Workplace Culture

Collaboration Realization

By Sarah Fister Gale

Dec. 3, 2014

Shared workspaces, daily stand-ups, virtual meetings.

These serve as some fundamental elements of the modern workplace, where collaboration is seen as the holy grail of innovation, employee engagement and, ultimately, a higher level of business success.

Virtually every workplace blogger and author touts the value collaborative workers bring to the table while castigating the opposite end of the workplace spectrum: the siloed employee — the prototypical loner in a high-walled cubicle, nose perpetually inches from a computer monitor who seldom communicates with anyone about a current or future project.

While collaboration may indeed spark innovation, some contend that it can go too far. Back-to-back-to-back meetings, overly chatty colleagues, never-ending conference calls and endless streams of emails and instant messages can cause some workers to pine for the solitude provided by a siloed work environment.

Problems are compounded when companies mistake inclusiveness for collaboration, said Bhushan Sethi, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ principal of the advisory practice in New York. When teams feel obligated to build consensus around every idea and generate buy-in before they make a decision, it becomes burdensome to the team and hurts morale. “You want people to break down silos and to be collaborative across departments, but you can’t let it get in the way of the work.”

The trick is finding the balance between a friendly, cooperative environment and giving people the space they need to get their jobs done, said Sean Vogt, director of operations for Greenview Data, an anti-spam software company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Vogt’s company has 28 employees and collaboration is an important part of the culture.

The office has an open floor plan where people can easily engage in brainstorming sessions, and each employee is hired because they bring a unique skill to the team. But Vogt makes sure his people understand that collaboration is only a small part of the process. “Two people can’t program the same thing at the same time,” he said, “and only rarely does a support call require more than one person.”

To ensure people have the time to get work done, his team eschews daily stand-up meetings unless they actually have something important to discuss, and employees are empowered and encouraged to be self-directed. “It’s all about having the right team of people who can work just as easily together or alone,” he said.

What Is Collaboration Anyway?

Part of the problem is a lack of understanding about how to collaborate, or when it is most appropriate in the workplace, said Theresa Welbourne, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and CEO of eePulse Inc., a technology and human capital consulting firm. Even when managers think they have a clear understanding of what it means to collaborate effectively, they rarely take the time to define it for their team, she said. “Without that guidance, the demand to collaborate can start to feel like micromanagement, which is annoying and ineffective.” 

‘People start to feel like the team is unproductive, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.’

—Shane McWilliams, director of client services, CSID


Companies often fall into this pattern when managers are encouraged to create collaborative teams but are not told how to do it, Sethi said. “Leaders need training on how to set goals for collaboration, how to embed appropriate time for collaboration into the workflow, and how to use collaboration tools to enhance rather than diminish productivity.”

This is especially important as companies grow, and managers take on added responsibility for bigger teams and more projects, Welbourne said. “When you are small and nimble, you don’t worry about how the work will get done; you just do it.” But as companies grow they start adding processes and rules. “That’s when mandatory meetings and consensus-building requirements start to erode the quality of collaboration.”

Protect Team Privacy

Too much collaboration not only wastes time, it undermines the team’s confidence in themselves and each other, said Shane McWilliams, director of client services at CSID, an identity-theft protection company in Austin, Texas. If you have to gather everyone in a room to vet every idea or jointly make a decision, it suggests a lack of leadership, he said. “People start to feel like the team is unproductive, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

McWilliams understands the challenge of finding the right balance because as an IT professional, he has worked for many companies where teams often felt overburdened by the obsessively collaborative culture.

“When you get stuck in so many meetings that you have to put in extra hours just to get your own work done, it’s a problem,” he said. After a while, that starts to destroy morale, which can drive good employees out. “In an exit meeting, they won’t say they are leaving because of too many meetings, but that’s what they will be thinking.”

Since joining CSID two years ago, McWilliams has made a conscious effort to protect his team from too much togetherness. The key, he said, is to build a culture where people’s time is valued and employees are encouraged to speak up if that time is being compromised.

At CSID, managers make sure every meeting has predefined goals, which provides direction, and gives people a reason to speak up if the conversation goes off-track. They also take steps to reduce the number of people who need to attend meetings, in part by communicating meeting details to the broader team.

This allows those people who only need a few pieces of information from a 90 minute meeting to skip it, McWilliams said.

Though for this model to be effective, people have to trust that the information will be shared even if they don’t attend, he said. “Strong communication channels have to be in place for people to feel confident about not attending those meetings.”

McWilliams further protects his team’s productivity by making sure subject-matter expertise is spread across the group so that no single person is the go-to for every technical issue. CSID employees are also are encouraged to find answers on their own before going to one of their peers with questions. “This is an unspoken rule in our culture that puts a filter on those drive-by requests,” he said. “You know that if someone comes to you with a question, it is because they need to leverage your expertise; not because they were just too lazy to look it up themselves.”

And when all else fails, everyone on the team has the freedom to work from home if they need a little extra isolation to get a project done. “It is all about leadership and creating an environment where people can be productive,” he said. “If you empower people to say no to meetings, and you show them that you value their time, the culture change will follow.”

Nowhere to Hide

One of the biggest features of the collaboration trend is an office’s open floor plan. Companies are spending millions of dollars to tear down their silos and replace them with shared workspaces and meeting areas with comfy couches and coffee bars where collaboration will naturally happen.

And it works, said Beth Moore, director of workplace strategy for CBRE Inc., a global commercial real estate services firm headquartered in Los Angeles. “When people come together outside the confines of the traditional office or conference room, there is a more natural open dialog.”

These casual collisions may spur innovative exchanges, but when the collaboration time ends, those same people need quiet places to work on the big ideas they just generated. That’s when the open floor plan can become a problem.

CBRE has spent the past three years rebuilding its global office spaces with vast, sunny shared spaces that are arranged by “neighborhoods” designed to bring departments together. And while employee surveys show people are happier with the new arrangement, there are challenges to the shared-space model. 

Moore points to a team of real estate brokers who moved into one of the neighborhoods. “They needed to interact, but they also deal with confidential client information that others on the team can’t see,” she said. That means they needed time and space when they could be absolutely focused on their work, which can be hard to find in an open-floor-plan office space.

CBRE recognized this need in the planning stage and accommodated it by creating one-person daily rooms in each neighborhood, which are enclosed offices anyone can reserve for the day. “Because the brokers are often off-site, there are always enough rooms to accommodate the need for privacy,” she said.

In other cases, employees have found simpler ways to create privacy in an open-plan environment: wearing ear buds. CBRE recently conducted a focus group with millennials on how they prefer to work. Every one of them reported that they wear ear buds while they work, and half said they often aren’t even listening to music. “In an environment where you can be interrupted at any time, ear buds are a physical sign that you don’t want to be disrupted,” Moore said.

But if employees are forced to wear headphones to maintain some level of privacy, too much collaboration can be a problem.

You Are Doing It Wrong

To find out if your collaboration culture isn’t working, start by asking employees what they think, Welbourne said. “You’ll learn quickly if too many meetings are affecting their productivity.”

If you find that employees are frustrated by too much togetherness, take action. Cut unnecessary meetings from the schedule — especially the standing meetings that occur every week whether you need them or not.

And set goals for the remaining meetings so they are a productive use of everyone’s time, said Michael Moon, director of research for the HCM practice at Aberdeen Group in Boston. “Have a purpose and set ground rules so people feel like their time and ideas are being respected.”

When rethinking the approach to collaboration, be sure to include virtual meetings in the downsizing process. In a culture where every task has a sense of urgency and email and instant messaging create a constant visual clamor, it can be especially difficult for employees to break away from their online peers, Moon said. Just as some meetings are viewed as an enormous waste of time, mass emails, endless chats and a constant demand for online updates will whittle away at productivity and morale.

And don’t assume that shiny new piece of collaboration software is the answer. “The biggest mistake organizations make is assuming that a social collaboration platform will solve all of their collaboration troubles,” she said. As with all technology, collaboration software is not a solution — it is an enabler. “It doesn’t change behavior, and if it’s not used properly, it can easily become a distraction.”

Quality collaboration, in which people have the chance to generate new ideas and work with integrated teams, are a vital part of being innovative, but when the demand to collaborate isn’t backed up by quality goals, people’s time is being wasted. To find the right balance, make sure leaders are trained in what it means to collaborate, empower employees to speak up when meetings are unproductive, and treat people’s independent work time as a valuable asset that should not be compromised.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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