Collaboration: Problems and Solutions

Re-examining Collaboration in Our Changing Workplace

The pandemic has changed what the work landscape looks like. We moved from traditional workplace environments to home offices practically overnight, never seeing our colleagues in person, only on video. People started new jobs never meeting their manager or any coworkers in person.

So how did a change to a purely virtual environment effect communication, connections, and relationships?  In essence, what happened to collaboration?

Interestingly enough, a March 2021 article from Forbes asserted that collaboration was already on the decline in 2019 and the pandemic exacerbated the problem.

”… the dramatic shift toward work from home during the pandemic has dealt a significant blow to collaboration. The startling decline in collaboration from 2019 to 2020 signals that there could be considerable downside to working environments that are entirely virtual. This new finding offers warning signs for businesses that are in the process of planning how they will return to the office.”

This is the reality that employers will have to face as they begin to return to normal and bring their teams back into the office. How will they bring back the pre-COVID collaborative mentality?

Another study from PwC discusses the role the office may play post pandemic.

“The office is here to stay, but its role is set to change.  Less than one in five executives say they want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic. The rest are grappling with how widely to extend remote work options, with just 13% of executives prepared to let go of the office for good. Meanwhile, 87% of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships — their top-rated needs for the office.”

It seems that management and employees are fully aware that lack of collaboration is a huge issue, but few are willing to return to a pre-pandemic work environment.

Our own survey mirrors the sentiments from the other studies. 42% of IT Managers and Talent Acquisition Specialists we surveyed said they faced work from home challenges and 70% of them said that working from home negatively affected collaboration.

So, what’s the solution?

There is no easy answer, but it seems that collaboration issues can’t be solved only with technology.  One of our survey respondents stated:  “We have plenty of collaboration tools, but nothing beats face-to-face communication.”

Although virtual meetings have had their niche in the workplace for quite some time, they just don’t replace the personal contact that comes from holding person-to-person meetings or the informal communication of seeing someone in the break room or the elevator.  It is much more difficult to build trust with colleagues you have never met.  Another survey respondent stated, “We are working with people we’ve never met.  The trust isn’t there.  I can’t help but wonder if we met in person would the dynamic be the same?  I think people would get along better.” 

Every aspect of how we collaborate must be examined closely.  Before creating another virtual meeting, ask yourself, “is this meeting necessary?  Does it really accomplish the same type of collaboration we once had?” If your answer to either question is ‘no’, it’s time to revamp the way you are doing things.

Examine the format of your virtual meeting.  One where a presentation is made with Q&A at the end may be more effective virtually whereas an ad hoc meeting to brainstorm may be better served in person or over lunch.

Companies will need to experiment to find the right formula of working days in the office vs working days remote, keeping in mind a company’s culture.  Leaders should determine which activities are best performed in person to effectively use in office time.

Another benefit of office work days is the opportunity for informal communication.  As stated in the article in MIT Sloan Management Review, Redesigning the Post-Pandemic Workplace , “Employees who returned to the office only one or two days per week increased the number of serendipitous connections by about 25%.”  The article further states that these chance connections directly affect innovation and knowledge sharing, hence collaboration.

Effective collaboration is not a one-size-fits-all process.   The overall culture of a company is a huge factor in addressing collaborative needs effectively.  Examining the format of your meetings, in person or virtual, connecting the right content and activities to meeting type and finding the sweet spot of hybrid work will be key to improving collaboration.