How to enable effective collaboration that drives innovation, not burnout.

A healthy work environment depends on great teamwork. Here’s how to promote successful collaboration that fosters innovation, not burnout.

ARTICLE | 4m read
Feb 8, 2022

Great teamwork has been key to every business success and organizational win, and the new age of hybrid work is no exception. Whether it’s IT specialists helping teachers move classes online during social distancing or healthcare professionals teaming up with technologists to enable virtual visits, our ability to adapt our problem-solving during big challenges will always depend on effective collaboration. But not all collaboration is created equal, and too often organizations fall in the trap of unhealthy, always-on group activity instead of enabling a work environment where all team members can innovate together.

So how do you enable effective collaboration that drives innovation instead of burnout? The path forward begins by first recognizing the signs of unhealthy collaboration at work, then prioritizing collaboration that fosters innovation through vulnerability, openness to new perspectives, and great communication—all while grasping the proper role of communication tools. Drawing on the Innovation Through Collaboration podcast interview from Remote Works, let’s explore how business leaders can better support healthy teamwork and a shared sense of purpose.

Recognize the signs of unhealthy workplace collaboration

How do you know if your work environment is promoting healthy or unhealthy team collaboration? It starts by looking deeper—simply because your employees are working together doesn’t mean they are working well together. Too many organizations have adopted an always-on company culture that relies on constant notifications and reminders instead of clear goals. While this creates the illusion of constant productivity, it also creates what author Rob Cross calls “micro-stresses” that promote burnout rather than proactive and elegant collaborative working. 

This in mind, the top signs of unhealthy collaboration are taking lots of communication for team members to do everyday tasks, filling their schedules with lots of meetings rather than focused work time, and excessive complaining and negativity about regular work processes. You want to promote a collaborative workplace that’s supportive of different employee preferences about where and how work gets done instead of forcing everyone into the same schedule and process. This makes it easier for your team to enter a productive flow state where truly innovative and exceptional work gets done—together.

Encourage vulnerability and experimentation among team members

Contrary to what we might think, great collaboration at work is not always about all team members being on the same page. Embracing employee perspectives from different backgrounds is where great team innovation begins because creativity is inherently about challenging ourselves to do something new. “It’s… a vulnerability process,” said Gitlab’s Senior All Remote Campaign Manager Jessica Reeder. “We have to open ourselves up, we have to try new things and we have to be open to a lot of feedback for it to really, really work.”

Innovative collaboration through vulnerability requires you to make it clear to team members that the common goal is new ideas, not perfection. One way to accomplish this is by hosting a hackathon, where employees come together for an entire day of brainstorming to innovate how the collaborative team works together. To encourage thinking outside the box in these innovation marathons, communicate that new ideas don’t have to be production-ready. Lifting this production-ready restriction and being open to “any crazy ideas” in company hackathons led to “a lot of big projects” said Wrike Senior Manager, Product Management Anna Lopatukhina

Simplify communication across work functions and locations

Now that you’ve laid the foundation for vulnerable and effective collaboration, look for ways to simplify how employees communicate across work functions and skill sets. The more you can open up whom at your organization can talk to whom, the more you enable the cross-functional collaboration that unlocks new innovations. “Our more successful people…were more likely to spend… 25% more time than the average performer exploring possibilities,” said Cross. “They would be reaching out to others and…saying ‘Gosh, how could we work together? What are you doing and how does this integrate with what I do?’"

This simplified communication principle applies to geographic locations as well, in a concept Reeder describes as “democratizing access to communication.” Thanks to new technology focused on secure hybrid collaboration, it’s easier than ever to team up with employees across the world to share ideas and implement them together. That said, leaders have a key role to play in facilitating these types of global teamwork without letting all the possibilities overwhelm employees. Look for ways to connect your team members to those outside their location, and check in to see what possibilities you can nurture.

The supportive role of collaboration tools and technology

Throughout all of this innovative collaboration at work, new collaboration tools have a role to play. Digital whiteboards, instant messaging, and video conferencing can streamline successful collaboration in real time. Secure file sharing and content collaboration can help team members share ideas safely and easily. Workflow management can align teams across locations to get more done with fewer mistakes. 

However, great hybrid work technology is supportive but not central to effective collaboration. Instead, it’s vital for company leaders to recognize that the humans on their teams are the key drivers of innovation, and technology is only a tool. To learn more about how to create work environments that builds trust and fosters innovation across teams, listen to the full Innovation Through Collaboration Remote Works podcast episode