Many organizations are now embracing remote and hybrid work models as a permanent part of their workplace. This can positively impact work-life balance for employees, improve mental health, and save costs of operating a large physical office. However, there are new challenges that come with not having employees face-to-face on a daily basis. Collaboration can be more difficult in a virtual environment, and spontaneous collaborations are in short supply in hybrid or remote formats.
With this in mind, how do we create a collaborative work environment for remote and hybrid organizations? Leaders and HR professionals can no longer presume that this will happen on its own, and they need to be very intentional in creating and supporting a collaborative workplace.
To support you on the journey of creating and maintaining a collaborative work environment, here are five building blocks of collaboration.
1. Trust Comes First
My Grandpa used to say, “Trust is not a present but a hard-earned payment.” He was a brilliant guy, and for a long time I believed this statement. But my experience as a coach and observations from many of my clients suggest that the opposite belief is what we need. Trusting others without any proof might make you feel vulnerable and exposed, but it creates a strong reciprocity effect that motivates others to go the extra mile and do their best job.
Trust your team to choose the days they will be in the office. My experience shows that given a choice, people usually make the right one, and if being in the office can produce the best results, people will figure this out. If you decide to assign mandatory office days, please do not spend half a day checking the attendance and demanding a three-page “parent note” about why they didn’t show up. Allow people to use their innovative thinking to improve the business, not to devise elaborate reasons why they couldn’t come to the office.
2. Principle of Interdependency
While independence is often emphasized as a desired trait for leaders and employees, interdependency can lead to stronger bonds, fosters better communication and improves outcomes. Erik Erikson, a prominent German-American psychoanalyst and the Pulitzer Prize winner, once said, “Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.”
If your team works in a hybrid format, people on site will primarily communicate and collaborate with others in the office, leaving the remote part of the team out of the loop. It happens due to a cognitive bias called proximity bias, which creates a faulty belief that people physically closest to us are more skilled and helpful. The company can create an illusion of physical presence to mitigate this bias. There are various virtual office apps based on augmented reality principles that help stay connected in real time and can be very fun to use.
One of my clients established “teamwork hours.” All team members, on and off-site, for a few hours a day, are connecting to the audio app, allowing them to talk to each other as if they were in the same room. A few months ago, they started with only 2 hours a day, and now people prefer to spend most of their work hours connected to this app. (The investment in high-quality headsets is very encouraged, though.)
3. Purpose and Belonging
According to Gusto’s report, more than half of the employees stayed at their current workplace longer than it was in their best interest because they appreciated the sense of belonging, community and a common mission. Rules of social isolation and working from home made us accustomed to working in silos. Regularly talking about the company’s mission and goals, inviting everybody to participate in the conversation, creating a space for “small talks” and “water cooler discussions”, all of that helps bringing back the sense of community and connection, which in return will ignite a much higher level of collaboration.
Working in the hybrid format can sometimes feel like watching a movie created by randomly stitched together coloured and black-and-white pieces. You still get the plot, but the experience is not optimal. Regularly reminding people why the business exists in the first place, whom we serve, and how we improve other people’s lives can help to see the bigger picture.
My neighbour works as an industrial designer at the manufacturer that builds patients’ hospital beds. A few weeks ago, management organized a trip to the local hospital for engineers and designers, most of whom are working in the hybrid format. They had the chance to talk to nurses and support staff. They heard so much positive feedback about the quality and functionality of the beds and how it makes the hospital personnel’s job a bit easier. My neighbour swears he saw some tears.
4. Transparency and Vulnerability
I have always considered technology a blessing and a curse. On one side, it allows companies to hire employees from all over the globe, it is always available, and everyone is only a click away. On the other hand, remote and hybrid work forces us to rely mostly on words, taking away the whole universe of human interactions – facial expressions, body language, and behavioural clues. And it leaves too much room for interpretation and misunderstandings. That is why transparency and vulnerability is so important – it brings depth and humanity back to our communications.
- You can start by encouraging remote employees to turn their cameras on. To stretch our boundaries of vulnerability, we need to have a safety net – to see team members’ faces. It is tough to feel safe while staring at the black hole of a faceless screen. We need to see smiles, slight nodding, and other facial cues to read the social temperature correctly. And it should start with the company’s leaders championing this approach.
- To support transparency, managers need to pay special attention to creating clear expectations for team members: what the preferred communication channels are when working from home and in the office, what are each team member’s responsibilities, and what the most desired outcome looks like.
- Promote a “no holding back” policy by encouraging people to speak up with feedback and ideas, ask questions, and request help when needed. Remind everybody that each team member will succeed only if the entire team will.
5. Leveling the Playing Field
This aspect is mainly relevant to hybrid work. Fear of missing out and feeling like “step-children” compare to the on-site employees is real for remote team members. A few changes to the day-to-day operations will help:
- All important announcements are made via electronic channels first, before it’s circulated in the office.
- It’s best for on-site employees to join meetings from their computers even if only one team member connects remotely.
- While considering someone for a promotion, manager needs to have a list of all the employees and their achievements in front of them to mitigate a proximity bias.
- Schedule “small talks” with your remote team members, and don’t use them to discuss work. Focus on the person instead.
It’s important to know that the ability to collaborate is not a personality trait we are born with. It is a skill that can be learned and mastered with training and support. And an admission like “I am just not a people person” is not enough to declare someone as “a lost cause.” It just means that the right approach hasn’t been found yet.
Creating a collaborative workplace takes time, patience, planning and a try-fail-pivot-try approach. But when done with full buy-in from the front-line employees and consistent support from the C-level executives, it can take the company to the next level of success while keeping people happy, energized and excited about their work.
And with 86% of employees naming lack of collaboration as a main source of workplace failures, I believe investing human and financial resources into developing and maintaining the culture of collaboration within your company will bring impressive and consistent ROI.
About the Author
Jenny Barkan, ACC is a certified business coach, specializing in leadership skills development and creation of employee experience. Her educational background is law and psychology, but her passion has always been to help people to live better lives while they are at work and outside of work. Jenny is a big supporter of science-based coaching and often shares the latest developments in neuroscience during her workshops, facilitation and coaching. In her spare time, she is a devoted dog mom, a bit of a bookworm and a wine lover.
Employees cite lack of collaboration for workplace failures. Fierce. (2011). Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://www.fierceinc.com/employees-cite-lack-of-collaboration-for-workplace-failures/#:~:text=86%20percent%20of%20respondents%20blame,will%20impact%20bottom%20line%20results
Erikson, E. H. (n.d.). Erik H. Erikson quotes (author of childhood and society). Goodreads. Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/31652.Erik_H_Erikson.
Gusto Report: Community at work. gusto. (2016) . Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://go.gusto.com/rs/110-WOX-868/images/Framework_Community_at_Work_Survey_final.pdf
Kellogg Murray, J. (2023, February 16). Five things people miss the most about the office. Indeed. Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/covid-19-what-people-miss-most-about-office-work
 Erikson, E. H. (n.d.). Erik H. Erikson quotes (author of childhood and society). Goodreads. Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/31652.Erik_H_Erikson.
 Gusto Report: Community at work. gusto. (2016) . Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://go.gusto.com/rs/110-WOX-868/images/Framework_Community_at_Work_Survey_final.pdf.
 Employees cite lack of collaboration for workplace failures. Fierce. (2011). Retrieved August 16, 2023, from https://www.fierceinc.com/employees-cite-lack-of-collaboration-for-workplace-failures/#:~:text=86%20percent%20of%20respondents%20blame,will%20impact%20bottom%20line%20results