While many business leaders believe that returning to the office strengthens team collaboration and morale, it is important to realise that even when the majority of teams were in office full time, bad work habits were rife.
Hybrid and remote work only exacerbated the issue. For example, while meetings are an integral part of collaborating, workers find themselves defaulting into an increasing number of redundant follow up meetings that lack value because teams weren’t aligned prior. In fact, our recent workplace alignment survey found that 45% state a lack of clear direction is a problem.
Failing to address these workplace dysfunctions can have devastating results for team morale, increasing burnout, and degrading the trust and connection required to collaborate meaningfully. Sometimes this impact goes so far to result in a loss of talent, as indicated by the 36 per cent of workers saying that talented staff members are leaving their organisation due to lack of alignment. This breakdown of collaboration will ultimately impact a team’s ability to innovate and be productive, and eventually their bottom line.
What’s more, employees are asking for change. Our study found that 80% of workers consider virtual meetings an essential part of their jobs – yet 67% still prefer in-person meetings. There is a clear opportunity for virtual meetings to improve, and how to create better collaborative experiences for attendees is a huge piece of the collaboration conundrum.
What are the habits we need to address to improve collaboration in today’s hybrid working era? I’ve identified four, along with actionable solutions, that I’ve observed over two decades of agile coaching, professional facilitation, and management consulting:
1. Fragmented information sharing
Due to physical proximity, invaluable impromptu collaboration like catching up on a task with a colleague, troubleshooting an emerging issue, or following up on an earlier conversation used to occur naturally in the flow of a day’s activities. Spontaneous moments of brainstorming and banter can still happen with disparate teams. However, the challenge is ensuring conversations are productive and meetings are valuable. Attempts at information sharing often result in scheduling larger team meetings. But this can hamper teams from moving quickly, bottlenecking important information until “everybody is in the same room.”
For teams to be able to collaborate effectively, they need the right information at the right moment without struggling through a calendar of multiple meetings to understand things like ownership and next steps. Investing time into creating a single source of truth – a set of up-to-date information, readily accessible for all – can produce a work environment in which teams can readily maintain their alignment. Members can review that source asynchronously, following up with any questions.
2. “All purpose” collaboration
From recent research on working habits, a majority of respondents reported that virtual meetings, especially hybrid ones, are dominated by the loudest voices. This was true for in-person meetings too.
Many teams default to “brainstorming sessions” the same way each time: set a loose topic for discussion, then open it up for free-flow ideation. The person facilitating the brainstorm might take notes. In these cases, the team converges around the ideas of the people who spoke up first, or the most confident person (especially if they are in a leadership position), deferring to the vocal command of the room.
We need to learn to not associate extroversion with engagement and good business sense. There is more than one way to participate and collaborate.
We each need to accommodate different collaboration styles. Some people are expressive, sketching out their ideas in graphics and thriving in unstructured discussion, and yet they may struggle in meetings where text-heavy documents still prevail. Others are relational, performing well in team exercises, but feel drained by fast-paced virtual meetings. Then there are introspective people, preferring a clear agenda and formalised processes when collaborating.
Not everyone fits cleanly into one category but the principle is the same – you need to be open to different collaboration styles and check in regularly to ensure team efforts are not skewed towards one or another.
3. Shaping meetings for in-office employees
Remote team members often miss out on social experiences that in-office employees enjoy together. And this may create problems in meetings too. For instance, those in-office may move on from topics before remote employees can unmute and chime-in, and sometimes remote workers miss out on subtle social cues like body language.
This can, in turn, form “in groups” and “out groups”, making it hard to collaborate as an aligned team.
Proper facilitation can create an equal footing for all participants and prevent them from feeling like a second-class citizen. This can be achieved through hosting a shared whiteboard for note taking, and by social actions like monitoring the meeting’s pace or providing context on pre-meeting chats to promote inclusion.
4. Office gossip and rumours
Bias is core to office gossip, where we make assumptions on very sparse information because we only see faces behind screens. It’s easy to turn a misunderstanding into full-blown contempt, quickly undermining the morale and connection of distributed teams. Because it’s so easy to privately message a sarcastic comment, or send an eye-roll emoji during a team meeting, we can easily pull people into negativity. Scale is irrelevant – it doesn’t matter whether it comes from reheating smelly fish in the office microwave or completely messing up on a project – conflict has the potential to derail collaboration efforts.
To address this, leaders need to promote a psychologically-safe culture where healthy conflict is valued. The way to achieve this is to promote addressing things directly, through retrospectives and other facilitated means. Conflict is a natural part of working together. By treating each other with courtesy, openness, honesty, and directness, we can create stronger teams as a result.
Promoting the right habits can have a transformative effect
No matter how insignificant habits and patterns may seem, it is important to reflect and address what might be holding teams back. Encouraging better collaboration often requires simple yet impactful changes, ranging from improving the way team members can access information through to optimising how hybrid meetings are facilitated. A willingness to consider and make bespoke changes to the hybrid workplace can transform your team for the better, and result in greater success on projects and better employee retention as a result.
Bryan is the Chief Evangelist for Lucid, an online visual collaboration suite. Bryan is tasked with sharing all he has learned about individual and team effectiveness from more than 20 years spent bringing people together in the workplace.