Teamwork troubleshooter: How to overcome habits that sabotage workplace collaboration

Of all the things changed by the global pandemic, one of the most significant is the way in which teams collaborate.

Since teams have been working remotely or hybrid, traditional channels have been replaced with everything from chat apps to video platforms. This caused the need for a quick learning curve to maintain productivity and keep the wheels of business turning.

However, while much has been learned in a short time, some long-term bad habits remain that can reduce the effectiveness of business collaboration. The four key habits that need to change are:

Habit 1: Disorganised information flow 

It used to be convenient to pop over to a colleague’s desk to touch base on a task, quickly troubleshoot an issue or follow up on an earlier conversation. And because of close physical proximity, including other relevant parties was seamless.

This kind of impromptu collaboration is invaluable for fast-moving teams, but finding an effective replacement within a remote team without contributing to meeting overload has been a challenge. Any off-the-cuff chat between two remote employees requires finding time on a calendar. And if any part of that chat becomes relevant to someone not in the meeting, the opportunity to weave them in may not always be there due to scheduling conflicts.

This presents a disjointed flow of information for remote teams. To combat it, teams often try to focus on cutting down on meetings in the name of communicating the most important information in larger group meetings. But this in turn, can hamper teams from moving quickly by bottlenecking important information until “everyone is in the same room.”

The solution:

If people constantly have to schedule follow-up meetings to catch up on missed details, learn technical engineering processes, or understand the structure of a marketing program, it presents an opportunity to improve your documentation—and save yourself and others from having to schedule another meeting down the road.

Habit 2: Believing in one-size fits all collaboration

Virtual meetings —especially those attended by both remote and in-person workers— tend to be dominated by the loudest and most active voices. This can be seen during in-person meetings, too.

For example, many teams default to holding “brainstorming sessions” the same way each time. Participants have a loose topic to discuss, so the meeting is opened up to free-wheeling discussion. The team then converges around the ideas of the people who spoke up first or most confidently (especially if they are in a leadership position), deferring to their vocal command of the room.

The solution:

One effective way to avoid one-size-fits-all collaboration is to accommodate common collaboration styles. Some team members like to see ideas sketched out with drawings, graphics, and sticky notes and are likely to express themselves with GIFs and emojis. 

Others gravitate toward technology that enables direct, human-to-human teamwork and connection. Fast-paced virtual meetings can feel draining to relational collaborators, so more intimate activities like team exercises or breakout sessions can help them surface their best ideas.

Meanwhile, introspective collaborators like to collect their thoughts before offering a suggestion and gravitate toward more deliberate approaches to collaboration. They may be frustrated with virtual meetings that appear aimless or poorly facilitated, and they prefer to have a clear agenda and formalised processes for documenting follow-up.  Ensuring all types can contribute is important.

Habit 3: Organising meetings for in-office employees

Unfortunately, remote team members often get unintentionally left behind from the social experiences that in-office employees enjoy together. This can happen in a variety of ways, especially with how teams approach collaboration. 

Those physically present in a meeting may overlook the need to adapt the conversation to include those joining remotely equitably. A meeting paced to in-office participants might move on from topics before someone who is remote has a chance to unmute and chime in.

Remote employees may miss the camaraderie-building chat that happens before and after meetings, such as discussing where everyone is going for lunch, what they made that weekend, or a funny inside joke.

The solution:

Good facilitation helps create equal footing for all participants in collaborative meetings and can prevent remote employees from feeling like second-class citizens. To improve collaboration, facilitators might take responsibility to record the meeting for those unable to attend or who want to listen to the discussion again.

They may also host a shared whiteboard or simple document for collaborative note-taking where participants may offer input and questions without coming off mute.

It’s also important to monitor the pacing of the meeting, making sure to pause when necessary, ask someone to repeat a comment that remote employees may not have caught, or seek engagement from someone that has yet to participate.

Habit 4: Backchannel chat and gossip

Bias is at the core of much of the gossip that happens in offices. We make assumptions on the barest of information because we’re separated and only see faces across screens. When we’re all busy and exhausted, it becomes easy to turn a misunderstanding between co-workers into full-blown contempt for that person, quickly undermining the morale and connection of distributed teams.

The solution: 

It doesn’t matter whether it’s someone reheating fish in the office microwave or you feel a team member dropped the ball on a project– any conflict has the potential to derail a team’s interconnectivity and ability to collaborate effectively.

The way to cut through that is to resist venting to our work friends but instead address things head-on. One easy place for this to happen is during retrospectives and post-mortems. With facilitation and a solid agenda in place, everyone on the team can air their frustrations and bring narratives into the light instead of keeping them in Slack DMs. 

By treating each other courteously, and acknowledging that conflict is a natural part of working together, we can move past those issues and create stronger teams as a result.

Breaking these habits will have a significant positive impact on collaboration across your organisation. Consider what steps can be taken today.

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