In today's complex world, businesses are learning that to thrive, they need a sharp, competitive edge honed through effective teamwork.
Traditionally, teams had relied on the workplace environment to foster collaboration, but office closures during the COVID-19 pandemic forced employees to use virtual videoconferencing apps such as Zoom, whose two-dimensional platforms created challenges for engaging users and building camaraderie. For effective collaboration, teams had to become intentional about it.
Today, as many organisations re-open and offer optional hybrid work arrangements, employees realise they won't be going back to their previous ways of doing business, and they must continue to be purposeful in how they work together.
Joe Bonfante, ACMA, CGMA, a London-based finance business partner at software development company The Workshop — Inventors of Play, said creating a virtual environment with similar characteristics as an office helps make employees feel a part of the team.
"The brilliant thing is we now have so many different technologies that allow us to talk with each other face-to-face in real time," he said. "And when someone needs help, they can quickly type in an instant message, which is a massive bit of technology."
Bonfante, along with Mark Fritz, owner of Procedor, an international leadership consultancy in London, offer five ways how people working remotely can coordinate their efforts to create positive outcomes, enjoy learning from each other, and celebrate shared accomplishments.
Set the stage for success
Effective collaboration begins when members of a team connect, get to know each other, and build on their collective desire to achieve common goals, Fritz said.
"Success is a team sport," he added. "I don't like to mandate that people collaborate, rather I strive to create an environment where they want to work together and realise they need each other in order to be successful."
In a virtual environment, building relationships and bonding with co-workers starts by turning on the computer's camera when meeting online, Bonfante said.
"Using the camera is so important because you can actually see the person to whom you are speaking, and that literally breaks down barriers," he said.
Using ice-breaking conversation whilst getting down to business also helps team members build relationships that foster collaboration.
"Sometimes I initiate specific calls with team members that are non-work-related," Fritz said. "It's an opportunity for us to have a chat and tell stories to get to know each other better, which makes us want to work together as a team."
Build trust and accountability
An environment of trust and accountability helps encourage collaboration, Bonfante said.
"Trust begins by giving the team permission to speak openly and freely without recrimination," he said. "It helps them feel safe enough to challenge both leadership and each other, and that's how you make progress."
Feeling confident about questioning each other's ideas often leads to new and better ways of doing things, and it might also head off roadblocks and mistakes.
Creating transparency is another way to build trust and make each person on the team accept accountability for progress and outcomes. One way to do this is by making everyone's commitments and progress visible to the entire team.
"Transparency helps keep everyone motivated, on task, and focused on overall success," Bonfante said. "If the team members trust each other and stay focused on results, they'll accept accountability for their work in an open forum, and they may be more willing to admit they don't understand something, need help, or if they made a mistake."
Agree on the process
To collaborate effectively, teams must agree on how they will communicate with each other, when to come together, and how to keep progress moving forward.
Apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams are common tools for collaboration, Fritz said.
"Through these apps and others, colleagues can link up and correspond efficiently," he said. "But it's important for users to decide how they wish to use them, and how much communication is necessary."
These apps also have file systems that can store working documents and allow collaborators to view them and work on them in real time. At the same time, anyone with access to the files can monitor progress and make comments.
Other types of project management tools, as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or more intricate software, like the agile project management tool JIRA, can also help keep team members focused on forward progress, Fritz said.
Come together in person
If your workplace is operating in a hybrid environment, a good way to instil the spirit of collaboration is by carefully planning out your time when you are in the office, Bonfante suggested.
Tasks like writing reports, drafting presentations, and doing paperwork can always be accomplished at home. Valuable office time is better spent working alongside your colleagues.
"If you are going to be in your office with your co-workers on a particular day, plan to work together on projects at hand," he said. "Rather than sitting at your desk the entire time you're there, set up meetings with your colleagues or go out to lunch together."
Practise effective leadership
In a collaborative work environment, the leader's role is to empower employees and motivate them to deliver without micromanaging.
Effective team leadership means having good listening skills and feeling empathy for employees, Bonfante said.
"In our fast-paced society, we often listen to reply," Bonfante said. "Instead, if we learn to listen to understand, that makes us more empathetic, and that in turn leads to more effective collaboration."
Leaders who can view problems from their employees' points of view will be aware when someone is having personal problems or struggling with work or deadlines and will be willing to provide support and find a way for others on the team to compensate.
"The team is more likely to step up when the leader demonstrates flexibility, fosters a positive, goal-oriented work environment, and is motivational," Bonfante said. "And that's what team collaboration is really about."
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.