Superior employee collaboration can be a competitive advantage for organizations, but it’s tricky to pull off—even if your employees are individually talented, motivated, and creative.
“Good” collaboration requires, though I hate to use the buzzword, synergy; it requires multiple participants to not only work at their full potential, but also speak the same language, compromise, and avoid unproductive conflicts.
In this guide, we’ll explore some of the most effective tactics you can use to boost collaboration among employees.
Building Employee Morale and Confidence
Collaboration requires employees to volunteer their own unique ideas, perspectives, and points of feedback, so one of the first things you’ll need to establish is employee morale and confidence.
Employees who feel comfortable opening up and confident in their own ideas will be far more likely to contribute productively, and you can instill that mentality with these tactics:
1. Hear all employee ideas.
If you want employees to contribute, they need to feel heard. Otherwise, if they feel their ideas are passed over or ignored, they’re never going to speak up. It can take a long time to build employee trust from the ground up, but once that trust is established, collaboration will be much smoother and more reliable. Start building trust by active listening to your employees, and giving all ideas a platform. Even if you reject an idea, do it with acknowledgment and kindness.
2. Keep employees engaged.
Engaged employees are productive employees, and are much more likely to willingly collaborate with others. What makes employees engaged with their work? That varies from employee to employee, though there are some commonalities you can take advantage of. Make sure employees have a good balance of challenging and approachable tasks, and give them incentives that keep them motivated. If you notice an employee losing enthusiasm or passion, take note and ask them about it.
3. Acknowledge contributions.
Thank people for their work contributions, and do so publicly when possible. When an employee feels like they’re good at what they do, they’re going to be much happier doing it. It’s an easy way to bolster confidence, so employees feel more comfortable sharing ideas and work with each other.
4. Require contributions (and make people comfortable).
It can be nerve wracking to share your ideas and contribute to group projects if you’re not used to those team dynamics. You can ease the transition by holding meetings where employee participation is required; ask that every employee bring something to the table, and use the opportunity to make people feel comfortable as an active part of the team.
5. Encourage creativity.
Periodically encourage employees to engage in creative activities. You can do this passively, like having a communal whiteboard, or actively, by asking employees to doodle something or participate in one of these team building activities. It’s a good break from traditional work, and a low-stakes way to get people thinking in original ways. When people see how easy it is to contribute something to a group, they’ll be much more likely to do so when it counts.
6. Make smart groupings.
A team’s success partially depends on the composition of that team, so group people together intelligently. Review each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and understand how they get along with others. It usually doesn’t make sense to pair people together if they typically ruffle each other’s feathers, nor is it wise to make a group full of loudmouths and a group full of mousy introverts. Make sure you have at least one decisive person to serve as a de facto leader, and try to get a mix of personalities—so long as they can somewhat get along.
7. Lead by example.
If you want your employees to work together, listen to each other, and try to achieve a common goal, you have to lead by example. Do your part to embody the type of work and participation you want your employees to follow. Ask questions, actively listen, treat everyone with respect, and be willing to compromise. Make sure all your team leaders are doing the same.
Improving Individual Skills for Employee Collaboration
You can also work one-on-one with employees or host workshops to develop these necessary employee collaboration skills individually:
8. Teach emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is hard to teach, but it makes a massive difference in the success of your collaborative projects. Emotionally intelligent people are better at reading and responding to the emotional reactions of others, but they’re also better able to recognize and regulate their own emotions. It’s an indispensable skill when you’re working within groups, since even one emotionally intelligent individual can make the entire group’s dynamic better.
9. Cultivate a common language.
Different departments often have their own buzzwords and jargon, and individuals tend to have largely different communication styles. Do what you can to create an internal language that’s common to all departments, all teams, and all employees. Define technical terms simply, and set standards for how people should communicate with each other—from how to format emails to how to make an effective counterargument. With everyone using the same communicative tactics, it’s going to be much easier to resolve differences and collaborate effectively.
10. Set a standard for criticism and feedback.
Criticism is usually where collaborative projects die. If people are scared to give criticism, bad ideas end up moving forward. If people give criticism without regard to productivity or the feelings of others, they can disrupt the project and make people angry. Make sure everyone knows how to give constructive criticism; in other words, make sure they understand that all criticism should be specific, actionable, worded politely, and ideally, paired with a compliment or positive note.
Boost Collaboration by Eliminating Silos
Silos can be devastating to any company. If two departments are segregated, with different goals, different systems, and entirely different languages, they’re never going to be able to collaborate effectively. Prevent a silo mentality with these strategies:
11. Create a community environment.
In your workplace, try to create a communal environment in any way that you can. For some businesses, open workspaces work well. For others, a comfortable break room where employees can relax together is a better option. The important thing is to find a way for your team members to see each other and carry casual conversations semi-frequently—even if they work in different departments.
12. Focus on high-level goals.
Collaboration becomes much more effective when employees are working toward the same objectives. Make sure you clarify the high-level goals of your organization, as well as the objectives of each project. That way, employees can make contributions and evaluate the contributions of others using a consistent rubric—and not just a subjective gut feeling, or a habit developed within one specific department.
13. Cross train.
Many organizations employ cross-training as a kind of backup plan, in case an employee needs to step in to handle someone else’s duties temporarily. But it serves another purpose; it introduces your team members to the roles and responsibilities of others. This allows employees to get a bigger-picture perspective of your organization, introducing them to new terms and new systems, and gives them a keener sense of empathy, which they can use in interactions with this department moving forward.
14. Mix departments in meetings.
Even if not technically necessary, it can be beneficial to have representatives from multiple different departments in your meetings. This way, reps from each department can share their department’s perspective on various matters—again, in a low-stakes environment. It’s a good way to build empathy and establish a higher-level vision of how the company works.
15. Increase transparency.
Transparency is always a good thing for employee morale and productivity, but it’s especially important if you’re trying to break down silos. Set up your project management systems and communication platforms so employees can see what other people are doing. Consider asking each department to share their goals, progress, and struggles in regular meetings as well. Segregating departments and allowing isolation in any form is only going to make things worse.
Tools and Applications to Boost Employee Collaboration
The right tools can make a big difference in how your employees collaborate. If it’s easy and intuitive to work together on a common project, employees will be more likely to do it productively (and happily):
16. Use a mix of communication mediums.
I love email, but it’s not the right channel for big group discussions, emergency alerts, brainstorming sessions, or introductions. If you want people to collaborate well, you’ll need a mix of different communication mediums available—and you need your employees to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each. Email, phone calls, video calls, face-to-face meetings, and instant messages all have their place.
17. Invest in the right collaborative platforms.
Collaboration is much easier when employees are using tools designed with collaboration in mind. G Suite is one of the most popular business software packages available, and for good reason—all its cloud-based productivity apps make it easy for multiple people to work on the same documents, spreadsheets, and other files, all at the same time. You don’t have to keep track of multiple versions, and everyone can leave and respond to comments. There are even whiteboard and note-taking tools that let people brainstorm and share thoughts easily with each other. Whatever you choose to use, make sure it’s intuitive and easy to work together.
18. Establish a hierarchy.
You’d think collaboration demands a purely democratic platform, where all participants are equal, but in fact, this can be counterproductive. It’s important to have something of a hierarchy in these collaborative groups; one person should serve as the final decision maker for each project, even if that position rotates from project to project. This way, you’ll have a built-in tiebreaker, and projects won’t stall out due to indecisiveness. Applications can help you resolve this by establishing different “roles” within the system, or different permissions.
19. Separate areas for “messy” and “clean” work.
Collaboration often gets messy, with sketches, brainstorming diagrams, and loose notes. Eventually, you’ll want a clean finished product that’s polished and easy for an outsider to understand. Accordingly, you’ll want to have collaborative tools that allow for both “messy” and “clean” work in separate areas.
20. Measure and evaluate performance.
How do you know if your employees are collaborating effectively? As part of your suite of tools, you should have multiple apps that help you measure and analyze employee performance. For example, a productivity tool like EmailAnalytics can help you keep track of employee conversations over email, noting when, where, and how your employees are spending most of their time. Time trackers and project analytics software can be similarly helpful.
Team Building and Employee Bonding for Better Collaboration
We’ve written an extensive guide on employee team building, with 50 ideas for how to develop better employee bonds, but below are some of the high-level highlights. These are vital for establishing better connections between employees, facilitating better communication and teamwork, and boosting collaboration among employees:
21. Play games.
Any type of game, from classic board games to complex murder mysteries, can facilitate bonding, teamwork, and better communication. These are low-stakes competitive environments, so they often bring out the best in people. Plus, they’re fun, so most employees will love the opportunity to break from work and have a good time.
22. Go out together.
Similarly, you can go out on an adventure together as a group. Take a lunch with all your employees, or take them out in small teams for good food and personal conversation. If you’re interested in something bigger and more in-depth, you could take employees to an escape room, or do something physical that requires teamwork like kayaking.
23. Participate in team building activities.
There are lots of other simple, low-cost activities that facilitate teambuilding, including karaoke, storytelling circles, and open group discussions. Experiment to see what types of events and interactions seem to bring your people closer together.
24. Get remote teams together when possible.
Speaking of bringing people together, encouraging collaboration between remote workers can be especially challenging. Frequent communication and easy collaboration platforms can make things easier, but it’s still important to bring your remote teams together in person occasionally.
Rewards and Motivation for Employee Collaboration
It’s also helpful to establish rewards and set up other means of motivation for your employees to collaborate.
25. Stir up friendly competition.
Pit two different teams against each other, but try to keep things lighthearted and friendly. For example, you might create a “red team” and “blue team” to each try and come up with a new marketing strategy for your latest product. The winners could receive bragging rights and a small bonus, like a free lunch.
26. Reward collaboration and teamwork.
External motivation is still reliable for encouraging action, so try to set up rewards for successful collaboration and teamwork. Bonuses, promotions, and extra privileges are nice, but sometimes, even a genuine compliment is reward enough to encourage repeat behavior.
27. Ask for feedback.
Finally, make sure you ask your employees for feedback regularly. Do they enjoy collaborating with others? If not, what could be done to improve their experience? Are there any tools, procedural changes, or environmental additions that would make them more comfortable or better capable of collaborating?
If you’re interested in getting a closer look at how your team members are currently collaborating (and measuring current collaboration among employees), try using EmailAnalytics. It’s an analytics tool that integrates with Gmail and G Suite to tell you how your employees are emailing.
For example, you’ll learn your employees’ busiest times and days of the week, the length and development of their email threads, and even their top senders and recipients. It’s great for studying employee relationships and dissecting the effectiveness of your employee collaboration strategies as they develop—so give it a try (for free), and see what it can do for your team!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.