Effective Workplace Collaboration 101

You’ve probably heard thought leaders and business buffs tout collaboration as the key to business success. But let’s take a step back: What is collaboration, exactly? It’s more than just teamwork and group projects. It’s more than just working together in a “you do this, I’ll do that” fashion.

At the heart of true collaboration is the power of collective intelligence and knowledge building — the magic that happens in the spaces between people. It’s about layering and linking individual ideas and contributions to achieve more together than anyone could achieve alone.

As a result, there’s much to be gained from effective workplace collaboration — happier, more fulfilled, and well-balanced employees who relish consistently pushing their own limits and highly productive, creative organizations that put out better products faster.

The problem is, while it may be easy enough to assemble teams, true collaboration isn’t that simple. Poor leadership, conflicting agendas, subpar communication, and self-interest are just a few of the challenges that hinder collective projects.

Fortunately, with the right tactics and tools, anyone can foster productive collaboration in the workplace and enjoy its many benefits.

In this guide, we’ll explore some of the methods and strategies you can use to build a collaborative environment at work. We’ll look at ways to promote both in-team and cross-team collaboration, discuss the skills needed, and highlight a few key tools and technologies that support joint projects, especially as businesses embrace remote work and geographically dispersed labor forces.

More specifically, this guide will cover the following key topics:

  • Why collaboration is important
  • Challenges to effective workplace collaboration
  • Types of collaboration methods
  • Improving collaboration in the workplace
  • Strategies for promoting team collaboration

Why collaboration is important

To fully grasp the value of collaboration, it’s important to first distinguish the term from cooperation. While the two concepts are often confused, they are, in fact, fundamentally different, and the distinction has real implications for the way work is done.

Collaboration vs cooperation: What’s the difference?

Broadly speaking, cooperation involves individuals or teams assisting and supporting one another — typically through knowledge and information sharing — in pursuit of related but sometimes distinct interests. Cooperating groups may divide tasks among themselves and work independently on their own portion of the puzzle.

Collaboration, on the other hand, involves working together in an active and interdependent way to construct new knowledge and solutions and achieve a vision that’s shared by all.

In the case of cooperation, the focus is often on individual goals, interests, and contributions; collaboration is all about common goals, pooled resources, and joint decision-making. In this way, cooperation is loosely connective — it’s “me” helping “you” achieve your goal (and vice versa) — and collaboration is collective — it’s “us” working together in support of our vision.

Some academic researchers position cooperation as just one facet of collaboration, pointing out that helpful, cooperative intentions are a start but aren’t enough for a collaborative effort to work. Rather, they say, collaboration also relies heavily on coordination — the practical synchronization of actions, processes, and databases — to really be effective.

A report by Deloitte on the collaborative economy in Australia identifies a number of essential elements of collaboration that extend beyond cooperation. It concludes that effective collaboration, specifically in the workplace, requires employees and business units to

  • Work together toward a shared goal
  • Tap into a “neural network” by drawing on each other’s tacit knowledge, skills, and ideas
  • Communicate frequently
  • Explore differences and continuously build on each other’s work and ideas
  • Unlock the inherent potential of all participants
  • Create real value in the form of new products, processes, and ways of thinking

In summary, here are a few of the key differences between collaboration and cooperation:

Cooperation Collaboration
Knowledge is exchanged. New knowledge is created.
Tasks are divided and allocated.Activities are coordinated and synchronized. 
Parties work in a connected way. Parties work in a collective way.
The focus is on individual goals and actions. The focus is highly interdependent.
Ownership and authority often lies with one partner. Ownership and authority is shared — all parties are empowered to contribute.

The importance of collaboration

The old adage “two heads are better than one” captures why collaboration has the power to add significant value to all facets of our lives. Multiple “heads” bring together multiple ideas, multiple distinct perspectives, multiple areas of expertise, multiple cultural understandings, and access to multiple resource pools, to ultimately create more comprehensive solutions with the potential for far-reaching impact.

As Barbara Gray, Ph.D., said in her book, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems, “collaboration is a process through which people who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible.”

By giving ownership to all stakeholders, collaboration on complex problems also encourages real buy-in from everyone involved and a deep investment in the outcome of their efforts.

For all these reasons, collaboration has come to underpin accomplishment in a wide range of spheres — in the political, economic, sociological, public health, and sustainability realms, for instance. We’ve seen the formation of various powerful bodies like the World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, all of which achieve unprecedented change through collaborative practices.

Similarly, academic research across many different disciplines tends to benefit from a collaborative approach. Studies have shown research that brings together multiple universities typically produces papers that have greater impact.

What’s more, many of the strides we’ve made in combating the climate change crisis have been the result of collaboration between governments, urban planners, academics, nonprofits, private institutions, environmental scientists, and regular citizens. It’s an issue that requires a consolidated response, and therefore, real teamwork.

On a micro level, even our personal relationships rely on collaboration for success. In romantic and parenting partnerships, for example, we’re constantly combining efforts and resources to work toward our shared goal of living a healthy, happy life.

Why is workplace collaboration particularly important?

Of all the spheres where collaboration has proven to be of value, it’s probably most widely recognized as being critical for success in the business world. Nearly 75 percent of employers rate collaboration as “very important,” and 80 percent of companies use social tools to enable collaboration among employees.

Why exactly is collaboration so prolific in the workplace today? Globalization and advancements in technology both play a role. But much of collaboration’s rising importance has to do with the growing complexity of work and the associated specialization of knowledge and skills.

Today, many of us are specialists in our fields — we know a huge amount about a narrow subject area. So in order to execute a whole project that has multiple moving parts, we have to work closely with other experts across functional and departmental boundaries. Think about a UX designer, for instance, trying to get an app off the ground without having regular exchanges with a developer. Or an animator trying to produce an explainer video without having first created a narrative with a copywriter.

In today’s knowledge economy, a business’s most precious asset is the information in employees’ heads. To capitalize on this, you must connect people physically or digitally to share insights and best practices. Collaboration is how individuals quickly and easily access the knowledge and resources they need to expand their thinking and produce quality work.

A collaborative approach pays off for both companies and individual employees. Time and again, studies have shown that collaboration has the power to improve problem-solving, nurture creativity, enhance execution, increase productivity, boost organizational agility, and foster a sense of belonging and well-being among workers.

Essentially, effective workplace collaboration drives superior performance and financial success. Research by Deloitte, for instance, has found that companies with a strong collaboration strategy are twice as likely to outgrow competitors and four times more likely to experience growth in their bottom line.

It’s no surprise, then, that many successful businesses — those that have achieved phenomenal revenue growth while generating real value for their target audiences — prioritize workplace collaboration. Here are a few examples.

3 examples of collaboration in business

Pixar

The world-renowned computer animation company eliminates boundaries between departments in order to facilitate collaboration that fosters next-level creativity. The studio has an “anyone can talk to anyone” policy and a “creative brain trust” that employees can draw on for collective problem-solving. Its headquarters is also designed with bathrooms, meeting rooms, mailboxes, and the cafeteria at the center to encourage chance encounters between staff from different disciplines that might just lead to the next big breakthrough.

UCB

This global biopharmaceutical company, which now operates in more than 40 countries, involves patients (its end users) in cross-functional working groups to get the 360-degree input needed to develop effective new treatments. The business even launched a research and development-focused online collaboration platform so it can work closely with customers to innovate in the medical space.

The Motley Fool

One of few companies in the world to have a chief collaboration officer, this multimedia financial services enterprise encourages joint idea generation and problem-solving in the workplace through initiatives like in-house games and quizzes, and desks on wheels that can be easily pushed together for project groupings. As a result of its collaborative push, the company has reported increased productivity and employee satisfaction, as well as lower turnover and reduced costs.

6 major benefits of collaboration in the workplace

Along with being fundamentally important for business performance, workplace collaboration also has a number of specific benefits for both organizations and employees:

1. Increased motivation, engagement, and productivity

Research by Stanford University has shown that just the sense of working collaboratively with others, even if physically apart, can prompt people to persevere longer on a difficult task, develop more interest in the activity, and grow less fatigued as they work on it. In essence, the study illustrated that workplace collaboration boosts intrinsic motivation and encourages individuals to embrace new challenges.

These findings make sense. When working together as a cohesive group, people encourage and energize each other. They spur each other on and help one another remain focused and engaged.

The advantages for businesses are clear: More motivated employees are more productive in their roles — and indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute reports that improved collaboration, supported by social technologies, can boost the productivity of knowledge workers by between 20 and 25 percent.

Individual employees also win. As anyone can attest, feeling more driven and productive at work makes it that much easier to get up in the morning and head to the office.

2. More creative products and services

If iteratively building on each other’s ideas is a key element of workplace collaboration, then it follows that groups working closely together will eventually come up with something novel, if not revolutionary.

Again and again, we’ve seen that collaboration underpins innovation. By bringing together diverse, and sometimes competing, views and perspectives, collective efforts help to spark creative magic. Collaboration encourages employees to change their way of thinking, transform processes, and as a result, generate original ideas that work.

As an example, Nielsen found that groups of six or more people collaborating on a product concept generated innovative ideas that performed 58 percent better with customers than an initial starting point concept. What’s more, the innovative impact of ideas was significantly higher when groups included collaborators from multiple different business units — proof of the importance of cross-functional collaboration.

3. Greater efficiency and time savings

People work as much as 15 percent faster when they operate collaboratively. Thanks in part to more seamless communication, employees don’t have to waste time searching for the information they need to tackle tasks; it’s all at their fingertips. They can access resources faster, attain knowledge faster, and make decisions faster.

A cohesive, aligned approach also reduces the need for constant back and forth, and minimizes time lost to misunderstandings, because everyone is on the same page.

Improved efficiency naturally leads to cost savings for organizations — time is money, after all. And it means that solutions can go to market more swiftly — ahead of competitors’, which any entrepreneur knows is critical for success.

4. Employee growth and professional development

When individuals collaborate, they learn from one another. They develop cross-functional skill sets and discover alternative methods of working. By navigating differences in values and perceptions, they also hone their ability to think critically, solve problems, and engage in constructive debate.

For these reasons, collaboration at work can play a beneficial role in employees’ professional development. As staff members learn and grow, they don’t just enjoy the personal advantage of advancing in their careers; they also bring more to their current roles and add more value to the company.

Millennials, in particular, are drawn to organizations that provide development opportunities — including those that offer the chance to work closely with mentors and leaders. Cultivating a collaborative workplace environment could help attract talent from this generation, which now makes up a big chunk of the workforce.

5. Higher quality output

Collaboration within organizations doesn’t just lead to more innovative ideas but also higher quality work. In fact, the report by Deloitte mentioned earlier estimates that a collaborative approach results in quality improvements worth about $2,517 per employee per year.

This advantage comes down, in part, to the fact that collective efforts draw on the unique strengths of many individuals, rather than just one. Collaboration also ensures that individual biases don’t damage output and that novel ideas that are too risky are balanced by those that are more conventional, but safer, to arrive at the best possible solution.

This benefit even extends to the realm of education. When teachers engage in collaborative lesson planning, their teaching improves, they’re better supported, and they create higher quality course content.

6. Enhanced job satisfaction

If you’ve ever had the experience of being part of something bigger than yourself — a team sport, for example — you know it can be very rewarding. The resulting sense of belonging and camaraderie naturally makes us happier.

That’s why improved employee satisfaction and well-being is one of the major benefits of collaboration in the workplace. Individuals who feel connected and involved in bigger-picture projects have higher morale and are more content in their jobs.

And of course, when employees are happier, they’re more likely to stick around. Organizations then face lower turnover and don’t have to constantly pour time and money into recruiting and training new staff.

The challenges of effective workplace collaboration

Despite all the benefits of workplace collaboration, many organizations fail to get it right. This is primarily because building a collaborative culture and engaging in joint work can be incredibly challenging. A myriad of factors can get in the way, and it’s important to be familiar with them so you can guard against them.

Here are five of the most common collaboration challenges that businesses and individual employees face.

5 key collaboration challenges

1. Poor leadership

Like many things in the business world, effective collaboration starts at the top. In highly collaborative organizations, senior managers lead by example. They model the right behaviors and consciously step back to give employees the freedom to contribute to group efforts.

Leaders can seriously hinder teamwork if they don’t use their position of authority to create both a physical environment and an organizational culture that empowers individuals, breaks down divisions between functions, and builds room for regular interaction.

Leaders undermine effective collaboration when they

  • Micromanage employees and stifle their voices
  • Tell staff what to do rather than inviting them to co-create solutions
  • Insist on collaborative work but fail to coach employees in the required skills
  • Assert their own agenda in meetings
  • Nurture groupthink rather than encouraging healthy debate
  • Push for quick solutions, instead of letting the collaborative process play out
  • Fail to create space for casual social interactions between coworkers
  • Pull different employees in different directions and encourage divergent priorities through indecision
  • Fail to incentivize collaborative behaviors

This last point is especially important, as the absence of incentives to collaborate can be a significant barrier to productive group work. High-performing companies are up to 5.5 times more likely to reward collaboration. Business leaders might want to consider shifting the focus from individual achievement to collective achievement, emphasizing collaborative actions in performance reviews and linking them to bonuses and promotions.

2. Miscommunication and poor flow of information

Poor communication is one of the great challenges of working in a team, and it can seriously derail collaboration. For collaborative work to be effective, everyone needs to be on the same page, speaking the same language. To achieve this, all parties must be effective communicators.

You can’t openly share ideas, process feedback, gather input, and debate different approaches if you don’t communicate well. Misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and gaps in correspondence can send participants off on different paths and bring collective projects to their knees.

A global survey of knowledge workers by Slack confirmed that, in countries across the world, communication difficulties are one of the biggest obstacles to collaboration. In particular, respondents reported that they struggle with unclear or misunderstood communication and with key people not being included in exchanges.

Incidentally, modern communication technologies are often part of the problem. When people converse digitally — through email or instant messaging, for example — they can’t read into body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to assess meaning and intent, and misunderstanding is often the result.

There’s also a much higher chance that information will fail to reach the right person at the right time. If someone isn’t copied on an important email, or if the wrong version of an ever-evolving document is sent out, collaborators will be operating under different assumptions, setting up the potential for collaboration collapse.

3. Lack of transparency around goals

Moving in the same direction — toward a common goal — is central to effective collaboration. If stakeholders don’t have a clear line of sight with regard to where they’re going and why — a clear vision of the “what” and the “why” — they’re unlikely to be invested in working together to reach this unknown destination.

A shared purpose drives workplace collaboration — it’s what guides and motivates strong collective action. That purpose needs to be explicit so that it can be shared. In other words, coworkers need to have a crystal clear understanding of the overarching objectives and how their efforts contribute to the bigger picture in order to play their part.

Naturally, if you’re going to work as one unit, you need to be aligned, and alignment requires transparency. Every collaborator needs to be aware of every other collaborator’s aims, priorities, obstacles, expectations, and responsibilities so that they can combine forces.

If I’m only focused on my goals and challenges, and I don’t see how they relate to your goals and challenges, we could easily develop different agendas and concerns, which can quickly fragment a team effort.

4. Poor engagement among team members

For collaboration to be successful, all parties need to be invested in the collaborative process. They have to want to work in a team. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

In Western society, we’ve historically been taught to strive for individual achievement and recognition. Collaboration requires putting the group first, which doesn’t come easily to everyone. Many people are protective of their ideas, unwilling to relinquish control, and uncomfortable with the conflict that often comes with collective projects. We don’t like saying, “I don’t know; what do you think?” especially if we’re senior, and we often struggle to trust others to do a good job.

We also want praise for our brilliant ideas to come directly to us, not be diluted across a group. And we don’t want to be criticized for someone else’s failures. Some of us feel we work more effectively alone, or perhaps we simply don’t believe in the value of a particular project as much as others.

For all these reasons and more, many people shy away from collaboration. They may half-heartedly participate in what looks like teamwork but not fully engage in it. And because collaboration is an active process, it requires full engagement to work.

5. Lack of collaborative infrastructure

How a workspace is designed can help or hinder collaboration. A space that erects physical barriers between departments and ranks can be a huge hurdle to collective work. If a building doesn’t feature common areas, meeting rooms, and breakout spaces that facilitate engagement, these kinds of interactions probably won’t happen.

With the rise of remote work arrangements — accelerated by COVID-19 — businesses can no longer rely on a well-designed office to encourage collaboration. As a result, technology now plays a critical role.

Digital collaboration tools have their downsides, but without reliable videoconferencing software, project management platforms, and file-sharing technology, remote team members would have trouble bridging the communication gaps to work together constructively.

3 collaboration problems to avoid

Aside from the various challenges that can derail collective efforts, collaboration in a business environment can also give rise to its own issues. If you want to reap the many benefits that joint work can yield while avoiding some of its dangerous downsides, you’ll need to watch out for the following collaboration problems:

1. Collaborative overload

Collaboration is time-consuming — it requires patience, effort, and energy. If your daily schedule is already packed with solo work, the push to assist, offer input, participate in decision-making, attend meetings, and respond to email after email can quickly overwhelm you — a situation contributors to the Harvard Business Review refer to as “collaborative overload.”

Before long, employees have to work extended hours and sacrifice their work-life balance. They’re permanently distracted, stressed to the point of burnout, and no longer find their jobs fulfilling.

This is why effective collaboration requires careful management and an acute awareness of the demands on all collaborators. The alternative is a workforce that’s overburdened, and as a result, underperforming on every front.

2. Imbalanced distribution of work

Top performers often dislike teamwork. Why? Because too often, they end up carrying most of the project, while others just coast along. An organization that enforces workplace collaboration without carefully monitoring its implementation could institutionalize this problem.

It’s actually been proven that, in general, 20 to 35 percent of value-added collaborations come from just 3 to 5 percent of employees. This small group of capable individuals work harder and harder, get called on more and more often, and watch others sit back. Needless to say, they can quickly become resentful and quit, which means companies lose some of their best people.

It’s often also difficult for management to recognize who’s pulling their weight and who isn’t because the focus is on output, which is credited to the whole team. This means that diligent employees aren’t personally rewarded for their efforts (Is there anything more demotivating?), and slackers fly under the radar.

3. Collaborative inertia

We’ve all attended meetings that go on forever but come to nothing — this is one of the dangers of collaboration. If no one is directing the focus of collaborative efforts, and if participants are too preoccupied with people-pleasing or having their own voices heard, discussions can go round in circles and lead nowhere.

Similarly, if people have conflicting views and are unwilling to bridge gaps and “argue” constructively, collaborative work can quickly stagnate.

For workplace collaboration to be worthwhile — for it to even be considered true collaboration — it needs to produce something of value. If it doesn’t, it can waste precious time and exhaust precious resources.

How to collaborate easily and effectively

As you’ve probably figured out by now, collaboration isn’t just about getting along with a diverse group of subject matter experts. It becomes much more strategic and complex as you begin to work on projects and assignments that require multiple authors, feedback from cross-functional partners across the company, and even cross-cultural engagement (if your work spans multiple borders and countries).

To collaborate more effectively, either as a leader or a collaborator, consider the must-haves below:

1. Be open to it

If you have an assignment that requires you to collaborate with others, take it as an opportunity to learn from an expert in that specific field or topic. Be a sponge and learn whatever you can about your collaborators. Also, be generous and share your best practices and processes. This is a great way to connect with collaborators in the present moment but also sustain a relationship even after the project or assignment is over. You never know when that person’s insight and knowledge may be a valuable asset for future collaborations. While experts report that it may not always lead to meaningful collaboration, it’s still important to be proactive and open to collaborating with others.

2. Set goals

Setting goals from the outset helps a strong collaborative team buy into key objectives as well as feel included in the conversation and motivated to get things done together. It can be easy to get caught up in the details of execution, especially on projects that have a lot of moving parts and collaborators. Establishing goals up front helps ensure that everyone is aligned and working toward the same ultimate purpose.

3. Be flexible and adaptable

Not all collaborations are created equally. Some projects and some teams may yield both better results for you as an individual and the company as a whole. Experts report that since collaborative efforts are often evaluated based on the result or deliverable, if things go wrong, it’s not always easy to know who’s to blame or who will take ownership. As a result, creating healthy boundaries for yourself when you’re collaborating with others is one way to ensure you stay productive and on task. Collaborations are fickle by nature because they’re always changing, and it’s best to stay as flexible and as adaptable as possible.

4. Be authentic

When you’re collaborating with others, you’re most likely going to be with a mix of extroverts and introverts, so it’s important to give everyone the chance to be authentic about who they are. Give them the tools necessary to do their best work. For example, acknowledge that not everyone is fueled by the energy of an interactive brainstorm. Sometimes we need a quiet space to reflect and then return with our thoughts and ideas. Many companies, especially in the pre-COVID days, were implementing more coworking and collaborative workspaces that foster a community of open and private spaces. When we can be our authentic selves at work, we feel more confident sharing our greatest discoveries with others.

The key takeaways for effective collaboration are

DODON’T
Be open to collaboration. This is an opportunity to learn from your collaborators. Share your expertise, too!Don’t take collaborations and new connections for granted. You never know when you might work with certain collaborators again or if you’ll need their help later on.
Set goals. This will help align the team from the very beginning. Don’t use your niche expertise as an excuse not to contribute to new projects that would benefit from this knowledge.
Have clear communication and expectations. If there’s no designated leader, don’t be afraid to step up and remind everyone what the goals are.Don’t try to please everyone. This is impossible and could cause a lot of unnecessary stress. 
Be flexible and adaptable. Create healthy boundaries for yourself and be adaptable to the elusive characteristics of collaboration.Don’t force meaningful collaborations if they’re just not there. Show up, do the work, and keep going.
Be authentic to your working style (whether that’s big brainstorms or quiet and independent reflection) and encourage others to do the same.Don’t force your preferred working style on others. Be respectful about creating a community that allows everyone to work the way they’re most comfortable.

Key types of collaboration

Collaboration is multifaceted. Not only is it constantly being redesigned and reinvented, but there are several types of collaboration out there that can help you make informed decisions about what will work best for you and your team. Below is an overview of a few collaboration types and some of the key factors to consider when using that particular type of collaboration.

Open collaboration

Broadly defined, open collaboration is a type of collaboration that is entirely “open” to any and all new ideas or potential collaborators. Experts have compared open collaboration to an “open house party” that invites everyone to join and hopes only good will come out of it. One benefit of an open invitation is that you may be pleasantly surprised with who shows up to collaborate, and in this case, who might contribute to your project or team’s efforts in valuable ways you never imagined.

But what about the guests who may cause more harm than good? Without parameters on a project’s scope, an open collaboration could lead to more dead ends than solutions. Experts recommend using open collaboration when “the consequences of missing out on a much better solution from an elite player are small.” While you may collect an array of possible solutions, sometimes it’s better to focus on a select few people who can provide those ideas and can save you time and money.

There are also a couple of tools to be aware of when it comes to open collaboration, especially online. For example, developers tend to store projects on GitHub or SourceForge because of the number of people who can work on one project together. Researchers define these as examples of “open-source software development (OSSD)” but caution that open collaborations on the internet are less likely to be successful.

If you have the time, resources, and bandwidth to field all of the incredible responses you might get from a call for open collaboration, then this might be the right type of collaboration for you.

Closed collaboration

As the name suggests, closed collaboration sets restrictions or boundaries on who can collaborate and what they can contribute. This isn’t to say that a closed collaboration can’t be as thought-provoking and generative as an open collaboration. In fact, the opposite is true. In a closed collaboration “implicit bets” are made because you focus on the knowledge you need to solve your problem, which helps you identify the key experts to get involved. This is an excellent cost- and time-saving mechanism if your company or team lacks any of the necessary resources.

On the other hand, if you want to diversify the reach of collaborators out there, a closed collaboration might prevent you from doing so. This can also be a concern if the individual choosing collaborators tends to choose the same contributors each time, making it seem like an exclusive club. With this in mind, if you do use closed collaboration, it’s important to evaluate whether those consistently called on to collaborate are the same players or if it’s switched up once in a while.

Closed collaboration may be best suited for companies that have strong partnerships and stakeholders already in place, and know they can count on them to collaborate. While there aren’t any specific tools that are best for facilitating closed collaboration, it’s important to ensure that whatever tools you use (especially if they’re online) are secure so that there are no unwanted interventions.

Consider a closed collaboration for a streamlined problem-solving process, especially if you already have established partnerships.

Cross-functional collaboration

Companies are often structured with different departments, units, and teams. Cross-functional collaboration changes that dynamic, and at its core, encourages collaboration from various departments and teams to work on a common goal or project. In fact, experts encourage a contemporary business model that uses cross-functional collaboration to increase agility and prevent departments from working in silos.

Cross-functional collaboration is useful for streamlining any sign-offs that need to be made for big decisions on a project. Rather than going back and forth, the ongoing communication on a cross-functional team will generate results quicker.

On the other hand, cross-collaboration can pose some challenges if there’s no clear direction or scope for the project goal. Additionally, cross-functional collaboration often happens in conjunction with everyone’s normal job duties. Without a focused timeline or a clear end in sight, staff may be less invested in collaborating with various members.

Cross-functional collaboration is worth considering if your company wants to foster more community across departments and teams, and speed up any drawn-out processes.

Cross-cultural collaboration

Cross-cultural collaboration is traditionally defined as collaboration that requires engaging with colleagues from around the globe. In some cases, this may include interacting with a country that may have entirely different customs, languages, and traditions. Even in the U.S., however, we have an extremely diverse population, and this extends to the workforce as well.

The first and most critical part of cross-cultural collaboration is acknowledging, appreciating, and respecting different cultural perspectives as part of an effort to build positive and effective relationships.

If your cross-cultural collaboration is global, there are several critical steps to follow. Be clear in your messaging and be sensitive to any cultural differences; this is especially important to prevent unintentional stereotyping or microaggressions. Clear and concise communication will help disseminate the message you want to send and invite your global partners and team to express themselves in a welcoming and inclusive space.

Cross-cultural collaboration is beneficial because it offers insightful perspectives and conversations, which is great if you’re trying to reach wider audiences.

A major drawback of this type of collaboration is scheduling, because different time zones may result in some members meeting at odd hours of the day. Another challenge experts warn about is our assumptions and how to reframe those assumptions as curiosity to avoid conflict.

The number-one recommendation for cross-cultural collaboration is communication and any software that effectively facilitates it. Even if it has to be done virtually, consistent interaction and face time will help a cross-cultural collaboration feel more connected and vibrant.

Document collaboration

For most collaborations, some sort of document will be passed around for input, edits, and feedback. Document collaboration requires multiple coauthors to work on a single or multi-document project.

One of the benefits of document collaboration is that you can get valuable peer-reviewed feedback. This adds credibility to the work. Multiple eyes on a document can help identify areas of improvement, such as spelling errors, organization, and readability of the content.

On the other hand, this also means multiple opinions, which can be challenging. Not everyone has the same training, and everyone has an individual voice, style, and approach. Other challenges include ensuring access to the documents and preventing the creation of multiple versions.

There are tools out there that can help, like Google Drive, Slack, Dropbox, and Microsoft’s OneDrive and Sharepoint. Fortunately, many document collaboration tools are free, but if your company is operating on a larger scale, it’s important to consider upgrading should you need extra storage.

Virtual collaboration

Virtual collaboration expands where people can be for a project. It transcends local, national, and even global barriers by bringing everything to a virtual workspace.

This type of collaboration requires technologies that make a virtual work environment possible. Virtual collaboration is great if you want to save on operating costs, especially if employees have the option to work remotely.

If you’re seeking awesome talent from across the country (and even abroad), this expands the pool of candidates, especially if you can successfully collaborate in a virtual space with your existing team.

That said, if you’re worried about engagement and connection, complement virtual collaboration with other virtual tools that build community and fun, like social media and games.

One of the potential concerns with virtual collaboration is the potential instability of an internet connection. Depending on the location and time of year, the environment can be a hazard too. Another issue with virtual collaboration is fatigue. We’re constantly presented with opportunities to engage in virtual spaces both personally and professionally. Virtual collaboration can add to that “virtual burnout” and fatigue if we’re plugged in for too long.

There are plenty of tools to help with virtual collaboration, such as those mentioned previously for document collaboration, as well as video tools that we’ll discuss in the next section.

Virtual collaboration is great if your company wants to save on operating costs, and more important, wants to work with individuals and teams across the world.

Video collaboration

Video collaboration can be considered a subcategory of virtual collaboration because it usually takes place online, with some sort of software, and allows for a face-to-face visual connection between team members.

Text, voice, or even tone alone can sometimes be misinterpreted or miscommunicated. With video collaboration, you can see some of the mannerisms and behavioral cues you would get in an in-person interaction. It also helps you put a name to a face, which is especially useful when starting new projects with people you’ve never met before.

One of the challenges, however, is that some employees may be uncomfortable using video, especially if they don’t have an appropriate designated space, such as a conference room or office. And video collaboration contributes to fatigue when it’s overused.

A few tools that help with video collaboration are Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, and Cisco Webex. Some of these tools offer upgraded services to allow for more users, recording, and other functionality. Your company should consider video collaboration if you want to enhance other types of collaboration, especially cross-cultural and virtual, so that you can capture that in-person connection.

Check out the main takeaways for each collaboration type below:

Collaboration typeBenefitChallengeFor what kind of business is it most effective?
OpenA variety of potential solutionsQuantity over qualityBusinesses with the time and budget to explore various options
ClosedTargeted solutions from expertsLack of diverse, innovative solutions if the same experts are used over and overBusinesses that want efficient solutions and have a strict budget
Cross-functionalPrevents teams/departments from working in silosCould add extra work if the scope or goal isn’t clearBusinesses that want to foster more community across different teams/departments
Cross-culturalNew and exciting perspectivesCan be cultural clashes and scheduling conflictsBusinesses with teams and stakeholders that work in various locations
DocumentValuable feedback that can help catch any errors or content issuesDocument accessibility and version issues Businesses that coauthor and work on documents and projects together
VirtualGreat for remote work; helps save on operating costsInstability of internet connection depending on location and time of yearBusinesses that want to save on costs or primarily operate remotely
VideoSimulates the “in-person” connectionFatigue from too much screen timeBusinesses that want to save on costs or primarily operate remotely

Key strategies for promoting strong team collaboration

A strong collaboration strategy organizes a collaborative team. This is the driving force that guides how responsibilities are assigned, resources allocated, and goals set. It determines how proposals are created and discussed. Perhaps most important, the collaboration strategy shows the way forward by generating the strategic planning necessary to move from decision to implementation. Developing a collaboration strategy is key to getting results.

So what goes into a collaboration strategy? To be effective, a strategy must take into account how collaborative team members work together and what they need to accomplish. While these details change according to team dynamics and the job at hand, there are certain components to a collaboration strategy that are universal.

Consider the following components for your collaboration strategy.

1. Setting collaboration goals

Goal setting is an essential element of collaboration. It improves team member engagement, enhances performance, and helps the team stay on track and plan for the future.

When setting collaboration goals, it’s helpful to focus on the desired outcome — what are the objectives and key results the collaboration team would like to achieve? Establishing measurable, metrics-based goals will provide the team with ways to measure the collaboration’s success.

Objectives and key results, also known as OKRs, may come from an overall business strategy your organization or company has established, or the collaboration team may develop them.

When considering options for collaboration goals, all team members should weigh in. Identify common goals and post them in a place where everyone has access to them. This kind of knowledge sharing allows team members to track the work as it progresses.

In the end, creating and sharing collaboration goals will lead to more accountability from team members, more transparency, and better communication.

2. Creating a collaboration plan

A collaboration plan is a roadmap for how team members work together. The plan lays the foundation for collaboration and manages the collaborative process. By coming up with a plan, you can identify challenges and prepare for them, which will help support a more functional, smoother collaboration.

Collaboration plans can range from very complex to very simple. Each one will be unique according to the team participating and the goals to be accomplished. For example, a small team of three members who have worked together successfully in the past may only need a modest framework of a plan. On the other hand, a large group made up of team members from different disciplines may require a much more detailed plan.

Some details that go into a collaboration plan include

  • Which team members are needed (and from which disciplines)
  • What training may be required, given the experience and skill level each team member has with cross-team collaboration
  • Which collaboration technology and tools are needed
  • How to foster effective communication among team members of different disciplines, locations, and work styles
  • How the team will be led and managed
  • How to manage and prevent conflict
  • When and how to reflect on team performance and adapt objectives and processes
  • How to allocate budget and resources throughout the collaboration

As mentioned above, a collaboration plan offers much-needed structure. It should help team members deal with obstacles through management and leadership activities. However, as the team works together, circumstances change. Every plan should be updated periodically while the collaboration is underway. As the team gains in experience and knowledge, the collaboration plan should evolve accordingly.

3. Setting standards and expectations

During the planning process, there will naturally be discussions about mutually understood expectations. It’s useful to put these in writing, along with the standards expected for actions and behaviors. Setting standards and expectations can help when it’s time to assess the results of the collaboration.

Some examples of standards and expectations include

  • The communal values of the team
  • The processes and methods the team is expected to practice
  • How team members are expected to act toward each other
  • The responsibilities of the collaboration team leader
  • The impact the work should have on the organization

Evaluate tThe team’s progress periodically, with check-ins and performance updates. It should be possible to measure and verify expectations.

In order to keep track, set up benchmarks such as

  • Principles that must be followed
  • Behaviors that should be demonstrated
  • Deadlines that have to be met

Setting expectations is all about signaling the results the team wants to achieve and the approach and the methods they should follow. When you establish clear expectations, the collaboration team has a clear path forward.

4. Encouraging creativity

Creativity in the workplace helps fuel innovation. To help team members be creative, it’s important to have a culture that allows people to express their ideas freely. When more people generate and express ideas, there’s more potential for the team to become inspired and put a new, innovative idea into action.

The following tips will help you establish a more creative workplace:

  • Challenge the status quo. Take a good look at how the team is working. Start over from square one and think about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Broaden the perspective. Look at how things are done on other teams or even in totally different industries. It’s possible to find something useful that you can adapt or improve upon.
  • Use innovative thinking. Use techniques like mind-mapping, brainstorming, and lateral thinking to improve idea creation and creative problem-solving.
  • Allow mistakes to happen. A creative atmosphere forgives mistakes. Team members need to be able to take risks and learn from failures.
  • Turn ideas into action. When a good idea comes to fruition, everyone involved feels rewarded. Allow team members to explore, test, and refine new approaches.

Always remember to reward creativity. Establish an inspiring, open environment, offer the right motivation, and you’ll get your team members’ best ideas flowing like never before.

5. Building a culture of knowledge sharing

When team members share what they know, it leads to more innovative, creative thinking and better performance.

Here are some ways to foster knowledge sharing in the workplace:

  • Create a comfortable space, like a meeting room, for conversation
  • Acknowledge and reward learning
  • Set up social events, like a team happy hour, to plant the seed for learning
  • As the collaboration leader, proactively share experiences with team members
  • Set aside time to discuss challenges and solve problems as a group

To be properly motivated, team members have to understand the importance of sharing knowledge to accomplish collaboration goals. It’s important not to pressure team members into sharing knowledge: This may backfire and make them less likely to do it. Likewise, if team members feel competitive with each other, they will be less likely to share what they know.

6. Tracking results and celebrating teamwork

When it comes to getting results, one strategy works above all others — make success the primary objective. Considering that team members may have conflicting priorities, especially within cross-team collaborations, it’s important to encourage them to place the success of the project above their individual interests. Celebrating teamwork and focusing on common goals will make all the difference when it comes to reaching milestones and evaluating the success of the project.

A collaborative project ends successfully when the results are accurately measured. But it’s not just the end results that are important. Measure progress with milestones at every stage of collaboration. This can not only help a team leader monitor team performance but also intervene to stabilize a project when things seem shaky.

There are several ways to evaluate the results of a collaboration. One is by having team members evaluate each other through peer reviews. Another is by bringing in outside team members to gauge the success of the project. Those outside the collaboration team will have a more objective view of the project’s goals and processes. In the end, however, the success of any collaboration will be determined by how well the business goals and OKRs have been fulfilled.

How to promote team collaboration

For a successful collaboration, team members have to be open with one another, willing to communicate their thoughts and experiences, and motivated to share ideas without fear of being rejected or embarrassed.

To set a tone of creative, cooperative collaboration, follow these guidelines:

  • Listen carefully. The best ideas often come from group discussions. When people actively listen to each other, they’re able to create connections between new and old ideas. For this kind of thinking to take place, there has to be a respectful, inclusive environment, where team members are allowed to “riff” openly on concepts that excite, motivate, and inspire them. When team members share, provide active feedback to show you’ve been listening and have processed the information you’ve heard.
  • Generate team spirit. Keep team members motivated and engaged by making them feel valued. You can do this by having occasional meetings and conversations based solely on the principle of inspiration. Inspire people by doing things to unite the group, such as holding happy hours and going on outings, participating in fun side projects, and getting the team t-shirts and other materials.
  • Evolve and adapt. Collect the best and most interesting ideas, and post them in a shared space. This will allow team members to consider them in their own time and at their own pace. Having this kind of “meritocracy” of ideas will help ensure that the best ones rise to the top. It will also encourage team members to improve on the last ideas discussed and come up with new and unexpected solutions.

How to promote cross-team collaboration

When dealing with collaboration across teams, there’s an extra layer of complexity. If team members aren’t accustomed to working together, they tend to use different jargon and strategies, and follow different work practices. These different perspectives can actually be a strength — as long as everyone works together. However, overcoming these barriers will be more challenging without the proper motivation.

To ensure people from different departments and organizational groups work together successfully, empower team members. Each individual on the team needs to know that they have ownership of their own work. This professional responsibility encourages team members to invest in the outcome. It also encourages both leaders and other team members to make compromises, put aside differences, and work together for the overall good.

There are several ways to encourage cross-team collaboration:

  • Issue a mandate from the very top of the organization that end-to-end, cross-team performance is expected.
  • Motivate team members with a process that enables collaboration in both formal and informal teams, focusing on specific work goals.
  • Create a system that recognizes and rewards cross-team interaction.

Ultimately, the way to inspire cross-team collaboration is to create a system that develops relationships and creates a sense of community. Strong teams are built on loyalty and trust. Once these qualities are established, team members will be more likely to leave their egos at the door and fully support the goals of the enterprise.

Improving collaboration in the workplace

You can improve collaboration on both the individual and company level. After all, a collaborative team is only as strong as its individual members, all of whom have their own personal experience and knowledge. Providing team members with strong guidelines for communicating, problem-solving, and creative thinking can unlock the potential for great collaboration.

Important skills for effective collaboration

While it’s clear that collaborating effectively allows teams to do their best work together, the challenge of great collaboration is that it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. To become truly exceptional at it, both individuals and organizations need to cultivate and improve certain skills.

Working with others on a sustained, long-term basis requires a mix of interpersonal skills. To help the group work toward a common goal, members need to communicate and solve problems. Coordination and knowledge sharing are also key.

With great collaborative skills come huge benefits. A strong sense of team identity, better workplace morale, higher levels of innovation and creativity, and increased productivity are all possible outcomes.

How can your organization reap the rewards of successful workplace collaboration? Consider helping collaborators do the following:

  • Be honest and trustworthy. Mutual trust between team members strengthens communication. When a team is confident that everyone is dealing above board, with integrity, they will approach each other from a place of goodwill. This confidence in the good intentions of your partners is essential to resolving creative differences when they inevitably arise. Some rules for cultivating trust: Give partners the benefit of the doubt, don’t talk behind a teammate’s back, and avoid having conflicts of interest.
  • Listen effectively. To effectively listen, you have to try to understand a speaker’s perspective without judging, being distracted, or interrupting. This means that instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next while someone is speaking, make sure you hear all they have to say. In many ways, active listening is about understanding concepts at a deeper level than what’s being expressed — making connections between what you’re hearing and the thought behind the words. A really good listener can hear different ideas and forge them into workable solutions.
  • Remain open to learning. No one person can come up with every good idea. Keeping an open mind releases you from the trap of only trusting your own perspective, or only doing what’s been done before. Your team spirit relies on openness — it allows you to learn and allows team members to trust and learn from you. Remaining open also means understanding your limits, your strengths and weaknesses, and how you can improve. Understand that every team member brings something different to the table. This is the meaning of collaboration: Different perspectives power creativity and innovation. It’s important to understand these differences and appreciate them while evaluating new concepts and ideas on their own merit.
  • Designate roles and responsibilities. Since everyone on the team has a set of skills, it makes sense that those skills be put to use to make the team stronger. Roles and tasks should be doled out to the team members best suited for them. It’s a good idea to identify team member’s roles early and review them during the course of the project. The expectations for each team member should always be related to the team’s overall purpose. During the course of the collaboration, a team member’s special skills may be less in need. Their responsibilities could shift to accommodate the team’s new focus.
  • Stay focused on the common goal. To see the big picture, always keep an eye on the common goal. This helps every team member keep track of their individual responsibilities and how their piece of the work fits into the whole. Staying on top of the common goal helps keep everyone accountable. Since it’s always possible for a workplace collaboration to go off track, it’s important to be vigilant. Having regular team meetings is great, but be sure to occasionally evaluate their effectiveness. Each team member should have performance goals that emphasize teamwork and results.

When it comes to creating the perfect collaborative environment, there’s one rule above all others: Communicate. When a team is able to ask clear questions and give clear answers, they will collaborate well.

Key tools to improve collaboration

Effective collaboration means that all team members can stay in touch whenever they need to. That’s why it’s essential to have the right tools. Review the online team collaboration tools below for a good overview of the essentials.

  • JotForm. Our drag-and-drop Form Builder lets you create any type of form for any industry, from e-commerce to education. And when it comes to collaboration, JotForm makes it easy to gather feedback from teams and evaluate members. We have more than 10,000 easy-to-customize form templates, and to help automate workflow, we also offer 100+ popular integrations with third-party apps, including CRM systems like Salesforce and HubSpot, email marketing tools like Mailchimp and ActiveCampaign, and payment processors like Square and PayPal.
  • Slack. This chat tool is a must-have for collaboration. Apart from making instant messaging super simple, Slack offers audio and videoconferencing capabilities as well. You can organize multiple projects and teams using channels and hashtags, and users can view files within conversations and during calls.
  • Google Meet. This powerhouse app is integrated with G Suite (Drive, Docs, Sheets, etc). It offers one-on-one chats, video, and threaded messages.
  • Trello. This task management app lets you organize both personal and professional tasks. You can categorize your projects based on different tasks and topics, and then invite team members to collaborate on tasks. Trello allows you to add photos and videos, and monitor deadlines with a calendar.
  • Dropbox. This veteran file storage app is reliable, easy to use, and works on most platforms. With Dropbox, you can upload and share your files with collaborators via the cloud. You can integrate Dropbox with Office 365 and many other apps.

Now that you have a good idea of what makes a collaboration team tick, it’s time to put your knowledge into action! Just remember the essentials of workplace collaboration: honesty, openness, and effective listening. Focus on the common goal of the group, and be sure to keep track of roles and responsibilities throughout the life of the project. In the end, you’ll find the sweet spot to effective collaboration.

Effective collaboration will pay off with open discussion, knowledge sharing, innovative thinking, and ultimately, set your workplace collaboration up for success.

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