When we think of collaboration, images of people sitting around a table usually come to mind. Perhaps you remember the idea that blossomed from a chance encounter in the hallway, or a conversation you heard over a cube wall. All these visual images include being physically present with others. With the move to a blended environment where some work in the office and others work remotely, many leaders are concerned that the transformation that comes from team collaboration will not happen. This could be a valid concern if we don’t shift our mindset and give up the notion that collaboration only happens in 3-D.

Collaboration: the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing. Source: Cambridge Dictionary By definition collaboration does not require physical proximity. It is driven by culture, clarity of purpose, and communication.

  • The culture of an organization will foster or inhibit the level of collaboration that takes place amongst the team members. Do team members feel safe in sharing their ideas, or do they risk being criticized for breaking the status quo? Does leadership encourage idea sharing from all levels of the organization? Leadership can say they want innovation, but their actions may say otherwise. Scoffing at ideas, not following up on submissions, and eye rolling are all examples of almost subconscious things that inhibit collaboration. All these actions discourage future contributions from that team member, and others that witness it. Instead, your culture needs a foundation of trust where talent can introduce problems or challenges without fear of sludge.
  • A clear purpose will unite you as you move forward, values will guide your behavior, and goals will focus your energy,” says Kenneth H. Blanchard in Collaboration Begins with You: Be a Silo Buster. A unified focus on your organization’s mission keeps everyone rowing in the same direction, making your collaboration efforts more productive and impactful.
  • Transparent communication is core to the clarity of the goals and keeping the culture alive. This is not achieved by simply saying “we have an open-door policy,” or holding meetings where you ask for input on the spot. Each member of the team processes and ideates differently. There should be multiple formats and opportunities for team members to contribute and speak up.

So why do we feel collaboration can only happen when we are in person? Likely it is because of the triggers that are engrained in us. An open office door means we can step in for a chat. We hear someone isn’t on the phone, so we can throw an idea over the cube wall. We are walking out of a meeting together and continue the discussion. These circumstances do make it easier to collaborate, but let’s translate these opportunities to a blended work environment.

  • To create the feeling that the “door is open” in a blended environment look at the tools we have available. Use the availability options in Teams, Slack, or whatever instant messaging system you use. With these systems, team members working from anywhere can check your availability without having to leave their desk. You can also use a shared Outlook calendar to show when you have “office hours.” These are times you can be interrupted. Even in the office, you get people knocking on your door or popping in when the door is closed. By using these tools, you can more effectively communicate when you really are available and when you’d rather not be disturbed. Consistent use of these tools can also make you more productive by giving you some true heads down time.
  • Popping by the cube is a convenient way to chat with someone, but it is not always obvious if that is a good time for them to talk. Not everyone is comfortable talking straight and letting us know when they really don’t have time to chat. By using instant messaging tools, we can see if it is a good time to converse. When the person is available, blended team members then can jump on the phone, a video call, or chat via IM.
  • Walking together on a break. This is a great time new ideas can be generated. These walks can still be scheduled when in a blended environment. Grab your phone and earbuds and off you go. I did this a lot during COVID, where I conducted collaboration calls with peers and clients while we were both out in nature walking. When we step away from the computer and get outside, new ideas come to us. Take your colleague along virtually.
  • Continuing the conversation as you leave a meeting is a great time to build momentum and collaborate. When we are in person, we may do this with who we are walking out the door with, or whoever is closest. In a blended environment, you can IM someone during the meeting to ask if they want to talk further afterward. And instead of wandering around the office trying to find the other person you would like to include in your discussion you can ping them electronically, via IM, text, whatever the preferred communication method is.
  • Catching them in the hallway. These are fun breaks in the day, but how often are the things discussed in those hallway chats followed up on? You were on the way to the restroom, or another meeting. You can’t immediately recap the conversation in the moment before you were off to the next thing. To keep the culture and connections strong with co-workers we should randomly reach out to colleagues to say hi, see how they are doing just like we would in the office. If a collaborative idea germinates you have all the tools at your fingertips to document it with a recap and establish a next step.
  • Grab lunch together. When we have colleagues who are remote, we feel like this is impossible to share a meal, but why? We can still block the time and video conference while we have lunch at our desk, home, or wherever our remote location is. Some feel they can’t eat while on camera. Again, I ask why? Is it because you don’t want to eat in front of them? When having lunch together at a restaurant or in the lunch room at work, you are eating in front of others; the only difference in a video conference lunch is that you see yourself. Change your viewing settings so you don’t see yourself and the self-consciousness goes away. Think of the advantage, you don’t even have to agree on the restaurant!

You may be thinking, this makes sense but it takes more effort. Until these become our habits, it will feel like more effort, but what about the advantages? They include:

By being more intentional in our outreach and efforts to stay connected, we keep the culture alive, we collaborate with more people than those seated in close proximity, we get more interaction between departments and locations, and we generate more comprehensive ideas and solutions. Firms with multiple offices have been working in a blended environment for years, but unfortunately, the collaboration could still improve. By practicing these new techniques for collaborating, we can foster more communication across the whole firm, at all levels, and all locations.

Have a successful day!