Do we work better together when there is something between the members of a team or is collaboration a primarily technical act that can be satisfied with the minimum of shared human context?
It’s not a subject for the high school diploma, but I think that many managers and executives will have to work on it in the coming months, hoping to deliver a decent paper before the summer.
Back to the office and hybrid work in the background
This is an old question that is part of a larger issue of the conditions necessary for effective collaboration in business.
And why is it back in the spotlight now?
Precisely because the end of the constraints linked to the pandemic and the possibility of a return to the office, total or partial, leads companies to reflect on the reasons why their employees would want to return to the office and even on the reasons that would allow them to impose this return.
Among these reasons is the idea that in order to work better together, we need to spend time together.
Obvious? Not at all, because the voices of employees saying that there is no point in spending time together in order to be effective together are starting to be loud.
There is no point in lying to ourselves or kidding ourselves: collaboration sometimes has little to do with this debate, it is only a facade that hides another fight, which is the one between the supporters of a quasi-total return to the office and those who maintain high levels of telework. But at least it has the merit of raising the question of what makes for effective collaboration.
Collaborate or cooperate?
Before going any further, a little vocabulary clarification is necessary, which we will see later on is very important.
Two verbs are often used to describe working together: cooperate and collaborate. Although some people tend to use them as synonyms, their meaning is different.
Without going into detail, collaboration implies collective work on tasks and a goal that are common. Cooperation, on the other hand, implies the division of work into sub-tasks carried out individually and without even the need for a common goal to be shared, as some are not concerned beyond the realization of their own task.
Let’s take the example of a move.
If the occupants of a household decide to move, pack and carry the boxes together, it’s collaboration. The goal, moving, is shared, and everyone contributes to all the tasks, sometimes even together.
If they decide to use friends or professionals and some of them do the boxes, each in their own corner and others carry them, we are closer to cooperation. Each one carries out his task individually from the others and the objective of moving is shared only by the members of the household, for the others the objective stops at “filling boxes” or “carrying boxes”.
We will see later that the nuance is very important.
Different ways of being and spending time together
When we say that it is important to spend time together in order to work better together, this also covers several realities.
For some, we only work well together when we are together, in the same place. This point of view is defensible even if it has to be put into perspective depending on the type of activity. As a strong advocate of remote work myself, I recognize that some activities, such as creative activities, brainstorming, etc., go better when we are together. It is also worth mentioning that if we go back to the origins of agility, agile teams are ideally co-located to promote maximum communication.
However, I would like to take a step back on this point: if being in the same place favors communication, a large-scale study conducted at Google has shown that the notion of “same place” should be understood in a very restrictive way.
“Sitting within a few feet of a workmate has a big effect. (Our data includes the exact GPS coordinates of each person’s desk, as well as their previous desks.)
Beyond this, sitting on the same floor as someone barely has any effect”.
And communication is only one dimension of collaboration. It makes it possible, but communicating well together does not always mean that we do things well together.
Others, and this is the majority, are much less radical. For them, it is not always necessary to be together in the same place to work well, but it is thanks to the time spent together that we are more efficient when we are at a distance. For them, this time spent together can be spent in the office working a few days a week or at social events organized by the company outside of working hours. When, almost 20 years ago, I became interested in the case of “full remote” companies, I said nothing else to express a certain scepticism: “a remote team must first become a team before being remote”. And in fact, all the companies that have adopted a “full remote” model say it: we don’t work from the same place, but we have to see each other regularly, even if it’s not to work, so that the collective remote work goes well.
Knowing, willing and being able to collaborate
When it comes to collaboration (as with other topics such as learning), it is customary to say that success is based on the triptych “know, want, can”.
Knowing how to collaborate. It’s a question of practices and mastered use cases. There is a tendency to reduce this subject to the mastery of certain technologies, but even if that counts, it is above all a matter of behavior. Using new tools to work the old way is useless and even leads to a certain regression.
Being able to collaborate. This comes down to whether the right tools are available to employees, but not only. There are other organizational or managerial factors that prevent or hinder collaboration, such as evaluation methods.
Wanting to collaborate. I would put two things mainly in this dimension. First of all, the notion of shared goal that I mentioned above. Why make the effort with the other or for the other if we are not aware of having to reach a common goal that we cannot reach alone? Secondly, something that is emotional or affective: why help the other person, why make sure that things go well if nothing links me to the other person, if he or she leaves me indifferent or even if I have resentment towards him or her.
Know the people, but not too much?
On this last point I see two schools of thought.
For some people, and I think it’s a majority, the more we create a link between people, the more effective they will be together, whether at a distance or not. This link allows them to do more than what is necessary, to invest in a working relationship so that 1+1 does more than 2, so that we go even beyond collaboration and that we are in the logic of helping the other person, of helping them to succeed, sometimes even proactively without any request from them.
For others, collaboration is a matter of routine, of good practice. It doesn’t matter if they know the people or not, if they like them or not, there are behaviours to have, gestures to make. Their collaboration is cold, even mechanical, but, I have seen it, regular and really effective.
Which ones are right? A little bit of both in my opinion. It is intuitive to think that people who share something will be more willing to get involved in a collective dynamic but sometimes intuitions are not reality.
I remember my first mentor, a manager in my first job, telling me: “You’re young, you’re just starting out, you go spontaneously towards others but with time you’ll learn to keep your distance. Don’t forget that in the workplace you have to succeed with everyone, no matter if you like a person or not. The closer you get to people, the more you get to know them, the more reasons there will be to do things together but also the more chances there will be to find reasons not to like each other. And then it is necessary to maintain dynamics in the duration. Don’t get bored, and the more time you spend with people the more you get bored and suffocate. So get some fresh air, get out of work and see people outside of your job, because you can’t afford to be bored with your colleagues: you are bound to succeed with them. You have to keep the relationship fresh.“
A reasoning that is not necessarily natural but that I ended up making my own over time and that has rather proven itself.
During the great confinement we experienced at the beginning of the pandemic, it was not surprising to see a certain distress among many employees, locked up in their homes, deprived of social contacts. But what surprised me, even worried me, was that one of their main motivations for coming back to the office was to see people.
Worrying? Yes, because it means that outside of work they have little or no social contact, which is anything but a sign of a balanced life and one day this could turn against them. How many employees have ever experienced the dizziness, the shock, the depression of realizing that their company was so much for them that they had simply forgotten to have a life on the side? I’m digressing here, but it’s important to remember that a company is not a family and that if you neglect your real family and your real friends outside the company, you’re in for a rude awakening.
I also remember a long discussion I had with the late Frederic Forte on the subject of “succeeding together”. He had given me the example of the victorious epic of Limoges CSP in the European basketball cup in 1993, club of which he was at the time captain. These words are also counter intuitive but I think that the situation he described to me is far from being an exception. The only difference is that he portrayed things as they were where many prefer to embellish the human dimension of the sporting exploit.
What he told me: “we were not friends, we did not see each other outside the games and trainings, we did not share anything outside basketball, on the other hand this European cup we were convinced that we could win it together, we believed in the system of play proposed by the coach and when we went on the field we were ready to give everything for the team“.
Engagement does not presume collaboration or performance
This is where another belief must be challenged. It is often said that the most committed employees are more efficient, more effective. So be it.
But how do we measure commitment? We don’t measure it, we see it, either through surveys where employees say they are engaged or not, or we see it through their behavior.
This does not work. There is now evidence that there is a disconnect between an employee’s behavior that shows commitment and the fact that this is reflected in their work. Not all employees who do the work expected of a committed employee show the outward signs of commitment that are expected of them. And not everyone who does show those signs is doing the work that is expected.
The same reasoning applies, in my opinion, to collaboration: those who show the most openness towards others are not the ones who collaborate the best and those who seem the coldest, the most distant, can excel in collective work and the mastery of behaviors, routines, techniques and postures that it involves.
A person’s appetite for social interaction does not mean that this will translate into the quality of the work provided, as opposed to a person who shows less affection for his or her work or others but masters all the techniques and routines of group work.
To each his own trigger
Mais pour revenir à notre question de départ, la création de lien entre les individus, le fait qu’ils apprennent à se connaitre est il un préalable à une collaboration efficace ?
But to return to our original question, is the creation of links between individuals, the fact that they get to know each other a prerequisite for effective collaboration?
Based on my observations I am tempted to say “yes but not always”.
Yes, because intuitively we understand that in order to do things together, in order to want the group to be stronger than the sum of its individualities, in order to sometimes want to make the effort in the place of the other, there must be something that unites the individuals.
This something can be of the order of the emotional, to have been forged during shared moments but also of tests.
But the example of Limoges also tends to prove the contrary.
One could say that the collective, if not forged off the field, is nevertheless the result of games played together. But this would also lead one to say that it is enough to work together to improve the way we work together, that the practice is sufficient in itself to improve things as long as there is a shared objective.
An example to be taken with caution, I admit, as sport has specificities and provides an emotional intensity that is not found in the workplace.
But the fact remains that, apart from any affect, a shared objective may be enough for some.
In my opinion, the answer is much simpler: by focusing too much on the collective, we end up forgetting that it is composed of individuals and that each one has his own trigger, his own personality.
To use the example of basketball, some people just need to understand the game system to blend in perfectly, while others need something extra to pass or help a partner in trouble.
It is as simple as that and the difficulty of the manager’s role is to find what will bring everyone to contribute to the collective without forcing them to play a role that is not theirs, which ultimately leads people to close in on themselves.
How many team buildings have had the opposite effect of what was intended because they forced some people to put on a costume that is not theirs and welded as many people as they took away from the group? I think this example speaks to everyone.
Why empower ourselves to collaborate better?
The appropriateness of the means is always judged in relation to the aim pursued and the result obtained.
Is it proportionate to force people to come back to the office most of the time and/or multiply teambuilding and socialization moments?
Undoubtedly, if it is to create the conditions for better collaboration, although this implies finding the right balance according to the remote work needs of all parties and, as we have seen, the need of each for social stimuli.
The real problem, at least in the current context, is that this is the stated objective, not the objective pursued, and I don’t think employees will be fooled.
This is not the objective, because in most cases companies operate in a cooperative mode, not a collaborative one. The manager divides the work, distributes the tasks, evaluates each person individually and there is often no shared collective objective. There is no question of working together at most to coordinate and exchange information in a “technical” way. Work is parallelized, not made collaborative. Many of the efforts made to create the context for good collaboration are in vain because of the lack of an organization and a managerial model that make it possible.
No need to create a human link for this, good practices are enough.
And it’s not the objective because it’s just another excuse to get employees back to the office for the wrong reasons. The real reasons are the discomfort of managers in front of remote work or the belief that a reinforced social life in the office will allow to reabsorb the hemorrhage of the “Great Resignation” whose causes are most often personal, managerial or salary-related.
Companies are right to do everything they can to get their employees to develop the connections and relationships that will make effective collaboration possible.
Where they go wrong is that the socialization effort they ask of their employees is often disproportionate to the benefit they derive from it, with the organization and managers favoring cooperation and division of labor over true collaboration.
And this motivation is even less well understood when it is just a poor excuse to get people back to the office.