Collaboration’s role in the new work environment

Agencies have the opportunity to enhance productivity and innovation but only if they learn to manage collaborative efforts effectively

Kris VanRiper and Chris Cattie

The work environment is changing rapidly, but how those changes affect employee performance and productivity is not well understood. To grasp the realities of the new work environment, CEB surveyed 23,000-plus employees across industries and locations.

One notable finding is that the nature of collaboration has changed. More than two-thirds of employees reported that their jobs require more collaboration today than they did three years ago. Moreover, employee networks are expanding and becoming increasingly cross-functional. Sixty percent of respondents said their day-to-day work requires regular coordination with 10 or more people, and two-thirds reported regular coordination with employees from different work units and supervisory levels.

However, accompanying this greater need for collaboration are new barriers that impede it. Employees are more geographically dispersed due to trends such as telework, which removes the “water cooler effect” that allows for effortless collaboration. Shrinking budgets and reduced staff levels have resulted in rising workloads that jeopardize collaboration by encouraging employees to focus on individual responsibilities over group initiatives.

Results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint (FedView) Survey suggest that those factors, among others, have actually reduced collaboration levels at federal agencies. Since 2008, agreement with the notions that employees cooperate to get the job done and share knowledge has declined by 9 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

Using the FedView question “Employees in my work unit share knowledge with each other” as a proxy for collaboration, CEB was able to derive three insights about the impact of collaboration on the work environment:

1. Collaboration has an outsized impact on team performance. CEB determined that levels of knowledge sharing have a greater impact on work-unit performance than the quality of direct managers or the ability of new hires.

2. Collaborative work environments foster innovation. Employees who say their co-workers share knowledge with one another are two and a half times more likely to report feeling encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things compared to those who disagree with that statement.

3. Collaborative work environments have higher employee retention. Employees who agree that their co-workers share knowledge with one another are half as likely to consider leaving their agency in the next year as those who disagree with that statement.

However, indiscriminately calling for more collaboration is not the right approach. Leaders should selectively encourage collaboration when projects meet the following criteria:

  •   High potential impact. Benefits of collaboration must outweigh the cost in terms of time and resources.
  •  Diverse expertise. Projects that require knowledge spanning multiple domains benefit from tapping outside sources of expertise.
  •  Goal alignment. Participants must share clear and similar goals for collaboration to be productive.
  •  Stakeholder quantity and diversity. Projects that affect a large or diverse set of stakeholders benefit from the contribution of diverse perspectives.

In addition to choosing the right projects and tasks for collaboration, managers and leaders should avoid common pitfalls, which include:

  •  Failure to establish ground rules. Managers must drive consensus around goals, limitations and evaluation criteria before inviting participants to contribute.
  •  Inclusion of too many participants. Participants must have the appropriate combination of knowledge, skills and authority to collaborate productively. Quality of dialogue trumps the quantity of participants.
  •  Oversized project scope. Managers should deconstruct projects into smaller goals or milestones and systematically direct attention toward each objective until solutions to all agenda items are met.

As collaboration takes on a larger role in employees’ daily work, agencies have the opportunity to enhance productivity and innovation, as long as those activities are managed effectively.

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