Encouraging employee collaboration is a lot like exercising: everyone knows it's important, many claim to do it but not everyone makes it a priority.
In this article, we’ll unpack the reasons why employee collaboration is a great resource. Just like regular exercise, it has downstream impacts that will affect nearly every aspect of your experience. We’ll discuss three reasons why employee collaboration should be a priority in your business and three challenges to overcome.
A survey of over 4,000 employees found that the more employees collaborated in their work, the more satisfied they were with their jobs. This finding makes sense. When employees have the opportunity to work together, they’re more tuned into what’s happening across the organization, better integrated into the company culture and better able to understand their own needs and the needs of their coworkers.
More importantly, when employees have the opportunity to collaborate with managers and decision-makers, they feel like their voices count. With a direct line to leadership, employees can feel that they have a stake in the business and its success.
Encouraging employee collaboration helps to free siloed knowledge — simply put, the more your employees work together, the better they’ll understand each other’s jobs.
In any organization, silos create blind spots and increase the risk of duplication and other wasted efforts. With collaboration, employees gain greater insight into the internal processes of your organization and how they play a role therein. With this comprehensive understanding, employees can uncover creative new ways of achieving the desired objectives and identify opportunities to reduce duplication and increase effectiveness.
Say your business is facing a challenge. Who is more likely to come up with a solution — 10 homogenous executives in a boardroom, or 100 diverse employees comprising salespeople, marketers, programmers and designers?
Collectively, a business has access to an incredible amount of knowledge, but key decisions are often left to a handful of subject matter experts. Long-term strategy is left to the C-suite without input from the lower-level employees who are usually most impacted by these decisions. Product improvements are left to R&D when the customer service representatives have incredible insights into customer needs.
Collaborating across teams and departments brings greater depth and experience to a problem to uncover comprehensive solutions that benefit the entire organization.
A common reason why organizations don’t see greater levels of employee collaboration is because the space between their employees is too broad. In this context, space can mean physical space, such as different regions, departments or floors of an office. Space can also refer to conceptual space, such as different areas of expertise or working styles. Your software developers, for example, might be a few offices down from your accountants but never think to work with them due to the conceptual differences between their roles.
Thankfully, software tools exist that can bridge this gap. You don’t have to physically walk to your coworkers’ desks or take meetings just to address a problem or opportunity. Picking the right technology solutions to bring disparate team members closer — even the ones whose roles seem to have no apparent overlap — will create opportunities to drive engagement and make the most of employee collaboration.
In addition to helping bridge the gap among disparate team members, the right software tool can also help your teams be more effective and better aligned because it provides a central source of truth.
A common inefficiency in larger organizations is duplication; multiple teams are often working on the same problem in parallel, but aren’t communicating with one another or aren’t even aware of the other teams’ work. Not only does this translate to wasted work, it also means that whatever insights one team has on a given problem remain inaccessible to the other. Without visibility into the efforts of their collaborators, team members may duplicate their efforts, work in contrary directions and develop solutions that only solve for their half of the problem.
A central system of institutional memory where you can document experimentation, decision-making, what challenges were encountered and how they were overcome preserves the knowledge associated with a given project and can have major implications for how your entire organization operates.
3. An over-reliance on experts
Expertise is a valuable and necessary part of any organization but an over-reliance on experts can leave you shortsighted.
Consider the counter-intuitive finding that junior doctors often deliver higher quality care than senior doctors — they’re more likely to try newer, more effective medication and procedures, less likely to over-prescribe addictive medications and less likely to order unnecessary tests.
Oftentimes, expertise can lead to a narrow mindset that limits the consideration and exploration of creative and novel approaches to a problem. Experts can provide valuable knowledge and insight within their particular fields, but the best ideas can come from anywhere.
We can see this dynamic play out when looking at the results of innovation competitions, where prizes are most often awarded to highly diverse teams and not teams consisting entirely of experts in the field. A McKinsey study of such competitions argued that:
A core power of [innovation competitions] derives from their openness: their ability to attract diverse talent, generate unexpected approaches, and reveal unusual perspectives in the face of a problem or challenge. This can take the form of “cross-disciplinary solutions” that involve collaboration among unlikely partners, or even of “crowd-sourcing genius,” the attraction of talented individuals who are outside established systems of innovation.
More than just nice to have
It can be tempting to downplay initiatives to promote collaboration, but this perspective is shortsighted. Driving and nurturing higher levels of employee collaboration will yield significant benefits for your organization.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how an organization's people are the true driving force behind results, including how collaboration can transform a business. If you’re curious to learn more about the impact a business’s people can have, read our guide on Generating Employee Buy-In.