HR plays a central role in improving collaboration in organisations, in the face of major technological, demographic, workforce and other changes, according to the head of customer insight and futures for UK-based telecommunications firm BT Group.
The biggest challenge for HR in the process is to acknowledge that a one-size fits all approach to work no longer fits the diversity of today’s workforce.
This is not just about the younger, millennial population, but also older workers who may be in the workforce longer, and those in the middle who may be making career changes or juggling the demands of bringing up children or caring.
“Choice of how, when and where we work is becoming a particularly effective way of attracting and retaining talent,” said Dr Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures for BT.
“The conundrum with choice is that it can also create fragmentation.
“Offering people the ability to work from virtual offices brings huge benefits in terms of both productivity and wellbeing.”
However, if teams don’t physically see each other regularly, and only communicate over email or social media, she said they may not trust each other or have the ‘strong ties’ that co-located teams find easy to develop.
“With teams in global organisations flung across multiple countries and time zones, we are inevitably in a world where ‘weak ties’ dominate – unless we spend a lot of time and energy travelling on planes, trains and in automobiles,” said Millard, who combines psychology with “futurology” to try and anticipate what might be lying around the corner for both customers and organisations in her role with BT.
“Collaboration, especially amongst virtual teams, doesn’t happen by magic”
This “collaboration conundrum” is an increasingly perplexing issue for organisations, and Millard said there are three ways to help address this.
The first is to develop ‘fast trust’, and rather than starting in a position where trust needs to be earned, teams need to start from an assumption that co-workers are trustworthy.
“This can be a massive cultural challenge for leadership teams but leaders need to lead by example,” she said.
“If face-to-face interaction is becoming a luxury, technologies that help teams to get to know each other better can be used – from video conferencing (the best virtual tool for building trust) to social networking and even simply sharing profile pictures and interests with others.”
The second approach is to create a shared sense of purpose.
Research from MIT found that 94 per cent of high performing organisations instill a strong common sense of purpose among employees.
“Collaboration, especially amongst virtual teams, doesn’t happen by magic,” said Millard.
“By establishing ‘common ground’ – or commonly accessible, open and usable collaboration tools – and ensuring that everyone understands their role and impact on strategy, employees will feel supported and empowered to work, wherever they happen to be,” she said.
The third most important step is to move from command and control leadership to leadership by connection and collaboration.
Research from both Professor Lynda Gratton of London Business School and Professor Sandy Pentland at MIT have shown that effective future leaders need to be ‘boundary spanners’ or ‘charismatic connectors’.
“They need to establish a shared sense of purpose through connection,” said Millard.
“If people believe that the only way to get a good appraisal or get promoted is to be seen in the office, they will come into the office even if it is the least productive place for them to be”
“Unfortunately, London Business School’s research also suggests that only one in four of us are naturally good at this – so HR may need to identify people who are and help to develop these new leadership skills amongst those who aren’t,” Millard added.
As such, it is important to avoid confusing activity with productivity.
“If people believe that the only way to get a good appraisal or get promoted is to be seen in the office, they will come into the office even if it is the least productive place for them to be,” she said.
Similarly, having meetings for the sake of having meetings might look positive in promoting collaboration, but may actually result in “death by meeting” syndrome where there is a lot of talking and very little doing.
This can result in what Harvard Business Review has termed ‘collaboration overload’, so Millard said it is important to balance “we” (collaborative work) with “me” (individual work)”.
“This needs to be reflected in physical workspaces as well as virtual ones,” she said.
“Open plan offices were designed to promote the ‘we’ but can be a source of massive distraction for those trying to be in ‘me’ mode.
“HR needs to work with property management to ensure there are ample choices for people who want private space as well as public space.”
“Open plan offices were designed to promote the ‘we’ but can be a source of massive distraction for those trying to be in ‘me’ mode”
There are a number of practical implications for organisations as a result of the above, according to Millard, who said the HR team is central to putting practical interventions in place.
“They need to manage the recruitment process to ensure employees have the right skills to foster collaboration; they also need to ensure employees are equipped for the new workplace by providing them access to the best ‘common ground’ for collaboration that suits their workstyle,” she said.
Studies have found that teams of highly talented, distributed and diverse individuals are less likely to collaborative effectively unless there is a strong sense of purpose, and reward is based on quality rather than quantity of contribution.
However, she said building co-located, non-diverse teams might not be a solution either. “Firstly, it relies on talent to be available in a certain geography, which might constrain choice,” she said.
“Secondly, this can produce an ‘echo chamber’ effect, whereby the same views and ideas echo around and around.
“This is often an issue with company boards and is especially problematic if the organisation wants to be innovative.”
So how can HR teams decide whether to build diverse or non-diverse teams?
Diversity is particularly effective in novel situations, where outputs are uncertain and goals are constantly moving, Millard explained.
“Non-diverse teams tend to be more effective when things are stable and outcomes and roles are well defined,” she said.
“The latter situation is becoming increasingly rare in business today.”
“HR can’t do it alone – they also need to collaborate with departments like internal communications, IT and property management “
Regardless of diversity, collaboration is becoming a key skill for employees, according to Millard, who said HR needs to look at recruiting natural collaborators, equipping employees with the skills to network, recognising and rewarding good collaboration (both within teams and beyond) and ensuring leaders lead by example.
“The critical conundrum here is this: if collaboration is becoming so central to the success of a future organisation who owns it?” she said.
“HR certainly have a role to play – shaping recruitment, learning & development, reward frameworks and leadership programmes.
“However, HR can’t do it alone – they also need to collaborate with departments like internal communications, IT and property management. Who is ultimately responsibility for collaboration at that point?
“IT may put their hand up, but they are only responsible for creating the infrastructure for collaboration rather than the reason for it.”
Technology will only be used by employees if it passes the three ‘U’s test – is it useful, is it usable and who else is using it?
The last one is particularly important for collaboration because a social network of one is probably not a good social network, and Millard said the key here is the contribution.
“This means that acceptance depends on whether employees think it will make their lives easier,” she said.
“This might be equipping them to work from home, or allowing them to dial into a video conference from their smartphone while travelling overseas on business.
“The HR and IT teams need to work together to make sure the needs of the employees are met through technology.”
Ultimately, Millard observed that HBR and many others have suggested that having a chief collaboration officer might provide organisations with a strategic focus in this area.
“Chief customer officers are becoming increasingly popular as customer experience becomes more central to strategy, so is a new breed of CCO needed in the future?”
“It’s far better for HR and IT to say ‘yes’ to consumerisation, but bound that yes with good security, integration, education and control”
Millard also observed that there are six broad trends shaping the future of work (which all happen to start with the letter ‘D’).
“There’s the rise of diversity – including an increasing number of generations in the workforce as retirement retires and the shape of careers start to change,” she said.
“There’s the death of the desk – as we rethink our office spaces to reflect a balance between ‘we’ and ‘me’ and offer other options such as home working and co-working.
“The death of Dolly (Parton) blurs the lines of the ‘nine to five’ further, as the problem starts to be disconnection from work rather than connection.”
Distance may not be dead, but Millard noted that collaboration tools will seek to make people less reliant on face-to-face communication, as tools like audio, web and video conferencing are joined by augmented and virtual reality and wearable technologies.
Millard also said the “death of Dr No” is connected with the consumerisation of the workspace.
“It starts with bring your own device but could be, bring your own apps, software, office, working hours and beyond,” she said.
“IT and HR may say ‘no’ to some of these practices – often for good reasons like security – but that only usually serves to drive them underground.
“It’s far better for HR and IT to say ‘yes’ to consumerisation, but bound that yes with good security, integration, education and control,” she said.
Finally, the “(robot) elephant in the room” is about the rise of the droid, with the influence of increasing amounts of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics on the workforce. “This will undoubtedly reshape the skills that the workforce is likely to need,” she said.
“But it is also likely to make human skills such as negotiation, innovation, collaboration and empathy more valuable.
“Increasingly, our collaboration activities are just as likely to involve machines as human employees,” she said.
“Reward systems that recognise the balance between ‘we’ and ‘me’ are vital”
There are a number of ways HR can help senior and line managers with smart collaboration skills to help manage changing workforces, Millard added.
“Certainly big data analytics can be used to start to understand the dynamics of collaboration in both physical and virtual space – as MIT’s ‘social physics’ work has demonstrated,” she said.
“This can potentially be used to identify future leaders, look at how effective collaboration works and link collaboration with productivity.”
However, she said it could also be seen to be a bit too “big brother” if it is personalised and integrated into HR systems.
“Certainly, HR can be involved in recruiting and reskilling people (especially leaders) around effective networking and collaboration,” she said.
“Reward systems that recognise the balance between ‘we’ and ‘me’ are vital.”
Wellbeing must also be part of this, as Millard said collaboration overload and the inability to switch off are already issues that have been linked with workplace stress and burnout.
“The overriding mantra is ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ – and HR must ensure that senior managers provide their employees with choices that benefit both the company and the person rather than imposing an ‘it works for me, so it must work for everyone’ philosophy,” she said.
For more information see BT’s whitepaper on the collaboration conundrum. Image source: iStock