Dr Nicola Millard, BT’s Principal Innovation Partner, explores the collaboration challenges facing businesses, and provides insight and solutions for working together when working remotely.

What does ‘collaboration’ mean?

Literally, it means ‘working together’.

In the workplace, ‘collaboration’ describes how individuals and groups of people work towards a common goal by sharing their experience and skills. That goal could be anything from delivering a piece of work, a product, a project, or even team-building activities.

These days we have no shortage of collaborating tools at our disposal, and there is no one-size-fits all way of working.

What everyone needs to know is how to harness the strengths of collaboration - and avoid some of its pitfalls.

Working from home together

Working from home looks like it’s here to stay. Many have now adapted their business’ day-to-day running to be more flexible to their employees’ needs - like having regular virtual team meetings, instead of needing colleagues in the office face-to-face.

But how do you ensure your company culture thrives in this new virtual world, and how do you keep the collaboration alive?

Dr Nicola Millard, BT’s Principal Innovation Partner, has a wealth of experience in the psychology of how we work, from home working to office based. Looking at the ‘collaboration conundrum’, she explores the ways in which companies can be mindful of how employees work together.

How do we ensure that collaboration is central to the way that we work together? In her report, Nicola outlines the four collaboration conundrums businesses face today.

Too many cooks?

Collaboration is always easier when there is an obvious common cause. The trouble with many organisations is that with too many cooks, shared goals can be more diffused and complex. Some of your team might work best on their own, whereas others might need conversation and debate to motivate their progress. By identifying your team’s strengths and weaknesses, outlining processes, clearly defining remits and workload, you can make the most of your team’s individual skills for big projects and deliver results in a collaborative way.

What skills do collaborative leaders need?

Forty per cent of the global workforce already work virtually. Trends towards partnering, shared services, outsourcing and offshoring means that virtual teaming has become integral to the way we work today. But when people are strangers, have spent little or no time with each other, and have very little in common beyond their ability to connect, they are unlikely to trust each other. This is not an IT problem – technology can zip information around the world at the click of a button. The snag is that it relies on people being willing to share it in the first place. This tends to boil down to culture and leadership. Deep down in the collaboration conundrum lies a challenge between old power structures and new ones. A distributed model of leadership requires leaders to move from command and control to connection and collaboration.

There’s a double-edged sword to this. Constant 24-hour connection and collaboration also carries the possibility of ‘collaboration overload’. The most knowledgeable and helpful employees can become the victims of their own success as they get a constant barrage of requests for help. The issue tends to be that because these people spend so long collaborating (which is often invisible to their managers), their individual output goes down (which is visible to their managers). Traditional leadership is being challenged by these new ways of working. Leaders can’t rely on strong ties in teams to get them through anymore – because most ties are weak now. They need to create and encourage collaboration behaviours. They need to understand the dynamics of their teams and reward and recognise collaboration behaviours without creating collaboration overload amongst their best people.

Diversity

Most large, global organisations are very reliant on teams of highly talented, distributed and diverse individuals who, because they are highly talented, distributed and diverse are less likely to naturally display co-operative and collaborative behaviour towards each other. More diverse teams tend to bring far more to the table than non-diverse ones, particularly when it comes to complex and innovative tasks. Create a belonging, inclusive culture, involving a strong sense of common purpose. It's clear that a combination of trust and a collaborative mindset is essential for collaboration to be effective in a world where most work ties are weak.

‘We’ vs. ‘Me’

If we’re constantly collaborating, when do we have time to get anything else done? Constant collaboration doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity. We’ve already seen that people with demanded skills can become victims of their own success as collaboration overload kicks in. The conundrum is that we tend to reward individuals who look as if they are productive (it’s telling that most people’s diaries are filled with meetings instead of individual work), rather than those who are just getting on with things. Partially, the problem is around what ‘productive work’ actually is in the first place. Be mindful of how your teams work best - rather than equate presence to productivity. As employees juggle their home life with their working life, the concept of the 9-5 has become disrupted in a way that leaders need to be open to adapting ways of working.

To conclude, the collaboration conundrum is a daily challenge whether we consciously realise it or not. It’s something that needs to be on the minds of business leaders and part of a company’s culture to ensure employees feel valued and motivated. In Millard’s report, she outlines five top ways to encourage collaboration which include encouraging people to interact, leading by example, understanding the mind sets in your team and creating a belonging, inclusive culture. By considering these points in your day-to-day remote working life, you are already on the right track to help your business thrive.

Discover more working from home insights by downloading Dr Nicola Millard’s full remote working report. How could it help your business in the long run?