In just a few short weeks, COVID-19 irrevocably changed the way people work. At the time of the first lockdown in March 2020, only 31% of U.S employees were working from home some of the time. Within a month, this figure had more than doubled to 70%. Prior to the pandemic, collaboration was generally limited to face-to-face interactions, yet to adapt to such disruption, organizations and people, needed to find new ways of collaboration abruptly. Now that hybrid work has become the norm for the foreseeable future, organizations face their next big challenge: how to build sustainable team collaboration in a hybrid workplace.
High-touch collaboration activities, such as in-person meetings or brainstorms, have long been regarded as the best way to allow a free flow of information between colleagues while improving and maintaining company culture. Yet with many employees now long-term out of the office or working a hybrid schedule, it is difficult to coordinate schedules, and in-person interactions don’t happen often. This can have negative implications on employee experience, not only for someone who starts at a new company but for tenured employees as well, with anticipated retention issues further down the line for all. Collaboration is not only important for productivity, innovation, and company culture; it is the bedrock of how we work. The pandemic and resulting hybrid work models have disrupted how we collaborate and as a result, maintaining organizational culture has become more difficult than ever. With so many of us working outside the physical office, how can organizations pave a new path and encourage collaboration for the future of work?
The effects of remote work on collaboration during the pandemic and beyond
Effective collaboration lays the foundation for organizational culture, yet concerningly, in 2021 more than 70% of HR professionals surveyed said they were now more apprehensive about employee collaboration than they were before the pandemic began. When employees are in the same workspace, their interactions are more spontaneous and conversation can take place informally between colleagues. By contrast, employees working remotely can be out of sight making it that much more difficult to maintain levels of interaction and cooperation. Eventually, these employees may end up forgotten about during important milestones and career-building moments. Moreover, overlooking remote workers may lead to problems with inclusivity, ownership of work tasks, and a depleted sense of belonging. It could also mean that certain demographics, such as single parents, end up missing out on opportunities for career advancement as their presence and voice in the workplace are not felt as much. This concern is backed up by a recent study which found that only 14% of leaders are completely satisfied with their organization’s current ability to communicate and collaborate. Now more than ever, it is up to leaders to adapt and evolve collaboration to meet the needs of the post-pandemic workplace. In 2022, it’s more about how we work, than where we work. Re-inventing how we collaborate in the workplace is a big challenge, but it’s also an opportunity for exciting change and progress.
How can your organization enhance collaboration?
1. Create a neutral and safe environment where team members can co-create and invent new ideas
When employees have equal opportunities to collaborate and communicate regardless of their geographical location, work position, experience, language, or even device preference, the perfect environment for co-creation and development of new ideas emerges. The opposite can be the case when hierarchy dominates the workplace. When employees only answer questions directed to them, or when those without the collective native language say nothing in order to avoid making a mistake on a group call, it can lead to a situation where employees don’t feel empowered to make their voices heard. Employees that may not get the opportunity to interact with those in charge may feel less valued overall. When these differences add up, they can damage an employee’s wellbeing and sense of belonging, affect their potential for career advancement and lower their sense of day-to-day effectiveness. If commonplace within an organization, these problems can lead to overall poor team performance, less innovation, and a talent exodus. A recent global survey found that 62% of respondents felt that limited networking opportunities with senior employees and co-workers have a negative impact on career growth. It’s vital, therefore, to lead with inclusion and create an environment where everyone feels valued and has equal opportunity to create, contribute, and be heard. This can be done by directly communicating with all team members during meetings to enhance participation, ensuring recognition is provided equally so that all feel valued, and scheduling regular 1:1 meetings to gain feedback, ensure clear communication and discuss advancement opportunities.
2. Initiate high-touch collaboration activities and encourage employees to initiate on their own
A lot of work today can’t be done well without high-touch collaboration — but this is a challenge when many are working from home long-term. Independent work is important, but collaboration is where the best ideas often happen, so it’s vital to initiate activities, whether virtual or in-person, and encourage team members to create their own. Schedule a bi-monthly brainstorm for the whole team and invite everyone to come together to share ideas. Even better: encourage your team to meet informally in capsules for their own pre-meeting creative sessions, so they can generate ideas together before sharing them with the wider work community. Informal connections are vital too. While informal collaboration such as conversations in the elevator or office kitchen was once the optimal way to foster a sense of connection and community, these days we can collaborate remotely by organizing weekly social hours, workshops or virtual team building games. Designing a work environment that people want to be a part of will help stimulate discussion and encouraging employees from across the organization to mix and mingle will help new connections form. Experts argue that regular bonding opportunities can help engage people with different tastes and schedules, plus creating an even level playing field from the get-go will be vital when connecting people in and to your organization.
3. Encourage best practices for enhancing collaboration during meetings
Employees who speak up at meetings and feel that their opinions are valued are more engaged. Meetings are an important part of group decision-making and innovation but they must be adapted to a hybrid work environment to reap the many benefits this form of collaboration can bring. How can you ensure this happens in your organization? Firstly, encourage all meeting participants to be involved by asking open-ended questions during meetings without indicating the type of answer that is expected. Avoid addressing questions to ‘The Room’ but instead address specific people when asking questions and encourage employees to ‘pass the mic’ to someone who hasn’t spoken yet when they’ve made their point. 90% of participants in a recent survey admitted to multitasking during virtual meetings and 33% said they do it “very frequently.” Multi-tasking can mean that employees aren’t properly focused on the task at hand. In fact, it is more likely when some workers are actually in the room and others are dialing in, because with this model, some people may feel the meeting is not really ‘for them’. Changing the way you manage the conversation could help avoid this problem as participants will stay more engaged. Instead of endlessly requiring employees to sit in virtual meetings, using virtual breakout rooms could be another avenue for facilitating more focused work and better collaboration.
4. Invest in tools and platforms that will support your team
Zoom saved workplaces in 2020, but a new generation of digital collaboration tools can enhance communication and collaboration for workers who are remote or hybrid in the long term. Digital whiteboards, virtual offices, and immersive environments are innovations that can provide crucial support to spontaneous and sense-led collaboration activities. Collaboration tools are no longer just for employees and departments where tech is a core part of their role. If your company has not researched innovations recently, now is the time to make sure you’ve invested in the best products for your organization (nearly half of CEOs plan to increase their investment in digital transformation in 2022). Building a truly collaborative workplace means going beyond integrating solutions that solely enhance communication and collaboration. Today, organizations must integrate tools like Montara that provide visibility into collaboration patterns along with the wellbeing of teams and individuals.
Where does this leave us when it comes to collaboration?
Organizations benefit hugely from the fruits of collaboration. Working together does a lot more than simply boost productivity; it builds trust, a positive atmosphere, and a sense of belonging. When colleagues work together, they feel seen, heard, and valued. Yet getting to this point is not easy. In a hybrid workplace, intentionally building the right collaboration habits not only helps engage employees, it enhances employee experience and improves wellbeing as well. New technologies are now available to help make this happen, but we must leverage them and deepen collaboration to help people thrive. To foster a collaborative spirit remotely, organizations should investigate new solutions. For in the post-Covid workplace, adapting collaboration to fit the new normal is one of the key routes to future success.
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