Why Aren’t Companies Teaching Us How to Collaborate?
Everyone has had a nightmare group project. Despite the fact that humans have always had to work together to accomplish anything, it still doesn’t come easy to some people. From early childhood on, we’re expected to collaborate, and that certainly doesn’t end in the workforce. According to a recent survey for MIT, nearly 71% of employees said they spend at least 41% of their time at work collaborating.
The benefits of teamwork are real and valuable, but they can’t be achieved with an untrusting, uncommunicative and unconfident group of people. Leaders and their teams need the right skills to make collaborative work successful. So why don’t they?
Attitudes on Collaboration
Even those who feel they work well with others likely face challenges in collaborative settings. In fact, 72% of respondents to the MIT survey reported being involved with at least one workplace collaboration they described as “absolutely horrendous.” Naturally, these kinds of experiences have the potential to hurt productivity, employee engagement and retention.
David Coleman, an industry analyst and collaboration researcher, said the problem is particularly bad at the executive leadership level. Despite the fact that these individuals are more likely to have formal business training and professional development, they often think competitively instead of collaboratively.
“That's what drove them to the top, but they need to be able to expand their repertoire and work as coaches and mentors instead of dictators,” Coleman said.
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An Absence in Professional Development
While collaboration is a critical workplace skill across all departments and levels, businesses don’t treat it as a teachable one. According to the MIT study, 74% of respondents reported receiving a couple of hours or less of professional development focused on collaboration.
Deb Mashek, a social psychologist, business advisor and author of the study, believes collaboration is, at its core, about relationships. “Culturally, there’s an assumption that you’re either good or bad at relationships — that you sink or swim, and that these things are not learnable.” She added that oftentimes, leaders themselves feel they don’t have the expertise and skills necessary to teach and foster effective collaboration across their organizations.
However, the benefits of this kind of development are worth noting. The study found a correlational link between collaboration-focused professional development and job satisfaction. Individuals with more training were also more likely to hold positive attitudes towards collaboration in general.
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Hybrid Work and the Role of Technology on Collaboration
Over the last two years, organizations have contended with an additional challenge: how to keep collaboration going in a remote work environment that left many employees working more independently. However, both Mashek and Coleman said this doesn’t have to be that difficult.
“For a lot of organizations, [hybrid work] turned a harsh light onto what was present all along,” Mashek said, noting that having a physical presence often masked underlying issues with collaboration.
However, virtual and in-person collaboration both rely on the same principles: having high-quality relationships and well-structured work. “But they take intentionality to set up and maintain,” she said.
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The sudden ubiquity of hybrid and remote work has also given rise to increased usage of virtual collaboration technologies. According to Gartner, usage of collaborative tools for work jumped 41% between 2019 and 2021.
Coleman, who has researched the use of artificial intelligence, or bots, in HR, described several ways in which AI can potentially aid collaboration in a hybrid setting. For one, it can provide important details for virtual collaborators by pulling up past conversations, emails and even a person’s background to help drive the process.
“When you’re meeting someone face to face, you can’t always pick up that context,” Coleman said. He added that technologies to pick up physiological cues during virtual meetings are also being researched.
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The Pillars of a Collaborative Culture
In addition to finding ways to incorporate collaboration skill-building into professional development opportunities for employees, building an organizational culture of collaboration is also essential.
According to Mashek, organizations who want to achieve this need to work to make collaboration possible, easy, normative and rewarding:
- Possible: Looking at infrastructure to ensure the company has the conduits to make collaboration possible.
- Easy: Designing physical workspaces, schedules and user interfaces to promote collaboration.
- Normative: Fostering a community where collaborative efforts and successes are appreciated and recognized.
- Rewarding: Underscoring the important benefits of collaboration to employees.
It’s also important to ensure everyone at an organization is trained to use collaborative technologies effectively, and that those who aren’t digital natives understand the etiquette behind virtual collaboration, Coleman said.
Mashek added that companies can’t simply rely on collaboration tools or project management platforms to fix issues with collaboration. It’s critical to invest in building relationships between collaborators and ensuring that they understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, boundaries and expectations.
“When you hit tough times … those relationships, and the strength of those relationships, are the shock absorbers that help you ride out the bumps,” Mashek said.