Remote working is here to stay. According to our recent report on Australian knowledge workers, 1 in 2 professionals would prefer to work entirely from home or split their time between the workplace and home via a hybrid model.
And there are plenty of benefits to remote work, including no commuting, saving money and improved work-life balance. That said, new employees may find it more difficult to keep up with what others are working on and stay motivated. They’re also more likely to report feelings of loneliness or isolation. These factors can have a negative effect on productivity, belonging and collaboration.
To remedy this, leaders need to prioritise building a culture of effective remote collaboration. When done well, virtual collaboration can produce new ideas and innovative solutions that can meet or even surpass business objectives.
We know that developing a concrete strategy for remote collaboration—and committing to making it work—is no small feat. But following these best practices and ideas for collaboration in the workplace might make it a lot less painful.
Get in the team collaboration mindset with virtual team building activities
Face to face collaboration versus remote collaboration is just different. How can it not be? When you’re not in the same room, it’s easy to miss verbal and non-verbal cues. And let’s not forget the virtual meeting-isms that are seared into your vocabulary: (“Steve, you’re on mute,” “I’m just going to share my screen,” “No, Phoebe, you go ahead.”).
To get out of bad habits, you might need to rework your virtual team dynamic into one that encourages effective collaboration. You can start by reframing how your team thinks about collaboration and teamwork with virtual team building activities.
Virtual drinks or trivia, cooking classes, book clubs, exercise competitions or photo contests are examples of virtual team building activities. Team building is an opportunity to collaborate from wherever you are, develop social ties and foster stronger bonds between teammates. These activities can be hosted on Slack channels, or seamlessly via Slack plug-ins. For example, Donut is a plug-in that acts as your virtual water cooler, facilitating daily conversation prompts and virtual coffee meet-ups. Or, Polly can generate surveys, stand-ups and social games for your remote team.
Promote inclusivity – wherever your team is
When it comes to being collaborative in the workplace, psychological safety is key so the team feels comfortable speaking up. “People can’t be afraid, when they speak up and say something, that the reaction from the room is gonna be ‘God, that was a stupid idea or How do you not know that?’” says Ariel Hunsberger, head of learning and development at Slack.
To create that sense of safety, the team needs to be able to empathise with one another. The more you understand your colleagues’ narratives about themselves—how they work, where their expertise lies, the challenges they’re dealing with on a daily basis—the better chance you’ll have at collaborating well with them.
“Nobody should ever feel like ‘My job is the hardest, and everybody else is just out to make my life harder,’” says Hunsberger. “If you find yourself feeling that way about the work, it means that it might be time to build more empathy for those people you feel are making your life difficult.”
That said, don’t go overboard. While having work friends has been proven crucial for retaining employees and keeping them happy, doubling down on virtual drinks or trivia isn’t always the solution (especially if your team is experiencing video conference fatigue). Instead, place your focus on building trust, committing to systems put in place and creating a culture where teammates support each other.
Make meetings more effective
On the one hand, a schedule full of online or in-person meetings can grind a team’s productivity to a halt. On the other, they’re all but unavoidable when it comes to promoting effective collaboration. And whether your meetings succeed depends on how you plan and execute them. Before you schedule your next video conference, try these tactics:
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Don’t have a meeting for the sake of a meeting. Clarify to yourself who is attending, what they can contribute and what you want to achieve in this meeting.
- Clearly outline the goals of each individual in the meeting. In a Slack report about what makes for good collaboration in the workplace, surveyed workers around the globe cited “clear responsibilities” as one of the most important elements of effective teamwork—and one of the biggest roadblocks to collaboration when that clarity is absent.
- Promote active listening. For your team to truly understand one another’s individual responsibilities, they’ll need to practice active listening: listening to learn and absorb, without the intention of responding.
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Prioritise business process and accountability
“Often people will just assume that everybody knows what the process is, but without documentation of established processes, things can get really hairy,” says Elizabeth Brochhausen, director of partnerships and experiential marketing at Pandora.
And without the ease of stopping by to clarify with your colleagues, it’s easy for bad habits and sloppy workarounds to become ingrained. “When people are able to reference a document that shows the workflow channels, to have the work-back schedule, it gives them a very clear directive,” says Brochhausen.
Established business processes also promote accountability. “If you miss deadlines, if you’re not doing your part, you’re able to see that these are all the other things and people who are impacted by that.”
That kind of transparency and communication should be carried over into as many relationships as possible, especially when it comes to individual workers’ pain points.
Brochhausen shares an example from her boss. “In our first meeting, he said, ‘Listen, I’m really bad on email. I get a ton of it, and I’m terrible at it, so if you send me a really important email, bump it at the end of the day or send me a text message.’ That was helpful for me to determine when I should follow up. I don’t want to be pushy, but I want to make sure this is flagged.”
When collaboration goes wrong, don’t panic
It should be the responsibility of the entire team to collaborate constructively. So before pounding the panic button on an issue, go through the following steps to keep collaboration in the workplace productive and courteous.
1. Have one-on-one conversations with team members
There’s a lot of value in talking things out. Slack Huddles mimic the fast, informal discussions that took place when everyone worked from the office: swinging by a colleague’s desk with a question, pulling a few people aside after a meeting or just catching up with whomever you ran into at the proverbial water cooler.
2. Disagree and commit
Let’s say the team has decided to prioritise one project, but someone on the team believes it should be focusing on something else. Hunsberger teaches “disagree and commit,” an established decision-making strategy that allows workers to have their grievances heard and to feel like they’ve been consulted while maintaining responsibility for the work at hand.
“My pet project might’ve gotten cut from our list of major priorities, but my role as an employee would be to say, ‘OK, I disagree with that decision, but I commit to getting these current priorities done, because I know that my voice was heard’,” Hunsberger says. “Maybe we’ll get to my thing or maybe we won’t, but we have to be OK with that, because there will always be things that we don’t get to. We can’t do absolutely everything.”
3. Focus on alignment and your “collaborative partner brand”
“Are you actually hearing each other, or are you talking past each other?” says Hunsberger. “Are you learning from your teammates about where they’re coming from or just talking to get to your own goal?”
She also encourages coworkers to consider their “brand as a collaborative partner.” Although that term sounds buzzwordy, it really just means your professional reputation—whether people want to work with you. Everything you contribute is adding to or subtracting from your own value as a good colleague.
Check your (collaborative) self before you wreck yourself
Before diving into ideas for collaboration in the workplace, consider how you can implement the strategies listed above. Even if your team members are the best of friends, conflict will come up. But anticipating it and staying flexible along the way are the keys to getting through it and coming out on top.