How HR Can Help Lead the Way to a Collaborative Workplace
April 7, 2015
Research shows that engaged workforces are more profitable and productive. Here's how you can foster a culture of collaboration and engagement.

Research shows that engaged workforces are more profitable and productive. Here’s how you can foster a culture of collaboration and engagement.

Not long ago, the standard workplace environment was one of division and segregation. Not segregation based on race, of course, but based on job function and class. Management was on the top floor in the corner office. The accounting people had their own wing. The marketing team had its own section. The data entry folks were slaving away in partitioned cubicles, under the eye of watchful salaried overseers. The sales guys were out in the field (OK, the sales guys are still out in the field, hopefully). While management would have meetings, of course, the rank and file employees in the different departments didn’t talk with each other very much.

The result, of course, was massive stovepiping of information, inter-office rivalries and jealousies as marketing blamed sales and sales blamed fulfillment, etc.

The result is a massive waste of intellectual capital. Workers were unable to collaborate and to find new synergies by working together in cross-disciplinary teams to solve problems. Interagency communication depended on time consuming emails and memoranda rather than in serving customers, making widgets and otherwise creating value for the shareholder and opportunities for workers.

What’s more, the efforts of talented employees were wasted, as managers in one department had no visibility into the strongest and most capable workers in another. Where there was an opportunity for advancement that could have gone to a talented employee in another department, he or she was too often passed over in favor of an outside hire – an expensive and iffy process, once the cost of acquisition, training and turnover is accounted for. According to Development Dimensions International, 53 percent of managers and executives brought on board from outside are gone within a year.

Those days are rapidly coming to a close – and that’s a good thing. Perception of antiquated office hierarchies has gone beyond seeing cubicle farms as merely oppressive and stifling but a sometimes necessary rite of passage. Instead, younger workers today look at cubicle farms – and the people who manage them, as an object of derision and satire.

The baby boomer ‘yuppies’ of the 80s and the Generation X’ers who succeeded them put up with it – though the Gen X crowd was subversively reading Dilbert comic strips the entire time. But now were’ seeing office technologies and architectures that are making it possible to free workers from the tyranny of the cubicle farm.

It’s no accident that collaborative technologies are coming on board just as the first generation who can’t remember a time before the Internet is graduating from college in large numbers. Technologies like cloud computing, storage and collaboration could not have been fully implemented

For all the talk of technology and how digital these young workers are (and they are!), they vastly prefer in-person meetings to technology interfaces. For them, technology isn’t just a tool for communication as it was for Generation X, but for collaboration.

According to the 2013 Millennial Workplace Trends Survey, commissioned by IdeaPaint, 90 percent preferred in-person meetings to conference calls.

Their findings were broadly confirmed by a recent Bentley University study – which reported that 51 percent of millennials preferred in person meetings (the large variance between the IdeaPaint and Bentley studies reflects difference in methodology – IdeaPaint focuses on collaboration technology, where the Bentley focus is much more general. )

74 percent of those surveyed preferred collaborating in small groups to generate big ideas. Respondents mentioned they preferred small groups to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard – reflecting an instinct to inclusion. But only half of millennial workers surveyed report that their company emphasizes face-to-face interactions or small-group collaboration.

Of the industries surveyed, technology and advertising ranked as the best industries when it comes to engaging millennial employees. Education institutions fared the worst (how badly must they be failing their students!).

What Business Leaders and Best of Breed Companies are Doing

A picture is worth a thousand words. Let’s see what some of the top leaders in industries that themselves are highly-ranked for encouraging employees to collaborate and for engaging young, technologically savvy and desirable employees. These companies are investing heavily in their physical plants to encourage collaboration in tangible and easily grasped ways.

Corus Quay, Corus Entertainment, in Toronto, Canada


Ok, maybe this one takes the Romper Room thing a bit too far. And they have half-a-million square feet to play with!

Here’s Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California.


Think this is only being done in San Francisco, Milan, Paris and New York? Think again.

Here’s Zimmerman Advertising’s office, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.


This is the office of a company in Dallas called “Big In Japan,” a small developer and publisher of mobile applications.


And here’s BP Castrol’s office in Ho Chih Minh City, Viet Nam!


If companies want to make their worksites attractive to young creative talents, the standard has been set.

In each case, while there are some cozy private work areas to be had, the offices are generally well-lit, spacious, airy, with modern furnishings and plenty of space for employees to walk around and talk to each other.

Indeed, many of these cutting edge offices are featuring large amounts of communal space – and that’s not just the lunch area. If you look at the layout and use of space, you see that it’s very easy for workers to just grab a table, set up their laptops or tablets side-by-side, and solve a problem – without having to involve management.

Reserve a conference room? Please.

With strong management and good hiring, empowering and facilitating this kind of cooperation in the workplace can make a vast difference: Imagine the difference between centrally-directed, command economies like the Former Soviet Union and North Korea, on one hand, and dynamic market economies on the other. That’s the difference between the siloed, stovepiped office and the truly collaborative environment.

The Role of HR in Facilitating the Collaborative Office

So let’s boil this down to what the HR staff can do to help make the collaborative office a reality? After all, you can’t just create one of those cool-looking hypermodern offices like in the pics!

So what can you do?

Hire young. Sure, you need some adult supervision at every level. Young and immature workers sometimes do dumb things. But your younger hires speak Cloud as a native tongue. Technology and the Web were their languages from the time they could walk. The difference in technological savvy between the average millennial worker and his or her elders today is much greater than it was between Gen X and the Boomers in this regard.

Liberal arts is not dead. Sure, you’ll need some good coders and number-crunchers. But the ability to think critically, to make sound decisions, to embrace ethics (and keep the company out of hot water) is more important than ever – precisely because the technology is more important. This doesn’t necessarily necessitate a college degree – but it does require a broad mind, a decent fund of information, and the ability to think from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Look for this ability – and see they have avenues for promotion and a viable career path.

Watch for ‘fiefdoms’ – and break them up.

Destroy stovepipes and silos (except for the HIPAA compliance stuff!)

Look for opportunities to transfer smart people between departments, using lateral moves or promotions. Someone who goes to a new department will quickly learn the basics of the new job in a few weeks – but their experience in the other department and the perspectives they bring will be invaluable.

Hire with teams in mind.

Look for leadership backgrounds. Sports, community involvement, military leadership, anything having to do with leadership and teambuilding. These people aren’t afraid to go talk to people.

Break down walls that impede communication. If you can’t do it physically, do it culturally.

Embrace telecommunication in some contexts, but don’t be a pushover. For collaboration to happen, you need to encourage face-to-face, belly-to-belly contact.

Make decisions in multidisciplinary teams.

Implement ‘360 degree’ reviews.

Be open to interdepartmental transfers. People tend to make the best decisions for themselves and the organization, alike.