How to Build a Thriving Culture of Collaboration

Fostering a culture of collaboration is as much about evolving your current structures as much as it is about building something new.

Unless you are a brand new company, there’s already a culture in place. Making a shift towards more collaborative processes and accountability is a major change — with potentially big rewards — but you can’t uproot the old way of doing business without a plan, regardless of the potential benefits.

The shift toward successful collaboration in the workplace hinges on people’s willingness to give up familiar roles and identities. This can be uncomfortable, and it works against getting the universal buy-in any company culture needs to exist.

In this post, we’ll talk about the characteristics of a thriving collaborative culture, and how to guide your company in that direction.

What is a “culture of collaboration”?

In workplaces with a healthy culture of collaboration, people are empowered to share their ideas with colleagues across the organization.

This doesn’t mean everyone is talking to everyone all the time. That sounds like pure chaos. Rather, ideas and insights aren’t trapped within departmental boundaries.

Collaborative teams fare typically cross-functional, that is: they include individuals with different skills and knowledge. Within the team, members collaborate to produce work that, in the past, would have required input and approval from outside or above the team.

This isn’t to say collaborative teams are independent units siloed from each other. Some people are part of several teams, as well as some general communities on a social intranet.

Groups formed as part of a collaborative workspace can be long-lasting or ephemeral—maybe leadership groups, a Scrum of Scrums, a task force, or maybe a transition task force for making your company culture more collaborative.

Not every new pairing or partnership works, but everyone is willing to try to work together without prescribed roles. The bottom line is that people are not afraid to voice their concerns, or try new things, or work with new colleagues.

Sounds great, right? Keep reading to find out how to start making these changes at your workplace today.

8 steps to promote a thriving culture of collaboration

Form a transition task force

Evolving company culture is not a solo mission. You need the leadership team on board and invested in making the shift, but there’s a good chance they won’t be involved in the legwork. Even if you’re on the board, you need help promoting the change.

One of the easiest ways to start attracting that buy-in is to form a transition task force. Build a small team of evangelists dedicated to promoting collaborative practices throughout the company.

Together, you‘ll build knowledge about how to best encourage productive changes in the particular context of your company. It’s a complex process, and having a dedicated team can provide crucial support at every step.

For example, when it comes time to roll out the changes, this group can model the collaborative behavior, systems, and processes the team agreed on. They’re ready to sow the seeds of change on day one.

Be sure to reassess the makeup of this task force once you’ve reached critical mass. Are there any departments or teams that aren’t represented? The more the better, both in terms of spreading the word about changes and collecting feedback.

Reflect on historical collaborative performance

Think about the systems and workflows that have already proven valuable in your organization.

With the task force, come up with a list. Consider:

  • What makes this instance or process of collaboration valuable?
  • Why is it successful?
  • Where else could similar processes be used?

Give equal time to considering collaborative failures, as these will provide invaluable context for understanding problems moving forward. Now think about:

  • Where and why did collaboration break down?
  • Are there other places where a similarly flawed system is still in use?
  • Why did these solutions seem tempting at the time?

Analyzing past performance reveals insights about your process and where it needs to change.

There’s also another benefit to this. When it comes to getting everyone on board with new practices, you’ll be speaking in your company’s language, referencing shared experiences, to justify the change.

You’ll be pitching something better based on evidence, not just something new.

Invest in collaboration tools

Today’s work takes place across a host of platforms and channels. The current software you’re using to coordinate all this might not be the best one for creating a collaborative culture.

Use the task force to find a product that:

  • Centralizes and organizes communication: Employees have diverse responsibilities, and you want a tool that limits the number of places they have to look for the things they need to do their job. At the same time, you want your people to be free to create and join communities. The tool should organize these conversations so people aren’t overwhelmed.
  • Allows people to work in real-time: Some products will let you co-edit, some are restricted to leaving comments. Make sure the tool supports the level of collaboration your teams need.
  • Remains affordable at scale: What is the total cost of subscriptions for all your users? What about a year from now if you are growing?
  • Fits your size and needs: Nearly every SaaS product claims to work for all teams, large and small. Read the reviews and try them out. It’s usually the case that these products were originally designed for certain business areas or uses.

Have folks within the task force try different products and share thoughts. Some of the best collaboration tools are free forever, giving you the option to pilot different solutions to your organizational challenges without committing.

If you end up settling on the tool you already use, try outlining a new approach that better meets the org’s new collaborative goals.

Enculturate employees into the new way

“Enculturation” means the gradual process by which people acquire the norms and dynamics of another culture. Emphasis on the word gradual because this is not a process that happens overnight. Budget in time for ongoing training and support.

There might be times when folks are tempted “back to the old way” of doing things. They’ll have compelling reasons, too. In the near-term, the old way may well be easiest.

Stay calm. You want people to feel safe coming forward, or they might just struggle in silence, resenting the new system.

This is where task force members come in as resources, not overseers. By making themselves approachable, these middlemen can have crucial conversations one-to-one, then report to the task force if necessary and deliver a solution quickly.

As problems and solutions come up, people can see how they fit within the bigger picture.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t over-focus on the launch of your collaborative culture at the expense of its continued flight.

Encourage positive employee relationships

Problems in the workplace require discussion, imagination, and innovation. Positive relationships between individuals and teams are key.

As roles shift during the transition to a more collaborative workplace, make sure that the people in management positions are getting the support they need to foster that positivity.

Collaborative leadership skills take time to develop. As you switch to a collaborative model, managers, too, might cling to old management structures.

But their direct reports will look to them as examples, so they need to be onboard.

Encourage your managers to check in on employee work/life balance. Tired and stressed doesn’t make for a great collaborative mindset. Put some events on the social calendar and have fun.

That said, real collaboration happens on site. Make sure teams are conducting regular retrospective meetings, and getting to know one another better through continually improving the group’s processes.

Build communities of specialists

In collaborative workspaces with cross-functional teams, you have to watch out to make sure that specialized employees don’t get cut off from their peers.

Developers (this example works with any job title) may be spread across dozens of teams. What if they want to bounce ideas off each other? They need their own community.

This could be as simple as a channel or a chat where developers know they can talk with other developers. The developer community can look different from the HR community, but the goal is the same: creating a place for people with a shared role to go for help and inspiration.

From there, specialists can better serve their respective teams. It also deepens your people’s sense of belonging within the company, to be part of creating the culture.

Recognize collaborative success

As you build your collaborative culture, make sure you’re sharing the ups as well as the downs. Yes, it’s important to root out problems as you improve. But you should also go out of your way to point out the successes.

Leverage your company’s social channels, like Slack or Teams. Encourage team leaders to post about the bugs they’ve fixed, customers they’ve helped, and deals they’ve closed, shouting out everyone involved. This helps drive home the idea that everyone is working together to deliver better business outcomes.

Also, it helps foster collaborative leadership. Recognizing people’s strengths positions them to contribute more.

Look back to move forward

You’ve been operating under the new collaborative model for a few months. Now it’s time to reassemble the task force to take account of how the transition is going so far. Your historical performance from step two provides the baseline. How have you performed since?

As you did earlier on, assess the successes and failures.

Some things to consider:

  • Are people actually engaging on the platforms and collaborative tools?
  • What workflows/processes/teams have been successful and why?
  • Any new roadblocks to communication or collaboration?

It might be a good idea to take an anonymous survey. You want to get as honest feedback as possible about what’s not working.

Then, the quicker you respond to these problems, the better your chances of building trust in the new system.

Last (but not least) thought on customer impact

How will customers be impacted by the move towards a more collaborative culture?

Make sure you’re asking yourselves this at every stage.

There’s bound to be some confusion, especially if you’re migrating to new tools and systems, and the last thing you want is for a valued customer or partner to fall through the cracks.

The best CRM software makes this easier by helping you visualize and monitor all organizational changes and any ensuing conversations with customers. As much as teams and processes shift on your end, aim to minimize the disruption on the other.

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Every company that uses Google Workspace should be using Nira.
Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
Former VP of IT at GitLab

Incredible companies use Nira