Posted by Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin, President and CEO of Tribe
Is collaboration important for your company? For many of the companies we work with at Tribe, leadership is increasingly interested in fostering a spirit of collaboration between employees, particularly between employees who are subject media experts in different areas, departments and disciplines.
What fosters collaboration? The staying power of the old water cooler cliche communicates an important nugget of wisdom. People who engage in casual conversation — building relationships over topics as trivial as the weather, last night’s sports scores or the challenges of getting a baby to sleep through the night — are more apt to share thoughts on work projects as well. Collaboration happens when people already feel a level of comfort and familiarity with each other.
More and more work spaces are being designed with this water cooler theory in mind. Collaborative spaces are deliberatively placed in close proximity to shared resources like coffee machines or photocopiers. Employees reaching over each other for the non-dairy creamer engage in idle chit chat, and sometimes that conversation may lead to a discussion of work that might be continued in a nearby sitting area or standing in the doorway of someone’s office.
The photocopier itself is thought to be a surprisingly powerful catalyst for collaboration. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by researchers Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks points out that employees having to wait their turn at the copier affords an opportunity for conversation and potential collaboration. They also may find relevancies for their own work in something another employee is photocopying, when they otherwise might not even be aware the other person was working on that topic or issue.
But even better, sometimes the darned thing won’t work. Then you find employees working together to free paper jams, replace toner, or figure out the right sequence of buttons that must be pressed to clear the problem. Because the people who know how to replace a toner cartridge are typically not the ones at the top of the corporate hierarchy, it also provides opportunities for reverse mentoring that give underlings the confidence to later share other knowledge or ideas with management.
But none of that happens without cultural permission. One of the reasons the photocopier is such a fertile area for collaboration is that, as Fayard and Weeks put it, “copying is perceived as work.” Some workplace cultures seem to condone workplace socializing while others tacitly discourage it. A boss who passes two colleagues chatting in the hallway and makes disparaging remarks about them not having enough to do is effectively squashing the beginnings of collaboration.
Sure, you can force collaboration. You can put people with various expertise and from different departments in a room and ask them to work together to solve a problem or come up with ideas. But collaboration happens much more easily, and with a higher caliber of results, when there’s already a foundation of familiarity built on casual conversation.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you should get rid of a few photocopiers so people have to stand in line. The photocopier example is merely emblematic of how casual social interactions can lead to collaboration. The point really is that those sorts of social interactions need to be sanctioned, if your company truly wants to foster collaboration.
You find those same sorts of casual interactions among smokers standing outside chatting over a cigarette. Smokers also tend to represent a diverse cross section of job titles and departments. But few companies are likely to encourage smoking as a means to support collaboration.
What’s your best advice on how to foster collaboration? I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences in different organizations.
Next week, we’ll take a look at why you might actually want employees to be spending time on social media at work.