Running a well-functioning, successful business has always relied on teamwork.
When employees pool together their talents, skill sets, expertise, and creativity, more problems get solved, new opportunities get created, strong relationships get formed, and the business’s overall productivity increases.
And yet even though most work these days is team-based, many companies find it hard to truly unleash the power of workplace collaboration. After all, it can be all too easy for us to stay isolated in our own worlds of expertise and focus on our individual tasks instead of seeking new ways of working collectively.
So how can you develop a sustainable culture that encourages collaboration and that makes teamwork both appealing and frictionless?
This is the question we’ll focus on in this post. And as a company that specializes in helping businesses around the world level-up their team collaboration, we’re pretty confident when we say that the key to better teamwork lies in adopting the right combination of collaboration strategies.
What we’ll cover:
- Why collaboration is essential: The benefits to keep in mind
- Obstacles to change: Why collaboration strategies are especially important today
- 10 collaboration strategies to boost teamwork
Let’s start with a quick refresher of why collaboration is so important.
The modern-day world of business can get pretty complex. That’s why specialist teams are necessary: in business, there are simply too many pieces in play for one person or team to manage it all by themselves.
But the crucial thing about teams is that they’re more than the sum of their parts. In other words, it’s the creative interplay between teammates that creates the magic that drives your business forward.
Collaboration—that is, joint problem-solving—works because it brings new ideas into contact. Two or more colleagues working together on a project will notice opportunities and correct mistakes that no one individual could have done on their own. The cost of neglecting collaboration can therefore be significant—a Salesforce survey revealed that 86% of employees pointed to a lack of collaboration as a major cause of workplace failures.1
But in addition to unlocking your team’s creative potential, workplace collaboration also offers some other benefits. They include:
- Happier teams: Teamwork keeps employees engaged, which is key for improving morale, lowering turnover, and reducing absenteeism.
- More effective teams: Collaboration allows team members to leverage each other’s skills and compensate for gaps in one another’s knowledge. In the 2019 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, 86% of employees at the top-rated companies said they could rely on their colleagues to cooperate, compared to just 74% at the lowest-rated companies.
- More knowledge: When colleagues collaborate they get to learn new things from one another and discover more about their own strengths and weaknesses.
- Better customer experience: Collaboration means problems can be solved faster and with better accuracy—essential factors when it comes to delivering good customer support.
It’s one thing to recognize the fundamental importance of collaboration in the workplace, but it’s another thing entirely to actually cultivate a collaborative work environment.
Any success in making collaboration a deep-rooted feature of your company culture will take a concerted effort. There are many obstacles and challenges to overcome, and you’ll need to be equipped with the right collaboration strategies to tackle them.
Here are some of the most common obstacles that collaboration strategies can help you conquer:
Today’s teams often consist of multiple well-trained specialists located in different parts of the country or the world. Teams of this sort make many ambitious projects possible, but the team members themselves are less inclined to pro-actively cooperate or share knowledge with one another. This is especially true if team members don’t know each other very well.
Silos occur when teams fail to share valuable information with other departments within the same organization. Sometimes this happens accidentally as a result of inefficiencies within the business, but sometimes it happens intentionally as a result of power-struggles and unhealthy levels of competition. Tell-tale signs of the silo mentality include underlying tension between departments, resource-hoarding, and teams duplicating effort.
Resistance to change
Some employees will take to new initiatives with total enthusiasm, while others may view them with skepticism or negativity. You’ll find it hard to inspire a culture of collaboration when there’s a cohort of team members who aren’t on board with the project.
One of the biggest challenges in implementing a company-wide culture change is contending with people’s natural tendency to stick to safe and familiar ways of doing things. Such risk aversion is made worse during and after crises—like the COVID-19 pandemic—when uncertainty and resource-scarcity make people hold tight to what’s worked for them in the past instead of embracing change and innovation.
Outdated communications technologies can also hamper any attempt to establish a more collaborative workplace culture. For example, a heavy reliance on email for internal communication will significantly slow-down your team’s ability to cooperate.
Okay. Now that we’ve got a better understanding of the type of challenges you could face when trying to instill a collaborative mindset throughout your business, let’s look at some of the strategies that can help make that transition a success.
1. Set the example
An essential strategy for promoting workplace collaboration is for your leadership team to lead by example. You shouldn’t expect the rest of the company to embrace a top-down collaboration initiative if the very people pushing the initiative remain insular or out of reach.
Instead, the leadership team should be the company trend-setters, modeling the collaborative behavior that they expect the rest of the team to emulate. From an employee’s perspective, it’s less risky to follow a precedent set by senior executives than it is to adopt some new behavior of their own accord: “if the boss does it and says it’s okay, then I can do it too!”
The trick is to make sure your wider team actually gets to see your leadership and management teams consistently engaging in collaborative behaviors. One-to-one meetings with colleagues are a great place to show that you’re serious about collaboration. During these interactions, you can demonstrate that you’re always open to dialog, genuinely interested in their ideas, and happy to receive constructive feedback.
Ways to implement:
- Convince the rest of the leadership team of the importance of setting the example when it comes to teamwork.
- Encourage senior executives and managers to host more of their internal meetings in open and communal areas.
- Also encourage them to drop in on other team meetings from time to time and to provoke discussions by asking questions.
2. Open up communication
One sure-fire way to promote workplace collaboration is to make it clear to everyone in the company that their opinions matter and to encourage them to speak up whenever they have new ideas, suggestions, and questions.
It’s a good idea for leaders and managers to remind other team members that there are no stupid questions. If your employees feel free to reach out to anyone in the company, regardless of their seniority level and without fear of judgment, you’ll create a psychologically safe environment in which people can focus their mental energy on solving new business problems instead of hesitating to challenge the consensus out of fear of rocking the boat.
That said, encouraging the free exchange of ideas isn’t enough in and of itself. Another prerequisite for effective team collaboration is making sure your employees have multiple communication channels at their disposal. Since team members sometimes work on-site, sometimes remotely, and sometimes when they’re on the move, you need to equip them with the means to easily stay connected wherever they are.
The RingCentral App, for example, lets you keep in touch with your team—through phone, video, or team messaging—wherever you happen to be and on whatever device you happen to be using:
Ways to implement:
- Set up a company-wide team messaging platform.
- Once the platform is up-and-running, set up some open conversation threads in which anyone can offer their feedback and pose suggestions to the leadership team about, for example, opportunities for innovation, ideas for blue-sky projects, and updates on relevant industry developments.
- Encourage leaders to frequently host team review meetings in which everyone gets to honestly reflect on how things are going and to propose ways of doing things better.
3. Accommodate different collaboration styles
Just as each individual’s skills and interests differ, so too do their preferred collaboration styles.
For example, some employees thrive in face-to-face meetings, showing eagerness to share their ideas and challenge assumptions, whereas others prefer to take the role of spectator, only to follow-up the meeting with a brilliant email full of insightful takeaways.
Do the communication channels that your team uses accommodate these different preferences? Or is everyone just pushed toward using email (or video conferencing, or in-person meetings)? Even if you simply don’t want to accommodate your teammates, there’s still the practicality aspect of it. Sometimes, a meeting just calls for having a larger group of people over a video call. (Say, if you have a distributed team and wanted to run a team brainstorm session.)
Or, you may be on the road a lot and taking calls from your phone—but sometimes need to switch to a video call so that you can share your screen. Can your communication tools do that? For example, RingCentral’s desktop and mobile app allows you to flip a call between your phone and computer, or from a voice-only call to video without interrupting the conversation:
Leaders should work with their team members to identify their collaboration skills and preferred ways of working, and offer them advice on how to apply those tendencies in a way that improves the team’s overall ability to work as a group.
For instance, if one team member consistently takes ownership of projects but constantly seeks updates from other team members, you might want to praise their dedication while also reminding them that other team members need to take control of their own duties to feel fully engaged.
Similarly, if another team member is particularly keen on analyzing project metrics and is quick to cite critical data points to challenge other people’s ideas, you might want to urge them to keep up their vigilance, but encourage them to run any concerning metrics past the appropriate people first.
Ways to implement:
- Identify each team member’s preferred collaboration style in the same way you’d figure out their strengths: talk to them and observe their day-to-day behavior.
- Discuss different ways they could productively apply their collaboration style to the benefit of the team. For example, ask those with a leader’s instinct to head up smaller projects, get disciplined note-takers to take minutes of important team meetings, and ask those who are always on the lookout for industry updates to send out a weekly digest of relevant news.
- Consider reversing these roles from time to time to encourage individuals to step out of their comfort zones and expand their collaboration skillset.
4. Use the right tools
One of the best strategic decisions you could make to promote collaboration in your company is to invest in high-quality collaboration tools.
Collaboration tools, like group video chat applications, task managers, and knowledge management systems, make sure that your teams can communicate freely, keep on top of their projects and assignments, and make use of the company’s combined brainpower wherever they are. These tools boost your workplace productivity by freeing up time for employees to work on high-impact activities instead of tedious, automatable tasks.
Let’s take email as an example. Even though this decades-old technology is still an extremely useful part of business communications, it simply isn’t well-suited for fast-paced team collaboration. Waiting around for a teammate to send a return email to a simple request of yours, or trawling through your inbox to find one piece of information from a conversation you had weeks ago just isn’t the best use of your time.
A better alternative is to roll out a team messaging tool across your company so that your employees can share ideas and resources instantly, be it with another individual or a group.
RingCentral offers exactly this, and integrates its in-app messaging tool with cloud phone, video conferencing, and task management functionality, so that your co-workers can easily collaborate with each other using whatever channel suits them best:
Ways to implement:
- Figure out which aspects of your team’s workflows would benefit most from the introduction of a new tool. Where are the bottlenecks? Communication? Task management? Project planning?
- Seek out tools that offer plenty of integrations with third-party apps and that are compatible with the tools you already use. For more information on RingCentral’s third-party integrations, check out our integrations page.
- Consult your team members about their own needs and preferences when it comes to software. Narrow down some options yourself and send out a survey to see how your team feels about each of them before making your final decision.
5. Clarify goals, roles and responsibilities
Your team members’ roles should be clearly defined and understood by all. When everyone knows what’s expected of them and everybody else in the team, you reduce the likelihood that individuals will double-up on work unnecessarily and you’ll save your team members the hassle of having to negotiate roles and responsibilities among themselves.
Transparency over who’s responsible for what will also reassure everyone that they aren’t taking on more than their fair share of the workload, which minimizes the kind of tensions that make people less inclined to work together.
Another important consequence of clearly defining team roles is that individuals can go off and work on their part of the project independently, all the while having one eye on the overall team objectives.
It’s a good idea for leaders to host regular huddle meetings with their teams—be it in-person or virtually. These sessions will remind everyone of their collective goals and give each team member the chance to learn about what other team members are currently working on. This, in turn, encourages team members to think of ways they might be able to help one another.
You should also check-in with individual team members frequently to see how they’re coping with their role and to gauge whether they’re prepared to take on more responsibility. For example, if you notice that a junior team member is a natural when it comes to inspiring others to collaborate, make the most of it by letting them take the lead on a small project.
Ways to implement:
- Explain to each individual team member what’s expected of them and how their role contributes to making the team a success.
- Reinforce people’s role-identity by introducing them to other colleagues as specialists in their area, and by keeping them in the loop of any discussions or projects relating to their specialty.
- Host weekly team meetings in which everyone gets to hear what everyone else is up to that week.
6. Highlight your team members’ strengths
Related to the previous strategy, you should make an effort to assign team members roles that reflect their individual strengths and interests.
When your employees feel trusted and supported, and have a strong sense of their own importance within the team, they’ll be more disposed to share their knowledge with everyone else and to take the initiative on projects they know they’ll be good at. Employees who feel that their role bears no relation to what they’re good at will find it hard to stay motivated.
Also, having everyone play to their strengths will foster greater self-awareness among your team members, allowing them to figure out how their abilities complement or clash with those of other team members. What’s more, team members will know who to turn to when they need help or training in a specific area, thereby creating more opportunities for fruitful collaboration.
Ways to implement:
- Share your own strengths and weaknesses to begin building an honest relationship with team members. Listen to what they say they’re best at and draw their attention to any strengths that they may not have considered but that you’ve noticed through observing them work.
- Encourage them to develop a reputation for their strengths among their peers by offering training sessions based on their competencies—such as time management, public speaking, or project planning.
- Reinforce these identities by enlisting team members for projects where their strengths could be of value.
7. Emphasize your mission statement
When you’re an employee working on your own specialist tasks day after day, it can be easy to lose sight of how your efforts contribute to the company’s broader objectives, making you less inclined to seek out opportunities to collaborate with people from different teams.
A clear company mission statement can make these scenarios less common. By summarizing your company’s core values and objectives, a mission statement aligns everyone’s priorities and reminds them of how their own work and everyone else’s work contributes towards the bigger picture. When everyone understands their common purpose and has a mutual appreciation of each other’s inputs, it’s easier for them to stay passionate about their own work and be encouraged to share ideas with their peers.
It’s important to reassert your mission statement regularly. There’s no use in announcing a grand vision for your company, only for everyone in the organization to forget about it within two weeks. You should view every company newsletter, quarterly meeting, and project kickoff as another opportunity to remind everyone of your shared mission (just make it snappy!).
Ways to implement:
- Revisit your core/founding values.
- If you don’t already have a mission statement, hash it out with your leadership team and distill it into a single, memorable phrase.
- Reiterate this statement whenever you need to galvanize or reorient your team.
8. Reward collaboration
One obvious and reliable way to encourage any desired workplace behavior is to reward those who engage in it. Doing so sends a clear message to your employees about the types of actions and attitudes you expect from them.
Aside from traditional financial incentives like bonuses and promotions, you could make a point of rewarding collaborative efforts with something as simple as celebrating your team’s success in the next company meeting, sending each team member a written thank you letter, or taking the team out for a meal once a successful project has been completed.
You could also make it clear that collaborative effort will be a significant factor in each individual’s performance appraisal. Also, whenever an individual is publicly praised for his or her work, be sure to acknowledge the contribution of their supporting team members.
Ways to implement:
- Explain to your team the benefits of collaboration and let them know that exemplary instances of collaboration will be rewarded.
- Make a point of recognizing and praising collective team efforts during your team meetings.
- On a company-wide level, you could start a “team of the month” award to celebrate that month’s best example of teamwork. The winning group could be rewarded with an extra vacation day, a meal at a local restaurant, or perhaps some gift vouchers.
9. Recognize the power of relationships
Strong relationships form the backbone of any successful team.
It’s hard to cultivate a truly collaborative team spirit without there being mutual trust and goodwill between your team members. This can be especially challenging for newly created teams or teams with numerous new additions for the simple reason that team members haven’t yet had the chance to get to know each other.
One way to minimize this problem is to use your team’s pre-established, “heritage” relationships as a launching pad for developing new bonds. When at least a handful of your team members already know and trust each other, they can help familiarize new members with their surroundings and set the standard for teamwork. According to the Harvard Business Review, when 20% to 40% of team members have preexisting working relationships, it’s easier for teams to have strong collaboration from the get-go.2
However, it’s important for team leaders to keep a close eye on the influence of heritage relationships within a team with a high proportion of new members. If left unchecked, heritage relationships can end up morphing into insular cliques within teams, leading to anything but a collaborative team spirit.
Ways to implement:
- Explain to your long-serving team members that their working relationships play an essential role in assimilating new employees.
- When new members join, encourage your other team members to introduce themselves and have a chat, or even take the new joiner out for coffee or lunch.
- Pair team members together on projects when you’ve noticed that they seem to gravitate towards each other naturally during their day-to-day work. Their relationship may well bring about high performance if you formally team them up.
10. Cultivate a community spirit
It’s easier for collaboration to occur when there’s already a strong community spirit within your company.
While a strong community spirit will form organically within many companies, you can facilitate the process by organizing team-building events and “extracurricular” social activities. For example, you could arrange for quarterly company parties, sponsored charity events, or subsidize after-work clubs and classes for employees.
If your team is fully—or mostly—in-house, don’t forget that the layout and design of your office space can also play a big role in fostering more of a community vibe. Thoughtful desk arrangement, comfortable meeting rooms, and purpose-built collaboration zones will make the prospect of working together all the more inviting.
Ways to implement:
- Arrange one or two company-wide parties each year, celebrate big successes and important anniversaries with unique events, and give team leaders the discretion to host their own team-bonding sessions.
- Ask all new joiners to write up a short personal bio when they join the company, and add it to an internal employee bio webpage.
- Maintain an active company newsletter and social media presence documenting any team social events, project successes, and anything funny or surprising that happens around the office.
Ready to implement your own collaboration strategies?
A culture of collaboration unleashes the combined creative potential of an entire workforce and is the cornerstone of any happy and maximally productive work environment.
But developing that kind of culture is no mean feat. There are many obstacles and setbacks that could stand in your way.
Implementing the right combination of collaboration strategies is how you’ll succeed in overcoming these barriers, and they will ultimately help you make collaboration something that comes as second-nature to your employees.
Use the collaboration strategies outlined in this post to elevate teamwork in your own company to the next level.