How to collaborate as remote working becomes the norm

Respecting each other’s time is key to avoiding back-pedalling and misunderstanding

A well-used management mantra is that there is “no I” in team and while the concept is useful in the right context, for self-starters, loners and high achievers, collaboration can hang like a millstone around their neck.

The last year has been particularly tough on those who feel this way, as remote working has ramped collaboration up to new heights. The bad news for them is that it’s not going away anytime soon. In fact, the new shape of the working landscape means there will be more not less of it as hybrid and virtual-first working models become the norm.

"In this new world of work, we have to rethink teamwork, rethink managing and leading, and rethink collaboration, engagement and culture," says business coach Neil O'Brien of Time to Fly. "I have always believed that you get the culture you behave. I also believe that you get the collaboration you deserve. If people in this remote and isolated workplace have lost their connection to colleagues, to customers and to the mission of the business, then there may be very little constructive collaboration ahead."

Encouraging multidisciplinary groups to share diverse perspectives has repeatedly been shown to spark innovation, improve commercial outcomes and produce better decision making. However, these initiatives are often not as happy clappy as they sound because of their potential to create conflict. Simply put, without thoughtful preparation, some clear ground rules and good communication, the vagaries of human behaviour can quickly turn what looks like a great collaboration on paper into a real-life disaster.

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Collaboration is a powerful tool, but there’s more to the process than simply deciding to do it.

Assuming a willingness to collaborate can create insecurity and this can lead to defensive and risk-averse behaviours because anxiety makes people gravitate towards what they know. If they really become truculent they may stop showing up for meetings or start withholding information from the perceived “other side”. This may sound petty, but corporate history is littered with examples of well-planned collaborations derailed by interpersonal resentments.

Human fallout

Those putting collaborations together often spend a long time working on the processes and logistics involved but give very little consideration to the potential for human fallout.

One way of preventing a backlash is by doing a threat audit that identifies the likely flash points in advance. For example, those used to working in a culture that silos information may need a lot of reassurance before they feel comfortable sharing with colleagues from other departments. Wrongly orchestrated, collaboration can feel like a threat and it may seem that the other department is somehow getting the upper hand. Teams will instinctively move to protect their patch and individuals may become overly competitive or hostile when doing so.

Even when people want to collaborate, the process can go wrong because of incompatible values or mismatched skillsets, and just about any collaboration has the potential to fail if there’s a clash of expertise, personality or style.

"We're talking about what's below the surface. It's the iceberg model and the reality of what happens in most organisations," says Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean at the UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business. "Very often what's going on below is huge and what consumes us much more than the things we can see. True collaboration is harder than we tend to think. It is also a richly emotional business. If you find yourself ruminating about a work issue, chances are it will be human-sized, interpersonal or communication-related.

Layer of ambiguity

“Collaboration requires a lot of different skills to make it work successfully,” she adds. “Alignment is critical and that’s been challenged by the pandemic. Because people are not together they can’t stick their head around a door to check in or ask someone a quick question. We’ve lost the informality of the workplace and gained the distance and asynchronicity of remote working. This has added an extra layer of ambiguity to be navigated. Consequently, alignment needs to become more explicit as we can’t rely on people being on the same page by virtue of being together.”

Houlihan adds that the simmering doubts, fears or resentments arising around collaboration need to be aired.

“If potential issues such as fair play and respecting people’s time are not surfaced beforehand, then you spend a lot of time back-pedalling and dealing with the fallout from misunderstandings,” she says. “Trying to do this at a distance makes it even harder, but it also creates the opportunity to be more mindful, more conscious and more explicit in the dialogue of how we work together.

“One thing a collaboration really needs is a champion – not necessarily a leader – but someone who shepherds the administrative dynamic and makes sure things don’t fall through the cracks. The key words here are communication and clarity without letting the need for clarity become too restrictive because things and team members may change as a collaboration progresses.”

A good indicator of workplace connections that are working well is sense of humour, says Neil O’Brien. “You’ve got a problem with connection and collaboration when the sense of fun leaves the team so if you want more collaboration, find ways to make it more enjoyable and remind people regularly of the valuable contribution they are making. Your people want to know that you know they exist and then collaboration will be something they will offer, not something that they have to comply with.”