collaboration
Business people meeting in sunny conference room

By Scott R. Schreiman

Articles extolling the virtues of workplace collaboration are legion at this point. Heck, I wrote the last one on the very short list below (all of which you should definitely read). But my big question for you is: has “collaboration” officially become a buzzword yet?

I think so, which is bad because genuine collaboration holds great potential not just for more productive workplaces, but more enjoyable ones. It becomes a buzzword when it loses the precision of its meaning. Especially when it gets slapped on any idea that brings at least three people together, regardless of results.

People throw the word around to justify using open office work plans for which people hide their intense dislike so as to not tick-off management. It seems like an open office plan hits all the right points – people can easily bounce ideas around, get a quick second pair of eyes on your work, or an answer to a question. In reality, studies on open plans find that the result is low productivity and low quality work due to constant distractions. Forget the challenge of context-switching, open floor plans drop people into a quagmire of multiple contexts they can’t avoid — even if they’re not a part of the discussion.

People also really lament the lack of any privacy. Quality collaboration doesn’t mean a never-ending stream of constant coworker interaction and interruption. Often individuals just need to hunker down to get their tasks done. The collaborative process provided guidance and focus on what they need to do. But now, they want to be left alone to get their work done.

This “always on” pendulum swing of collaboration helps explain the Slacklash. With teams distributed across large offices, as well as across continents, having choices among group online communication is a good thing. But the Slacklash reveals the limitations of communication platforms as a collaboration solution.

I see the Slacklash as the realization that constant conversation creates more distraction and stress rather than solving a communication problem. The idea of group chat may have the superficial trappings of being collaborative, but unless the reality offers users context and control over their participation in that conversation, it’s really just part of the collaboration paradox.

As management promotes group work, feedback, and brainstorming – everyone feels the growing pressure to contribute something, anything, as often as they can. Everyone feels like they must participate and share – always.

This not only gums up the works to achieve genuinely powerful collaboration, it can create inauthenticity in the workplace and coworker relationships. When people feel like they just have to constantly come up with something to say, it builds barriers to forging real, intelligent connections. These authentic, informal networks among co-workers are crucial pathways that distribute company expertise where it’s most needed through authentic means.

Sometimes, one-to-one conversation, where commentary isn’t public performance, is the key to getting things done quickly. Effective collaboration practices provide the means and opportunity for people to communicate on the terms that make the most sense to resolve the issue at hand. That could be the one-to-one, a subset of a larger team, or perhaps the entire team.

Then there’s the problem of “collaboration” being used as a catch-all term for group activities. Like we’re all at summer camp at the office. The tedious infantile feeling of having to play a silly game in the name of team-building.

Dump the Buzzword and Focus on Results

All this isn’t to say that collaboration is not important. In fact, it’s so important that we need to stop abusing the word as a buzzword. The application of superficial, happy, smiley, “let’s talk about everything and hear from everyone” approach is the buzzword version. The more this type of collaboration seeps into the workplace, the more quickly people will start to chaff under the collaboration directive.

The collaboration workflows, tools, and culture you instill in your workplace should be guided by clear goals. How will collaborating on this project help achieve its goals? How will this tool create the space and means for flexible collaboration that enhances your company’s workflows?

If your current attempts to implement the mindset at your workplace are leading to more discussions that seem to go nowhere, more waiting for others start participating before something gets done, or a constant flow of “fun” team building — you’re stuck in buzzword hell.

Working together presents an opportunity to benefit your business when it’s used to ramp up both the speed and quality with which decisions get made and work gets done. Worry less about the word and focus on the results you want to get on track towards value-added collaboration.

Scott Schreiman is the founder and CEO of Samepage.io, an online collaboration solution. Follow him at @scottschreiman.