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So how do we work together now? Reimagine workplace collaboration

There’s been a buzz about post-pandemic work environments – establishing hybrid work models, using new collaboration tools, and finding ways to engage and connect that build a meaningful and satisfying organizational culture.

While reading a recent article – “A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Start Over,” by Arthur Brooks – in The Atlantic, it struck me that the disruption of the pandemic is a pivotal moment in time for how we choose to show up in our lives and shape our work worlds. The article suggests making a matrix, with columns of “Like/Dislike” and rows labeled “Pre-pandemic” and “Pandemic” to capture our honest reflections. Those insights, especially if you go deeper than “stuck in traffic,” can be clues as to how to craft a work environment in which people can thrive.

The antidote to isolation?

A common theme for people who have worked from home over this past year or so is a sense of isolation and loneliness – a hunger for connection and intellectual exchange. Let’s face it: Collaboration looks and feels differently over Zoom than in a conference room.

The concept of collaboration is not exactly innovative. The practice of it, however, is complex and misunderstood. It seems the promised fruits of robust collaboration remain elusive for many teams. Collaboration can be creative, messy, energizing, frustrating, scary, improvisational, awkward and illuminating. It can solve problems in more comprehensive, breakthrough ways and generate more buy-in. It can be an invitation for growth, accountability, evolution of emotional intelligence, and deeper connections and contributions.

What does it take?

And yet, for all the praise we heap on collaboration, it is hard. It often requires us to work differently – interdependently, which can feel slower, more accommodating, compromising and less productive.

To collaborate effectively, we must be active contributors. We must be willing to both give and receive – ideas, questions, critiques, concerns, feedback, passionate arguments or thoughtful considerations. Organizations, and the people in them, continuously improve by raising our collective awareness through authentic, receptive and engaging dialogue.

When we stop trying to ardently control the outcome and instead start trusting the process and the people, the magic happens. In a collaborative work environment, we invite different opinions into the mix. In that experience, we practice recognizing where we are resistant, when we feel heard and valued, what we want to be right about, where we get impatient, how we might inadvertently shut others down, and where we are inspired by fresh twists that open our eyes and minds.

When done well, collaboration can build momentum that cannot be matched in solo work. It can offer respect to colleagues’ expertise and experience, vet risks by interrogating certain paths, create alignment behind a decision, and bring a sense of ownership for the results. This kind of teamwork tends to reduce finger-pointing and blaming and instead sets the tone for shared success and development. The creative endeavor of collaboration creates its own kind of work of art that ultimately is an expression of the team. When all members’ fingerprints are on this piece of art, they share in the joy, pride and effort – thereby building a more appreciative, respectful and trusted team.

Take the challenge

Where can you raise your collaboration game?

Create ground rules that foster healthy collaboration within the team

Build the skills of giving and receiving feedback – integrate the practice into cultural norms

Define the value you place in collaborating – why does it matter to you? When and where will it benefit the team and the organization? (Think retention, productivity, resiliency, innovation, diversity, inclusion, risk mitigation, professional growth and satisfaction, etc.)

Engage others in ways that solicit their perspectives. Ask those people who may not readily speak up about how they see the situation. Ask what is missing from the discussion.

Entertain others’ ideas, as well as their challenges to your ideas, with curiosity and respect.

Make it comfortable to be an occasional contrarian. Ask for someone to play “devil’s advocate” to an idea.

Learn and practice the skills of improvisation. They can help you let go of being attached to a certain outcome and generate more creative solutions.

Where people want to contribute: We have an opportunity to create a new normal – one that learns from our work-from-home experiences and honors our need for camaraderie. As we re-enter this brave new world, remember to be kind to each other, show grace, and bring a heightened intentionality to work together in a new, more profound way.

Karen Natzel is a business therapist in Portland, Oregon. She helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations.

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