Collaboration is the Future of Work

If there is one thing that the recent COVID-19 crisis has shown, it is that the greatest successes occur not just through individual effort but through collaborative behaviour that breaks across boundaries and structured organizational systems. The development of ecosystems that are flexible and fluid have meant that some businesses have been able to respond in the quickest way to changing circumstances.  This has meant that new ways of responding to customers have been seen, some organizations have been more transparent with their workforce about critical decisions and some have created new business partnerships.

Collaboration is a global challenge. From my days at IBM using their extensive 15 million employee global employee engagement database, one of the lowest rated items always revolved around the ability to collaborate effectively in an organization. So why has it taken a crisis for this to change, certainly in the short term?

What are the Benefits of Collaboration ?

Collaboration is complex as it requires a change in behaviour and an acceptance that there needs to be a mindset change across an organization that focuses on the collective rather than just the functional or team-based approach that we are used to.  Technology is an enabler of change but technology alone will not drive an increase in collaborative behaviour, despite what the vendors may say.  The benefits of collaboration can be seen but there are potential roadblocks to negotiate to ensure that change can occur and HR has a crucial role in helping to address them.

Organizational Structure and Process

An organisation that is based upon collaboration, innovation and service delivery looks very different to one that is set up for the traditional “command control” focus – and there are still many organizations that operate that way!  It requires new approaches to leadership, management and the level of empowerment allowed in individual jobs and employees looks and feels very different.

The traditional “top down” leadership structure that lends itself well to defining fixed roles and accountabilities is not so effective when trying to build a more agile, innovative and high involvement organization. Additionally, the talent that you now want to attract will reject those corporate hierarchies.

What does this mean for HR?  It means that HR needs to start undertaking organizational design activities again – it is a highly strategic intervention and whilst you may be starting with a ‘blank piece of paper” it means that HR can facilitate a crucial intervention that is focused on developing a fit for purpose organization. After all these continuous transformations we see happen because the business got it wrong in the first place!

Digital Workplace

Organizations are continually undertaking a digital change and the recent crisis has reiterated what can be done away from the traditional workplace environment.  This means that a revised approach to data and insights that are derived from that data are required as it provides opportunities to unlock value from processes that might otherwise have been missed.

What does this mean for HR?  It means that HR needs to focus on training existing employees and hiring new employees with the required skillsets. Not every existing employee will be willing or able to retrain, and the new generation of supposedly digital talent may not be attracted to more conventional corporate environments.

That means that HR needs to focus on the culture and the way of working that is being promoted and ensure that there is a clear alignment between what is offered and the reality of working in an organization; easy to say but hard to implement fully.

Reward Systems

It is positive to focus on working in a more innovative, agile and collaborative way but if employees pay and bonuses are still structured around hitting old style targets and incentives, then their behaviour will be unlikely to change.

That means that HR needs to focus on a far broader way of rewarding employees, both financial and non-financial. That may mean that opportunities for charitable activities, and collaboration programmes on solving social issues need to be formalized and encouraged, and are seen as being important elements of the corporate culture.

In Summation

Collaboration is not an easy overnight change with individual behaviour, enabling technology and the need to change inherent organizational systems at the heart of an approach that has many elements to it.  It’s taken a crisis to see how collaboration can operate; let’s make sure that organizations are reminded of this vital capability post the crisis and HR has a key part to play in that future of work process change.

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