Collaboration has long been acknowledged as a useful skill in the workplace, but new technology and changing generational preferences have amplified its power and significance.
As Baby Boomers retire and Generations X and Y get their feet under their standing desks and power up their personal devices, businesses are increasingly recognising collaboration as a critical competency at all organisational levels.
At the same time, other workplace developments - such as the flattening of hierarchies, questioning of traditional chains of command, and recognition of knowledge-based power - are creating a culture of openness and innovation, where collaboration can occur organically.
The benefits of collaboration are widely confirmed. For staff, they include an increased sense of responsibility, purpose and belonging - which, in turn, increases motivation, loyalty and job satisfaction.
Collaboration also ensures all team members have equal opportunities to share ideas, as well as encouraging a culture of continuous learning.
There’s evidence that collaboration boosts creativity. When we feel stressed or threatened, we shut off the part of the brain that manages abstract thinking and take refuge in 'fight or flight' mode. Conversely, when we are alert and feel safe, chemicals in the brain help us to engage the higher cognitive functions responsible for creativity and critical thinking.
For organisations, internal collaboration drives efficiency, as team members can work more quickly and effectively than those who tackle projects alone. Broadening the expertise, experience and viewpoints that feed into a project may also increase the variety of ideas and solutions produced in response, so improving the chances of the best possible outcome.
To foster a naturally collaborative environment, then, business leaders must embrace current workplace developments and cultivate peer-to-peer communication, for both individual and corporate benefit. Jacob Morgan (futurist and best-selling author of The Future of Work, The Employee Experience Advantage and The Collaborative Organization) refers to Tangerine (formerly ING Direct Canada) as a good example of an organisation that makes this as organic and effortless as possible:
"The employees have no job titles and no offices. Anyone can talk to anyone and leaders focus on removing obstacles instead of creating them. Their CEO welcomes any feedback and input from the team, whether negative or positive, and employees aren’t policed on their collaborative environment."
He explains that making collaboration a natural part of workflow means workers won’t feel that it’s slowing them down or getting in the way of their existing responsibilities.
Tools for change
There are plenty of examples of collaboration technologies that claim to boost business performance. "In order to truly be successful and adopt lasting change and efficiency, organizations need to focus on changing behavior and technology at the same time," says Morgan.
"You may want to change your employees’ behavior so they collaborate more, but if you don’t have the tools in place for them to actually collaborate, you can’t drive that behavior. On the flip side, just giving your employees collaboration tools and software without any instruction or guidance won’t be successful either. The trick is to work on technology and behavior simultaneously. By connecting behavioral change with new technology, you’re getting employees excited about something and giving them the tools to make it happen."
Office culture may also be bound up with the design of the physical space, and "collaborative workplaces have transformed the way many companies do business by breaking down walls both literally and figuratively". "Designing in" open areas for chance encounters between staff is widely believed to encourage collaboration and innovation - and the likes of Google and Amazon have famously created offices that are a physical representation of their open and collaborative culture.
It has been suggested that our understanding of collaboration has changed over time. While Baby Boomers value brainstorming and building consensus about the best solution, Millennials want to be able to work together (not just think together) to get the job done.
But even with a shared understanding of collaboration, there are barriers to achieving it. One is the tension between individual progress and cooperation: teamwork seems counterintuitive if individual productivity is what is seen to be valued and rewarded.
Barriers to collaboration
Take Amazon, for example, where a culture of "purposeful Darwinism" pits colleagues against each other in an unremitting cycle of performance metrics and forced ranking. Also known as "rank and yank", this technique requires managers to rank employees and, often, to fire the lowest performers.
The New York Times article that exposed Amazon’s controversial practices revealed that "workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings" and described supervisors having to "diplomatically throw people under the bus". It also referred to the Anytime Feedback Tool, which lets employees send praise or criticism about their colleagues to management. "Amazon employees," the article added, "say it is frequently used to sabotage others".
And no wonder. With the lowest-ranked team members eliminated every year, everyone’s desperate to outperform everyone else. Research suggests that this sort of 'tournament system' inevitably leads to sabotage as staff seek to get ahead by any means possible.
Rewarding collaborative behaviours
Making the leap from a hyper-competitive culture to a genuinely collaborative workplace might be a tall order but, as Jacob Morgan notes, leaders are powerful instruments to facilitate change. By rewarding openness and leading by example, they can create a supportive environment for a new generation of collaborators – something that looks certain to become even more valuable as the growth of the virtual workforce challenges our current understanding of collaboration even further.