Making Knowledge Work

July 1, 2017

The Benefits of Collaboration

Filed under: Collaboration, Communication, Work environment — virginiahenry @ 2:42 pm

I wrote an article for the Jinfo  team on an issue that takes up much of my thought and time.  Here is a shortened version of the piece:

The Way We Were

Last century (but not a lifetime ago), when the only electronic device on your desk was the typewriter, and computing was carried out by big machines owned by large, wealthy, institutions such as banks – your experience of communication and collaboration was very different.  To fix meetings or ask questions, you would use the internal phone system.  To communicate with several people at once, you would type a memo with a number of carbon copies, drop them into the internal mail and wait for the responses.

You would leave your office and go to the print room to use the photocopier, or run off some Gestetner or Roneo copies, and encounter colleagues from different disciplines and functions.  You’d meet them in the corridor, on the stairs, in the tea bar or by the notice board (where much of the organisation’s shared information was pinned).
In today’s offices, it might feel strange to phone someone a few desks away to ask if they have a moment to speak.  But before open plan, it was the norm to phone or pop your head around an office door to talk to a colleague.   The constraints of old tech and outdated architecture didn’t get in the way of getting to know others.

Today: Coping Strategies

The move to large open office spaces, in which people share islands of desks, was expected to deliver greater opportunities for communication and collaboration.  The walls, literally, came down.  Interestingly, in many offices, the opposite effect has been observed.  It’s not uncommon for people to send emails to colleagues just a few feet away – rather than speak directly to them.

Do you work in an open-plan office?  If you look up, how many of your fellows do you see with earbuds firmly in place?  How many are scowling at the person opposite them indulging in an amplified and animated call?  A number of recent reports  (for example, Rachel Morrison’s “Get out of my face!” published in The Conversation and Oxford Economics’ “When the walls come down“) have highlighted the disadvantages of close-proximity work spaces.   Noise levels and intrusive distractions rate highly as problems for employees and, rather than increasing opportunities for communications and collaboration, these “in your face” environments can make people much less receptive to interaction.

 Opening the Doors to Empathy

Another common feature of contemporary office working is the project team: often multi-disciplinary, formed to deliver a tangible product or result, time-bound and target-focused.

A project team can include members from across the business who know little about each other.  People from Management, IT, HR, Sales and Marketing, Finance and other areas may never have spoken to one another (except, perhaps, via email). Their perceptions could be formed from a negative experience “IT took three hours to get back to me when my laptop died, and when they did they couldn’t retrieve the document I was working on”,  or borrowed judgements “I’ve heard that Sales promised a client we would deliver services we don’t even have!” simple ignorance “I have no idea what those folk in HR do all day”, even aggregated prejudice  “I’ve never had a manager who knew the first thing about managing”.  Yet it’s within project teams that the hidden benefits of collaboration can be uncovered.
When people come together with a shared purpose, confident that their skills and experience will contribute to the team’s success, they are primed to collaborate.

The Collaboration Climate

Much depends on the project leader, perhaps with support from their sponsor, creating the collaboration ‘climate’.  A thoughtful project leader will ensure the ‘rules of engagement’ are clear and explicit.  For example, not only notifying relevant team and sub-team members of the frequency and focus of meetings, but demonstrating respect for them with consistently unambiguous agendas, defined start and finish times, agreed actions and follow-ups.  Overt demonstrations of respect for peoples’ time, and understanding of their workloads are effective ways of encouraging empathy.

Equally enabling behaviours the insightful project leader will exhibit are –

  • Learning about team members’ skills and interests: reading the profiles they’ve created on the internal system, looking them up on LinkedIn, getting to know what their role in the organisation entails
  • Using that knowledge to draw on experience: if someone’s been engaged in a similar project before, what they learned is worth knowing about
  • Identifying and explaining complementary strengths within the team: without getting bogged down in Belbin (or any of the other type-defining tools), it’s worth explaining to team members why their unique perspectives are of value to the project and of benefit to one another
  • Asking for assent, rather than assuming compliance: silence may indicate confusion rather than agreement
  • Enjoying, rather than enduring, debate: making time to talk demonstrates that peoples’ views are valued

 You don’t have to like me………

Making new friends can, of course, be a hidden benefit of collaboration – many of us enjoy friendships that extend beyond project deadlines, or survive long after we’ve moved away from an organisation.   But friendships are added bonuses to the hidden benefits.
More common, but very valuable to us as individuals, is our increased understanding of the varied approaches and perspectives of colleagues from different parts of the business.
This empathic attunement can help free us of misperceptions that might cause tension and conflict – allowing us to move away from assumptions and toward deductive reasoning.
For instance, you might now realise that when Colin seizes some marker pens and starts to sketch a flow chart on the whiteboard illustrating the simple process you just, very clearly, explained, he’s not obliquely criticising your communication skills.  He simply needs to see the information, rather than hear it.  Or when Sue closes her eyes, she’s probably not signalling boredom but more likely fitting pieces of the project puzzle together in her own mind map.

Along with increased empathy, or enhanced emotional intelligence, can come improvements in negotiation skills.  An experienced and much-admired negotiator, Chris Voss, founder and CEO of The Black Swan Group emphasises the powerful role of empathy in successful negotiations.  He believes that “emotions aren’t the obstacles to a successful negotiation, they are the means.”

Tuning in to others’ language and communication styles also sharpen listening skills.  If your day-to-day colleagues are in the same department or discipline, you might share a common language and have established communication routines.  If you’ve been immersed in a collective or corporate style of communication, you may feel it’s entirely normal – until you are exposed to the equally normal, but very different, approaches of members of your multi-disciplinary project team.

As a project team member, you can uncover these benefits for yourself.  But, as is the case in many work situations, the tone of team dynamics is inevitably set by the leader.  In a small study involving business students, researchers found their satisfaction levels in collaborative assignments were heavily influenced by the listening, negotiating, collaborating and assertiveness behaviours demonstrated by the group leader.  The study’s title: “You Don’t Have to Like Me, But You Have to Respect Me” .


Blog at