Collaboration doesn’t need to be in-person and synchronous to achieve the desired outcomes

Originally published in the Globe & Mail June 12, 2023

As many organizations and teams continue to iterate on their approach to hybrid working, the question of how best to collaborate is constantly top of mind. Some CEOs have thrown up their hands and publicly stated that remote work doesn’t work for collaboration; however, we need to take a step back to the definition of collaboration and why and whether we should do it in the first place.

As Deb Mashek, collaboration and close relationship expert, points out in her book CollaborHate, the root word “collabor” means “together work” and suffix “-ion” signifies an act or process. Together work, in our current context, does not necessarily mean physically together – it means working collectively toward a specific outcome that ideally requires input from and provides value to all parties. This can be accomplished face-to-face, remotely, synchronously, asynchronously and a combination of all these working modes.

To collaborate or not to collaborate: that is the question.

Part of the challenge in our workplace collaborations is that we miss the important step of deciding whether we should collaborate at all. In a recent episode of the foHRsight podcast, Gustavo Razzetti, author of Remote not Distant, shared the concept of the “Collaboration Trap. That at some point 10-15 years ago, many leaders decided that collaboration was the solution to their company’s problems. Now there is so much pressure for people to collaborate – not only with their own teams but with crossfunctional teams, vendors, suppliers, customers, that collaboration has turned into being involved in a lot of tasks – meetings, emails, calls – that go nowhere.” In other words, often the time spent on collaboration is not worth the investment because the outcome is poor.

In Ms. Mashek’s book, she suggests that effective collaboration relies on two dimensions: interdependence and relationship quality. The best collaboration happens when interdependence and relationship quality are both high. This is because all parties are engaged, have skin in the game and have a high degree of mutual trust. On the flip side, if interdependence is high but relationship quality is low, parties rely on one another but don’t have the foundational relationship on which trust is built – this can lead to negative and unproductive behaviours such as micromanagement and throwing others under the bus – as Ms. Mashek calls it – “CollaborHate.”

Related to the interdependence dimension, Ms. Mashek suggests considering the following questions before agreeing to collaborate: 1) Is the opportunity aligned to your / your team’s / your organization’s values and objectives? 2) Are you / your team able to meaningfully contribute to this project (for example, skills and capacity)? 3) Are there appropriate resources for the scope and scale of this project? 4) Are the other people or teams on the project able to meaningfully contribute or hold up their end of the deal?

If the answer to any of these is no, the collaboration may not be set up for success and perhaps should be renegotiated, redefined or declined.

Where and when to collaborate

Once it is decided that collaboration is indeed the most effective way to achieve the outcome, the next step is deciding where and when the collaboration would be most effective.

This is often assumed to be synchronous and in-person, which is not always the case.

It has been shown that an asynchronous and remote collaboration can mitigate bias and groupthink. The most effective workshops I have led have had a mix of asynchronous, synchronous and remote and in-person components. For example, we leverage asynchronous and remote tools to gather data from participants and to push out information. We opt for synchronous and in-person meetings to discuss key themes, improve alignment and build relationships. In his book, Mr. Razzetti talks about six modes of working, that fall within two dimensions: “Me versus we time” and “deep versus shallow work.” In any collaborative project, there are activities that fall within each quadrant. Therefore, assuming that because a project is collaborative, it would be best accomplished synchronously and in-person is taking too much of a macro-level view. Instead, we need to break the project down into activities and decide which ones are best suited for in-person versus remote and synchronous versus asynchronous.

If we think about our experiences of failed collaborations, we will likely discover that location or schedule was not the culprit. Setting up shared outcomes, guiding principles, norms (including where and when work gets done) and regular communication improves the chances of success.