Collaboration is a popular buzzword, common in employee handbooks, cultural statements—and yes, even articles like this one.
But when it comes to your business, collaboration needs to be more than a nice idea—if you want it to work, it needs to be woven into the fabric of your culture.
Especially today, as more and more companies offer remote work opportunities or open offices in different locations, it’s crucial to be intentional about maintaining a company culture that encourages collaboration. Because as we all know, even in a shared office environment, it can sometimes feel like everyone is in their own world on their laptops.
Encouraging teamwork fosters the kind of employee engagement that results in higher productivity, lower turnover, higher profitability and—according to Gallup—a whopping 41 percent drop in absenteeism.
By creating an environment that fosters collaboration and creativity—the kind of place that encourages risk-taking and sharing ideas—you can not only keep employees happy, but make it easier to hit your business goals too.
In this post, we’ll look at how to build a collaborative culture in three simple steps:
3 steps to building a collaborative culture
Before you can really start to create a collaborative culture, examine your company’s own “collaborative culture” definition. Since it’s hard to measure culture, think of examples that would show you whether you’ve successfully created a collaborative culture.
You might want to keep track of the number of ideas your support team sends to product designers each month based on conversations with customers or share the latest customer reviews with the whole team regularly. Or you could use a survey to keep track of employee sentiment like “I feel comfortable sharing big ideas in meetings” on a scale of 1 to 5.
By having a clear and tangible idea of what success looks like and defining your goals for company collaboration, you’ll be able to know when you’ve achieved the kind of success you are looking for.
Step 1. Start at the top
Like any cultural initiative in the workplace, you can’t implement anything without buy-in from your leadership team.
A Gallup study showed that only 29 percent of workers strongly agree that they are encouraged to “be creative or think of new ways to do things at work”, and only 18 percent strongly agree that they can take risks that could lead to new products or solutions:
To build a collaborative organization, you don’t need to retrain everyone in the beginning—just start by training your managers to encourage communication, idea sharing, and risk-taking.
A policy of “no bad ideas” can lead to unprecedented innovation—but it has to be more than just talk.
Encourage your managers to lead by example, by asking their teams for feedback and ideas. Train leadership to be open to communication, share their own ideas, and admit when they make mistakes.
Give them specific ideas and techniques like:
- Starting meetings with an icebreaker or intentionally ending a few minutes early to encourage casual communication
- Holding regular brainstorming or idea-generating meetings
- Encouraging regular feedback on their own management and the work the team is doing
2. Focus on relationships
Of course, if you’re trying to encourage collaboration, you can’t just take a top-down approach. If your employees don’t feel connected to each other—and therefore don’t feel safe to share ideas—you can’t expect them to consistently work well together.
That’s why it’s important to focus on creating a culture where employees feel comfortable sharing and discussing big ideas and challenges.
Research has shown that employees who have friends at work are happier and more engaged with their jobs. Women who report having a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged than those who don’t have a best friend at work.
While you may not be able to force people into being BFFs (and you probably shouldn’t), you can take steps to encourage social interactions and help employees bond.
Create opportunities for relationship development throughout the organization. Instead of keeping teams siloed, create teams across departments and encourage communication across departments.
When a customer suggests a new product feature they’d love to see, for instance, encourage your support team to reach out directly to the product team.
Be intentional about having employees feel connected.
For example, blockchain technology company Paxos creates opportunities for connection as a part of their onboarding process. They schedule lunch for new hires with their managers, set them up with a buddy on their team, and even have them bring treats as an excuse for teammates to stop by and introduce themselves.
This onboarding is specifically designed to instill the team mentality from day one, as Helen Galarza says:
Finally—and this is the one that everyone loves—plan social activities that encourage connection. Beyond the annual holiday party, set up smaller social opportunities like team happy hours, or encourage employees to actually take their lunch break and have a meal together.
Ask leadership to champion social events and lead by example by attending social events, taking their lunch break, and chatting with team members about their lives outside of work.
Don’t forget to include remote teammates
There are so many benefits to having a remote team such as more productive employees, saving money, and being able to hire the best team members, regardless of location. But having remote employees can hinder collaboration—if you let it.
When you have remote employees, you have to be especially intentional about including them and encouraging both remote and in-office employees to connect with their team, share ideas, and feel connected.
A study by the Harvard Business Review reported that “remote workers often experienced virtuality as ‘a barrier’ to forming friendships with their colleagues.”
Help employees overcome this barrier by beginning some of your virtual meetings with a relationship building activity instead of diving right into work mode.
If possible, create opportunities for employees to meet in person by hosting an employee retreat or annual in-office work week. Even if you can’t get the whole team together, you could send remote teammates to a conference that your in-office team is going to.
If in-person meetings aren’t an option, encourage video calling instead of relying exclusively on emailing or instant messaging. Just being able to see someone’s face and their nonverbal cues, hear their cadence, and have the space to ask about their weekend will make it easier to help remote employees connect.
Once again, if you’re a leader, you should be modeling this behavior—for example, be the first one to turn your video on during a call—so that your team can see that it’s just the way things are done.
3. Invest in the right tools
While a large part of creating a company culture is somewhat intangible, investing in the right tools for your team is one straightforward step that shows your employees that you’re serious about collaboration.
Sometimes, software tools get piled up over time—you have this one for marketing, that one for communications. Eventually, your employees are spending so much time flipping between tabs and trying to use different apps that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Plus, using too many different tools can keep teammates and managers from understanding what everyone is working on or how busy they are.
Streamline your office by using apps that keep everything in one place and that easily work together.
It doesn’t matter if you have remote employees and employees who travel often, or everyone just sits next to one another—you need a good communication tool to let everyone talk and work together seamlessly. (And we all know email isn’t it.)
Open communication is the foundation of a collaborative team, and the right communication tool shows what your priorities are as an organization—making it clear to your team that you put your money where your mouth is when it comes to company culture.
Use an instant messaging app that allows your entire team to get in touch instantly. For example, RingCentral lets you send messages, share files, start video calls, and even make phone calls—all in the same app:
It also seamlessly integrates with other apps, so your team can go beyond communicating to truly collaborating.
For instance, by integrating RingCentral with your customer support platform, like Zendesk, you can get updates and alerts on customer support tickets right in your messaging center. That means your support team can work seamlessly in one app to see new support tickets, communicate about pending requests, and keep track of resolved issues.
The best file sharing tools keep your team on the same page—and some even allow them to collaborate right on that page.
By allowing multiple users to work on the same blog post, script, or presentation, you’re actively encouraging collaboration and eliminating the headache of emailing edited versions of documents back and forth. Use a tool like Google Drive or Evernote to allow everyone to write and edit together.
For other scenarios when you need to store and share lots of contracts and files, you can eliminate endless emailing and massive attachments by using a tool like Dropbox or OneDrive to get everyone’s files in the same place.
Customer engagement is one area in which collaboration is frequently overlooked, leading to siloed communications, slow response times, and unhappy customers.
This goes for not only online communications, but the phone too—you’d be surprised at how many companies don’t have something as basic as having a collaborative way to handle all your inbound calls. (Do you have a call forwarding system that automatically rings your teammate’s number if you don’t pick up your customer’s call?)
Again, you’d be amazed at what a team messaging app can do to help your support team quickly communicate with subject matter experts across your business while speeding up response times.
According to Gallup, only 19 percent of US employees strongly agree that they are satisfied with the cooperation between departments in their workplaces. This is a key reason why it’s so important to have a good communication tool that encourages collaboration across the organization.
If you want to solve your customers’ problems quickly, for example, the answer lies in good customer service teamwork. Make it easy for your support agents to loop in experts from other teams and respond to customer messages while seeing their conversation histories:
Ready to start building a collaborative culture?
It can be challenging to know exactly how to accomplish the not-always-clear task of fostering a collaborative culture in a business.
But in three straightforward steps, you can start making effective teamwork happen right now.
By focusing not only on best practices for your leaders, but also employee connection and the right tools to support your teams, you can bring your vision of a collaborative company culture to life—and start reaping the rewards.