration was highest in sales and R&D departments.

While these figures are alluring, a McKinsey & Co article warns against a broad brush approach, and suggests collaboration should be mapped and managed properly at the point of occurrence to get the best results. It says: “When companies just promote collaboration indiscriminately, they create bottlenecks and diminish their organizational effectiveness. A network perspective gives executives the information they need to foster collaboration at the points where it delivers an economic return.”

Chances are your employees will already be collaborating on some level - either within their own specialist areas or across teams. Look at which collaborations are creating a return. At Time Etc, we have long been aware that client retention and spend hinges on our platform's functionality. Hence why we started pairing developers with members of staff so they could rapidly implement common-sense changes to the customer-facing platform without having to ‘go higher’.

Not only does this instil a sense of ownership, one system designed by one of these pairs to match clients with the most suitable virtual assistant, directly reduced the number of clients who left within their first four months by 50% - producing an increase in revenue for the company of around £1million.

Four ways small businesses can encourage a climate of collaboration:

1. Make sure virtual employees aren’t siloed. There are all sorts of apps that make communicating with remote employees a breeze, including Skype, Slack, Trello, Asana and even Whatsapp. Just make sure there’s consistency and consensus across the company regarding which tools you’ll use, and that everyone is trained. Poor communication shouldn’t be a barrier to collaboration.

2. Don’t force new initiatives on employees. Ask first. Lots of office-based workers hate the idea of hot desking, and sit in the same places anyway. Some people are territorial, some are creatures of habit, and some simply don’t want to share equipment used by others. Similarly, don’t introduce new communication software without proper introduction and explanation.

3. Get people talking. A designated eating area will get people away from their desks, resulting in conversation which, as we know, leads to ideas and collaboration. To make sure those who work remotely don’t miss out, encourage regular ‘check ins’ and make it clear you’re happy for staff to talk about life as well as work. Set up groups using your preferred communication tool that connects virtual employees to each other as well as the office-based contingent.

4. Allow time for collaboration. Part of the reason small businesses don’t innovate is because they can’t, or won’t, allow time for collaboration to happen. Look carefully at workloads. If the day job is too demanding, and workloads are out of control, there won’t be room for ideas to blossom.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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