How To Make Your Workplace Culture Collaborative

Open spaces, watercooler talk, and allowing employees to update Facebook often are more effective steps than team-building exercises. Here's what works in the real world.

Paul Korzeniowski, Contributor

March 17, 2016

4 Min Read
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Pay is only one component in building a motivated and contented workforce. Employees need to feel like they can talk freely with one another and their bosses. So the question becomes: How can a CIO create such an environment? Forget about bringing in hired consultants and running team-building exercises, and instead let employees collaborate informally during the day.

Collaboration is squarely at the top of the management priority list nowadays. "Companies recognize that all problems ultimately stem from communication shortfalls," said Ryan Sanders, COO at BambooHR, a human resources software supplier.

As a result, CIOs are constantly trying to improve employee communication. Team-building exercises have long been used to open up communication channels, but they have grown as stale as week-old bread. "Team building exercises are often a waste of time," said Dianne Crampton, founder of TIGERS Success Service, a management consulting firm.

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Management will look at a team-building event as a silver bullet, but at best it produces a temporary surge in morale. After employees return to the office, they see that their work has piled up and no substantive changes are made. They then ask, "What was the point of the exercise?"

Idle Chatter: The Key to Collaboration Success

Rather than hold one-time, staged, team-building events, managers need to create a collaborative mood in their departments on an ongoing basis. What works? While it may seem counterintuitive, CIOs should encourage idle chitchat. Having individuals stand around a water cooler and discuss the previous night's big game or a child's upcoming dance recital builds up trust among employees, which lowers barriers once they get back to "real" work.

The natural inclination of many CIOs is to stamp out these distractions in the name of greater productivity, but doing so actually has the opposite effect. When people are physically fatigued and their muscles hurt, they rest. The same principle applies to mental exhaustion. Standing up, moving away from the desk, grabbing a snack, or having a quick conversation all help get a person's blood flowing and give the brain a needed a break. When employees return to their desks, they often feel rejuvenated and attack outstanding issues with renewed vigor.

Office layout plays a role in how easily employees interact. Increasingly, enterprises are replacing the traditional tight cubicles with open space and fewer barriers. The idea is to let employees step away from the grind of their desks, take regular breaks, and engage in quick, casual conversations.

Zappos has taken that idea to the extreme. It's deliberately designed its offices so employees have little to no privacy. "A lot of the stuff we do from the Zappos perspective, in terms of employees within the office, is really thinking about how do you get people to collide more often," said Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, in a company blog post. "We prioritized collisions over convenience." The rationale is that a casual conversation can quickly turn into a formal exchange in which outstanding problems get solved.

The Need to Eliminate Distractions

Like everything in life, the casual conversations have potential downsides. The constant chatter can distract other employees, who have their own work to complete. In response, a growing number of startups and forward-thinking companies are incorporating small, often two- to three-person, private rooms in each work area. If a conversation blossoms, employees hop into the room, brainstorm, problem-solve, and return to their desks without disturbing coworkers.

Social media is another potential distraction. Surprisingly, its appeal is less than traditional diversions, ranking seventh on a list of eight potential distractions (watching TV was last), according to a BambooHR study.

Yet, many CIOs struggle when crafting social media usage policies. "Managers should not spend a lot of time trying to monitor or ban employees from using social media," said Karen Williams, chief product officer at Halogen Software, a talent management software vendor. The workers may become resentful, and often they find ways around any technical barriers.

So, to build a team-oriented culture, think antithetically. Rather than shooing employees back into their cubicles and banishing social media, try gathering everyone around the water cooler for a discussion about what is trending on Twitter.

About the Author(s)

Paul Korzeniowski


Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance contributor to InformationWeek who has been examining IT issues for more than two decades. During his career, he has had more than 10,000 articles and 1 million words published. His work has appeared in the Boston Herald, Business 2.0, eSchoolNews, Entrepreneur, Investor's Business Daily, and Newsweek, among other publications. He has expertise in analytics, mobility, cloud computing, security, and videoconferencing. Paul is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at [email protected]

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