Sometimes referred to as the collaborative generation, millennials became the largest share of the U.S. workforce in 2015. With more than one-in-three American workers now 18- to 34-years old, there is a growing realization that businesses can't continue to operate in a strictly top-down manner if they expect to retain talent.
Consider that, in a 2014 survey, 57 percent of workers chose a "highly collaborative environment” when asked what features they would include in their ideal work environment -- remarkably surpassing both working remotely (54 percent) and exposure to the latest technologies (44 percent).
Given the push to renovate outmoded hierarchies, here are my best practices for turning a conventionally managed business into a collaborative environment.
1. Assess whether your current culture is collaborative.
If the culture isn't conducive to a collaborative environment, it doesn't matter how many round tables you put in the office or how many team-building activities you do, the culture will not be collaborative. Consider whether people are encouraged to interact with each other. Are they paired up as teams on projects? Is the performance review system set up to pit people against each other or work collaboratively? If the former, then change the review system. Consider a mentoring system or buddy system where colleagues are paired up on projects or committees. Is delegation and partnering properly rewarded? Are opportunities for collaboration provided or are people expected to be individual contributors at all times? Are team successes shared and celebrated? Assessing your current culture and what can be done to make it more collaborative is the best place to start.
2. Identify the collaborators and weed out the obstructers.
If you don't have the right personalities on the team, collaboration is not going to work. Are the personalities in the organization out for themselves or comfortable working as part of the team? If the latter—and they believe in personal accountability—the team is on a collaborative path. A good clue is how well they can delegate or partner with others on the team. Outliers may become more collaborative with a bit of coaching. If, after clear expectations have been set and coaching has been provided, appropriate delegation or partnering with colleagues is not happening, however, then you definitely have an obstructer on the team. Let them go or “manage them out” and they will leave on their own. They will pollute any collaborative culture you are trying to build.
3. Maintain an airy workspace, but be flexible with work styles.
Does the office consist of a lot of walls and doors? It's popular now to create airy workspaces where everything is out in the open. These environments can promote collaboration naturally, but it's important to recognize that people have different work styles based on their roles. Create cozier spaces that allow for group discussions or one-on-ones. A mixed space acknowledges different work styles. Ask your team to provide input as well. People know how they like to work but often don’t think about expressing it until a work style they don’t like is forced upon them. Avoid waiting for that moment. Observe your team members naturally and try out some different work environments with furnishings, room configurations, floor layouts and more to figure out what works best.
4. Use technology to foster collaboration.
The right technology can help foster collaboration. On the flip side, not having the right tools hinders collaboration. Traditional law firms have this problem. You need to eliminate roadblocks, incorporating messaging platforms and telecommunication tools that make transferring files across a company easy. As for managing remote teams, I favor deploying video conferencing software. For collaborating with colleagues in distant offices, try to mimic an in-person experience as much as possible. Building relationships among team members by letting them see each other's faces—even if they're on a screen— can help form mutual bonds of trust.
5. Implement a feedback loop.
Without built-in feedback, you might as well be collaborating in the dark. When I think about working in a collaborative environment in my own businesses, it's really about figuring out what works and what doesn't . It's important to deconstruct the process so you can replicate what was successful or identify where a breakdown occurred. Examine scenarios in which collaboration worked beautifully- perhaps it was on a major deal or case? How did that success come about? Then look at scenarios in which it didn’t work well. What went wrong? Was there a lack of communication, too many people involved, lack of the right technology or an obstructer personality? Once you have this information, tweak the process so that it leads to more successful results going forward.
The bottom line.
Building a collaborative environment isn't just about rearranging some desks or going on a retreat together. There must be a thoughtful, sustained and concerted effort to create a culture that's conducive to collaboration; otherwise, creating a collaborative environment is just a bunch of talk. It is essential to assess what's working and whether people are learning or being mentored, and to implement a feedback loop as well as utilize technology to foster collaboration. By following these key steps, workplaces will create the kind of collaborative environment that employees are seeking and that produces meaningful results.