Rethinking Collaboration in the Digital Age

The digital age is changing work for everyone, allowing more people to work online, anytime and from anywhere. But even for employees who don’t work remotely, collaborating in digital environments is the norm. Whether you’re working on a project with your team in Google Docs, updating team members via Slack or Basecamp, or using Zoom to meet with clients around the globe, you’re engaged in digital collaboration.

“The future of work is collaborative,” says Sean Jackson, founder and CEO of Sift. “It’s different stakeholders from different parts of your business with different expertise on different continents or cities all working collaboratively together to solve a common problem or accomplish a common goal.”

Companies know they need their teams to collaborate effectively to get work done. But how can you use collaboration strategically to move your business forward?

Here are three strategies you can use to foster effective collaboration in the digital age.

Approach Collaboration Strategically

Start by approaching collaboration as a tool to solve workforce and business problems. “Employers should think strategically about what goal they want to achieve,” Jackson says. He recommends clearly defining any problems you experience with collaboration, and thinking strategically about how to solve them.

For example, he says, “You might identify that 60% of your sales employees say they can't collaborate with external stakeholders, but you're spending X amount of money communicating with external stakeholders every year.” You need to identify a solution for better collaboration to get more value from the money you’re spending.

A key step is to define what effective collaboration looks like for your organization: Does it mean cross-team collaboration or inter-team collaboration? Also, consider what outcomes successful collaboration generates.

Don’t invest in a tool until you’ve identified what kind of collaboration you need and how you’re going to measure it. “Think about what you really need,” Jackson says. “Is the challenge that your people don't know who to talk to? Is the challenge that people can't talk to people across continents or across regions? Is the problem that there's no way to share documents easily?”

By focusing on your specific issues and identifying solutions, you can be tactical rather than merely choosing a tool based on others talking about it. “Deploying Slack doesn't change anything at your organization,” Jackson says. “You're not magically more collaborative because you have a slightly better instant messaging tool. It doesn't change fundamentally how people collaborate.”

Invest in the Relationship

Good collaboration is built on trust. “Collaboration in the digital age involves different types of collaboration, but at the end of the day we are human,” says Erin Miller, vice president of human resources at PrecisionHawk. “We will never be able to fully get away from that face-to-face conversation, from connection, because you need that to establish a baseline of trust.”

Employers that want to foster effective collaboration need to build trust by investing in relationships. “We need to attend to the relationship between people first to set a foundation, and then everything else gets a lot easier,” says Jason Lauritsen, an employee engagement expert and HR consultant.

Lauritsen agrees that tools can’t make up for a lack of trust between members of a team. “It doesn't matter how great the tool or approach is; if employees don't trust one another or don't know one another, that's always going to be a barrier to doing collaborative work together.”

Focus on creating opportunities for face-to-face interactions. Rather than having a back and forth in Slack, pick up the phone or talk to your coworker face-to-face, Miller says.

For remote teams, face time can be even more important. “Bring the team together,” Lauritsen says, “even if it means having remote teams hold coworking retreats once or twice a year.” Investing in bringing remote teams together builds relationships, he says. “You just can't substitute or skip over the process of building that foundation of relationship through in-person interactions. You can try to replicate it through video and other tools, but if you really want to accelerate it, you’ve got to get people together face-to-face.”

Know Your People

One of the most effective strategies to build collaboration is to focus on the human dynamic of collaborative work. Lauritsen recommends using behavioral profiles to identify team members’ strengths, weaknesses and roles.

Team leaders can also create or use existing frameworks to guide collaborative work. Miller recommends the DACI framework for decision making to guide roles in a collaborative project. In DACI, the “D” stands for the driver, who leads the project and brings the right people together. The “A” refers to team members in the role of approver, who make decisions about the project. The “C’s” are contributors and the “I’s” are individuals who need to be informed about the project’s progress.

Having people create a “user’s manual” about themselves can also be an effective way to encourage self-reflection about their roles within collaboration, Lauritsen says. “The better we know each other and we can articulate that knowledge, the more likely we are to be able to set the foundation to get what we need from others to do our best work,” he says.