Promoting Collaboration in the Modern Workplace

February 12, 2019

Remember when the open office was the next big thing?

Tech companies started breaking down physical workplace barriers and creating more open, seemingly energetic environments for their employees to work in. What started as a trend among some of the most cutting-edge companies in the world quickly drew the attention of business leaders across the board.

Companies restructured their workspaces to create environments that were intended to facilitate collaboration and promote frequent and active conversation between employees. While open office plans were initially associated with more “edgy” tech companies, they saw fast and widespread adoption across industries. In fact, the International Facilities Association tells us that today, some 70% of American office workers have either low or no partitions between their desks.

The problem? While open office plans were initially designed (and expected) to improve workplace productivity, the results have actually been mixed at best. The most obvious downsides are the increased distractions and lack of privacy that come with literally breaking down barriers between employees. It doesn’t stop there though - a new Harvard study shows that open offices can actually hinder collaboration by causing people to “socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.” Yikes.

Quality over quantity

This study, and others like it, lay the facts out in plain terms. Open offices clearly help companies reduce overhead, but any benefits beyond that are subjective and usually not backed by much research. Still, you can’t blame companies for trying - it makes sense on paper right? Ditching the stale, gray cubicle farms and replacing them with energetic open environments should have made employees so much more collaborative.

As it turns out though, it’s not just the quantity of interactions that decreases, it’s the quality too. The Harvard study’s authors tell us that surveyed company execs reported that by their metrics, productivity among employees declined after moving to a layout without “spatial boundaries.” As much as people don’t want to work in silos, they do value privacy and the ability to get things done without consistent distractions around - the kind that are now commonly found in open offices. 

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This brings us to a pretty important question.

How do people want to work?

Simple - on their terms. Today's employees want to choose when and how they work, and are comfortable being accountable for results instead of how many hours they clock. This allows them to eliminate time-consuming commutes, work without distraction, and create better work/life balance. For these reasons, workplace flexibility has also become an important factor for people considering new jobs. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 80-90% of U.S. employees now want the ability to telework at least part of the time.

Execs and managers who are hesitant to offer “work from home” options are usually worried about a lack of supervision, which makes sense. It’s easy to picture employees being 3 hours into a Netflix binge by lunchtime, only taking breaks to respond to email to let people know they’re still there. But the truth is that today’s companies have more ways to measure productivity than ever before, so it’s pretty obvious when an employee isn’t producing results, regardless of where they work from.

On the flip side, companies that embrace this trend have seen a number of positive outcomes. Flexible work arrangements have been proven to improve productivity, reduce stress, and even decrease employee attrition.

Embracing the modern workplace

For companies that haven’t embraced flexible work options, it’s never too late to start. There’s no indication that this trend is going away anytime soon, so businesses that don’t offer the option to work remotely risk losing employees and limiting their hiring pool. That said, if your management team is thinking about creating a more flexible work environment, there are a few key things to consider first.

The modern workplace isn’t defined by strict working hours, office layouts, or a mandated level of managerial supervision. It’s all about creating tangible goals and commonly-accepted performance metrics, then allowing and enabling your employees to hit them however they see fit. Creating flexible work options for employees goes beyond just letting them work from home - companies also need to create a structure that allows remote employees to work effectively, which means there should be a focus on providing the same access to information and coworkers that an in-office worker would have.

Put another way, companies need to focus on facilitating collaboration between employees, regardless of where they are. By providing all employees with tools that allow them to communicate and share information in real time, companies can break down collaboration barriers in a more effective way than open offices ever did. After all, there’s a difference between being able to hear all your coworkers and actually listening to them.

At Votacall, we’ve developed a structure that enables employees to work from home by focusing on a few key areas. This isn’t the “best” way to make this move by any means. In fact, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a flexible, collaborative work environment. Hopefully though, this post lays out a few ideas that you can borrow, tailor to your staff, and improve on in the process of creating a more flexible work environment.

Develop systems to measure performance

Like I mentioned above, one of the biggest stigmas associated with working remotely is that employees are less productive. This perception is pretty common, and can largely be chalked up to managers who are nervous about losing the ability to supervise employees by being in the same room as them. The problem is, there aren’t that many cases where employees openly slack or seem unproductive. The employees that look the busiest or work the longest hours aren’t necessarily your most effective - productivity is measured by results more than activity.

Today, companies have the ability to measure employee productivity using a combination of data and established practices. This can mean developing performance metrics that managers can track, or be something as simple as establishing deadlines for task-based work. Software teams usually have a consistent scheduled meeting to make sure they’re on track when building products, just like sales teams can now measure rep performance using activity metrics as opposed to just revenue. When companies focus on the actual results of work rather than its’ appearance, it becomes a lot easier to blur the lines between in-office and remote employees.

By providing clear guidelines about how performance is measured, companies can ensure that their remote employees are actively engaged and working on the same timelines as their in-office counterparts. Companies with established systems can measure the performance of all employees, regardless of location, in a way that’s consistent and easy to understand.

Collaborate in real-time

Traditional methods of information and file sharing have quickly become outdated, and actually inhibit effective collaboration today. True workplace collaboration requires the seamless sharing of information across teams and departments, and also requires multiple people to work together in real-time.

For those reasons, companies have adopted cloud-based file-sharing applications, which not only allow for shared access to information and group work, but also store everything securely in one central hub. Before technology like Google Drive, employees would have to make sure they were working on the latest version of a project or run the risk of wasting time and effort. They’d also have to double-check to make sure they had the latest version of a report before meeting with their teams. Cloud storage applications have helped us do away with these types of tedious problems while facilitating real-time project collaboration.

This presents an obvious benefit for remote employees - they can work at their pace without distraction while knowing that they’re on the same page as the rest of their team. Companies that don’t use cloud-based storage systems put their remote employees at a disadvantage by making it more difficult for them to stay up-to-date on project-based work. Those that do ensure that their remote employees have the same access as in-office workers, which is an important part of promoting effective collaboration.

Use internal wikis

Internal wikis are a great place to store information about company processes, tool usage, and key projects. Employees can refer to them anytime they want to look up company-specific information, whether it’s something general like a product update or more specific like how to effectively use the CRM.

For starters, companies that implement internal wikis give themselves a leg up when it comes to onboarding new employees. Usually, management teams invest both time and money in bringing new talent to their companies, but don’t always pay close enough attention to providing effective training resources. By storing useful company & job information in a central hub, companies allow new hires to learn and ramp up faster - this sets them up to contribute more quickly, and also frees up some time for the employees that would normally be in charge of extensive hands-on training.

Wikis aren’t just helpful when onboarding new staff - they help just about any knowledge-based worker save time. A report by McKinsey and Co. shows that the average worker spends almost 20% of their time either looking for internal information, or tracking down a colleague to help them with a specific task. On the flip side, companies that have a “searchable record of knowledge” can significantly reduce the amount of time employees spend looking for company information.

By creating internal wikis/resource libraries, companies ensure that their remote employees always have access to the information they need to do their jobs effectively. Having a base of shared knowledge allows them to get quick answers to questions that could otherwise lead to lost time, which goes a long way towards improving productivity.

Invest in the right technology

This should go without saying, but a distributed team without the ability to easily communicate isn’t set up to collaborate effectively. In fact, recent data shows that 67% of workers cite poor communication as the biggest obstacle to effective collaboration. In the modern workplace, this presents even more of a problem, because not all employees are always going to be in the same place.

When thinking about effective communication channels, context matters. An instant message (IM) probably isn’t the best way to send an important document to a coworker, just like sending an email about a casual conversation topic isn’t a great use of time. However, when employees are armed with communication channels that they can choose from depending on the situation (voice, video, IM etc.), collaboration between individuals becomes a lot easier.

It’s also important for businesses to think about how to open up communication channels without overwhelming employees. Workers should have different methods of communication to choose from based on context, but they should also only have access to the tools that are really going to help them. That’s where technology like Unified Communications (UC) comes into play - by unifying communication channels under one, easy-to-use platform, companies give employees the ability to collaborate easily without worrying about missing a call, email, or message because they forgot to check.

To Wrap-Up

Flexibility is quickly becoming a must-have job characteristic that’s changing the way companies think about hiring and managing their employees. In order to fully adapt to the modern workplace, businesses need to focus on effectively measuring performance, sharing information, and facilitating communication and collaboration.

If you want to dig into this topic a bit deeper, check out our new guide that goes into more depth about the modern workplace, and shows how the cloud enhances productivity within it.


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