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How to Make Collaboration Work in the Hybrid Workplace

May 19, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

Effective collaboration across dispersed teams is one of the most challenging problems facing organizations today. This is particularly true of hybrid work models, where many companies have yet to precisely define how, where and when work will take place.

The problem, according to a paper by McKinsey, is that many organizations have yet to think through what hybrid means. According to the paper, while many companies have a theoretical notion of the work model, they still have not worked out specifics. As a result, employees are feeling anxious about what comes next and what that will mean for their day to day at the company.

Without clear guidelines on how teams on- and off-premises are expected to operate, the question is whether workers in these two models can really collaborate or if they will, in reality, operate like two separate organizations. Leaders hoping to adopt a hybrid model long term stand to gain from carefully mapping out what that means — and communicating it clearly to employees.

Communication is the Center of Collaboration

While collaboration in a hybrid environment is difficult, it is not impossible, said Kim Curley, workforce readiness consulting practice leader for Plano, Texas-based global IT consulting firm NTT Data Services. However, it requires more intention when it comes to communication, she said, as that is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to the hybrid workplace.

For example, not being able to see someone's body language or know if they are tied up all day can lead to miscommunications across teams. This, in turn, can often lead to unsatisfied, disengaged or stressed employees.

“Keep in mind that teams are the lifeblood of organizations," Curley said. "Bringing together the collective wisdom of the group moves the ball faster and enables innovation that is not available to individuals working in a silo.”

That belief that the sum is greater than its parts supports the concept of team-based work, as well as that of matrixed organizations where individual employees report to multiple bosses at any given point in time. 

“Like many innovations in organizational constructs and behavior, good things overdone become weaknesses and actually decrease productivity,” Curley said.

Related Article: How Deliberate, Considerate Hybrid Offices Are the Future of Work

Define How Collaboration Should Happen

One of the challenges with hybrid workplace collaboration is that there is no one single way to do it. Because every company is different, from culture to technology, to location and industry among many other aspects, what works for one company may not work for another.

There is also a substantial number of possible variations of what hybrid means. Are all employees able to work remotely or are some required on-site at all times because of their function? Will employees be required in the office a specific number of days per week, or will they have the flexibility to choose? Will there be set days for everyone to be on site or will it vary? Will work hours be flexible or fixed? What does that mean for employees in different time zones, if that is even accepted?

Every one of these variables helps determine the shape of collaboration at the company. Leaders play a key role in helping define how collaboration can best occur in their organization based on an assessment of all these factors.

Related Article: Do You Have the Right Collaboration Habits?

Invest in Collaboration Technology

For true collaboration to occur, senior executives have to put the resources in place to encourage individuals and teams to work effectively with one another. When working remotely, those resources include communications and other cloud-based applications that enable disparate employees and teams to collaborate across different channels, such as chat, video/VOIP calls, document archives and other technologies.

When employees are in the office, this means having equipped spaces such as conference rooms outfitted with traditional or electronic whiteboards where teams can meet, discuss projects and conduct brainstorming sessions. In a hybrid world, however, leaders must also ensure that these two environments don't operate in a silo and the tools used remotely and in-office work together.

“Although there are many considerations to make, it all starts at the top of each company and each firm's management team sets the tone with how much they value (or don't value) collaboration and their investment to make it happen every day of the week ... regardless of where employees are working,” said Mike Clifton, chief information and digital officer at Irvine, Calif.-based Alorica.

Related Article: Finding the Balance Between Deep Work and Collaboration

Reconciling Fragmented Knowledge

While the continued emergence of new tools and software to boost productivity has improved communication and collaboration in today’s remote working environment, it has also come at a cost: Corporate knowledge is now more fragmented than ever, said Kelly Griswold, chief operating officer at New York City-based Onna.

Large companies report using an average of 175 apps, each of them creating vast amounts of unstructured data that must be managed. This also created siloed stores of knowledge that cost workers huge amounts of time and effort to locate the information they need.

To minimize this loss of productivity, companies need to empower employees with information, and give them the ability to surface what they need, when they need it. This requires investing in technology that can unify the fragmented data sitting across multiple apps, bringing everything together in one central repository so that workers can search across several data sources at once.

“Collaboration software should allow us to be more productive, but not at the expense of knowledge,” Griswold said. “Achieving both will require individuals to have a system in place — whether it is their own process or through the help of a technology solution — that helps them easily and quickly find their information."

Related Article: What Does It Mean to Manage Knowledge?

Finding the Right Collaboration Balance

Because there is not a one-size-fits-all template for hybrid collaboration, it can be adapted to a variety of different individual collaboration styles. For example, in any given meeting, approximately 60% of those present typically do not contribute as fully as they could, said Nathan Rawlins, chief marketing officer at South Jordan, Utah- based Lucid Software. This is a problem digital collaboration could help solve, he said.

Companies will want to think about the wide range of collaboration styles, such as expressive, relational and introspective, within their organization to ensure each employee feels comfortable contributing in the ways they are most effective on a regular basis. For instance, an in-person day may only benefit a certain group of people. Instead, leaders may want to consider giving employees a choice of where they work based on how they prefer to collaborate and feel most productive.

Collaboration is central to the processes and policies that drive teams working onsite and remotely, said Scott Francis, technology evangelist at Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based Fujitsu. Getting collaboration right requires companies to assess the set of tools and systems they have become accustomed to and evaluate whether these tools are efficiency builders or efficiency breakers.

Slack and Zoom are useful, but collaboration requires much more. Equipping teams with enterprise content management, cloud-powered applications and advanced enterprise search capabilities that leverage artificial intelligence and natural language processing for real-time data search across documents and the enterprise environment are also desirable tools when trying to connect teams. Effective collaboration also requires a commitment to digitizing processes with the goal to make information available securely to every employee, whether they are in the office or working remotely.

“Digital transformation efforts support collaboration by driving better data-sharing, fewer data siloes and deliver a much better user and customer experience,” Francis said. “Collaboration is the glue that will help teams work more cohesively and, as a result, benefits the company’s customers and its bottom line."

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