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5 Ways to Overcome Common Obstacles to True Workplace Collaboration

Luke Reimer

December 10, 2019 · 4 min read
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It’s no secret that strong workplace collaboration boosts innovation and productivity. The mystery lies in how to create and sustain a truly collaborative workforce.

It doesn’t happen organically when you put diverse groups of people together, each with their own concerns and ambitions. And it doesn’t happen magically when you give them new collaborative tools. It requires careful design from the top, the right technology, and a commitment to promoting collaborative behavior.

We recently asked digital workplace collaboration expert Alister Webb of Innosis to share highlights from his framework for nurturing the behaviors people need to collaborate effectively at work.

One of his key messages was this: While collaboration software and tools are vital for bringing people and information together, Alister says tools alone don’t “switch on” collaboration. They need collaborative people.

Before we dive into the key takeaways from our recent webinar with Alister, let’s review some common obstacles to collaboration in today’s digital workplace.

What are the obstacles to collaboration?

Many common barriers to employee collaboration are timeless and rooted in human nature, while others stem from the new realities of work. They include:

  • Cultural and human obstacles: Collaboration will never thrive in a competitive environment where the leadership team emphasizes hierarchy and protocol. The resulting fear and distrust among employees stifle any impulse towards sharing information and ideas.
  • A dispersed workforce: Remote work is becoming the norm for a growing proportion of workers at many organizations. Globalized organizations with far-flung locations also create logistical hurdles to teamwork and collaboration in the workplace.
  • Tech obstacles: Without a shared set of powerful collaboration tools – or the necessary knowledge to use them – the best-intentioned collaborators will fail.
  • Organizational silos: The increasing specialization of knowledge-based work has intensified the natural tendency for divisions to spring up between departments and teams. These rifts can lead to information hoarding and isolation.

Silo mentality is an outlook that occurs when divisions or departments don’t – or can’t – share information, resources, and knowledge with anyone outside their group. Learn how to prevent walls from building up inside your organization.

Passive vs active collaboration

In his book Designing Collaboration, Alister argues that collaboration in the digital domain has lost the spark and intention that characterize the best kind of analog collaboration.

Collaboration in the digital domain runs the risk of getting stuck in Passive Collaboration, which is:

  • Focused on completing specific tasks
  • Aimed at finding answers in a finite knowledge pool
  • Confined to current thinking and practice

On the flip side, a good old round-the-table meeting done well encourages Active Collaboration, which is:

  • Focused on organic conversations
  • Aimed at improving and building on knowledge
  • Open to new thinking and practices

5 strategies for promoting active collaboration

Alister’s book offers practical tactics for inspiring collaborative behavior and moving from passive to active collaboration in the workplace, including these recommendations:

1.     Create an environment that fosters collaboration

People at all levels of your organization should feel they have permission to have open, honest discussions without the risk of reprisal – even if they say something negative. It’s all about removing the fear of participating fully.

Middle managers and team leaders are best positioned to take the lead in building a collaborative environment based on trust. No idea is too crazy, and criticism of current projects or processes is viewed as an opportunity to improve.

2.   Get explicit leadership commitment to collaboration

The leadership team sets the tone for how collaboration is valued and how it’s done. A “Collaboration Constitution,” or a similar but less grand document, make their support for employee collaboration unambiguous. It sends the message that collaboration is integral to the success of the whole organization.

Leaders can also signal their commitment to respectful, equitable collaboration by taking the time every day to respond to high-traffic posts in the digital workplace.

3.   Create spaces for conversation

Sometimes the best workplace conversations happen in private. To bring these conversations into the open and make them productive, encourage every major project or process to have a “naysayer group” that challenges the status quo.

Train people to use clear language in their comments, instead of compressed, confusing Twitter-ese and hashtags. And make sure they have dedicated collaboration spaces (project rooms and team rooms) in your digital workplace to vent and discuss.

4.   Provide guidance for collaboration tools

From instant messaging apps and file-sharing tools to forums, collaboration tools can help people work better together. But they can also create frustration and confusion among employees who don’t feel equipped to integrate them into their daily work lives.

Whenever you introduce new tools, provide training and support to ensure everyone knows how, when, and where to use them.

5.   Align collaboration with business goals

To break up or prevent silos, Webb says team and department leaders must show employees how collaboration will help them meet their unique business priorities.

Instead of asking people to use collaboration tools to “collaborate better,” demonstrate how those tools allow them to share specific information with specific teams to advance specific business goals.

Watch the full webinar for more information on collaboration in the workplace – including tips on how to identify “collaboration blockers” at your organization.

About Alister Webb

Alister Webb is a Partner and Consultant in Innosis, a firm focused on designing collaboration and innovation for the digital workplace. His book Designing Collaboration: An Essential Handbook for Today’s Digital Workplace is based on 15 years of hands-on experience and written in a plain language style. It sets out a framework of seven elements designed to evolve and build the behaviors necessary for people to become great collaborators in the digital workplace.