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cross-functional collaboration

The benefits of cross-functional workplace collaboration

With 24/7 internet access, ubiquitous social media activity, and ever-present smartphones within their reach, people feel more connected now than ever before.

But despite all of this connectivity, interpersonal communication skills are often cited as the number one “soft” skills gap among employees across the nation. These skills are valued across all industries and career levels because they drive teamwork and performance. 

Interpersonal skills are a key component of teamwork, also known as cross-functional collaboration. Sometimes this collaboration happens organically. Unfortunately, it becomes less likely to occur when you loop in different roles, unique personalities, and (often) conflicting viewpoints even though this is exactly where it would make the biggest impact.

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration goes beyond basic cooperation. It involves a shared vision, mutual respect, and an understanding of everyone’s role in a project. It comes down to working together harmoniously and offering different perspectives to achieve more as a team.

In fact, research shows that since collaborative teams are motivated by a common goal, they perform five times better than other teams in the workplace. On the other hand, the lack of cross-functional collaboration can eventually lead to tunnel vision and stagnation among teams. The concept of Design Thinking posits that uniform groups produce uniform thinking. This, in turn, produces myopic solutions for addressing challenges.

Take Airbnb, for example. When attempting to develop a new customer engagement strategy, CEO Brian Chesky made the bold decision to hire Pixar artists to draw stories of the Airbnb customer cycle from start to finish. Through this collaboration, Chesky was able to provide his team with a resource that inspired everyone more than hundreds of pages of docs and spreadsheets ever could.

Cross-functional collaboration has the potential to drive continuous improvement and measurable change throughout your organization. Unfortunately, that’s often easier said than done. 

Why is cross-departmental collaboration in the workplace so difficult? 

In a recent study, more than 1,400 corporate executives, employees, and educators were asked to name the specific kinds of collaboration problems that plague their workplaces. They identified the following major challenges to collaboration:

  • 86% said poor collaboration and ineffective communication are responsible for workplace failures.
  • 90% believed decision makers should seek other opinions before making a final decision.
  • 97% said a lack of alignment within a team directly impacts the outcome of a project.

Sometimes, the biggest reason your employees don’t make the effort to collaborate is because there’s a lack of incentive to do so. Employees who are actively encouraged to collaborate with one another stick to a given task up to 64% longer than peers who work alone. 

Team members who collaborate report higher engagement levels, less fatigue, and higher success rates. Plus, 33% of people even say the ability to collaborate motivates them to be more loyal employees. These are all good things. 

Initially, cross-departmental collaboration may be hard to implement. But the advantages it offers makes it a worthwhile effort. Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement.     

Encouraging a culture of collaboration through cross-functional communication

Establishing a cross-functional environment where employees can thrive and work well together doesn’t happen overnight. When every team can identify a common goal and work toward it, fostering cross-functional communication in the workplace becomes easier. It’s also important for employees to know that company leadership values teamwork.

Too often, teamwork is overlooked in favor of catering to the wants of a few select employees.    

For example, many managers focus their efforts on hiring the best talent and on then doing everything in their power to keep the new talent happy. 

But the truth is, high performers prefer a culture of collaboration in the workplace, one that offers them meaningful connections with colleagues and deeper partnerships with company decision makers. They also value working with managers who are transparent and trustworthy. 

The role of cross-functional team leadership is to set clear goals and priorities. Their task is to provide employees with much needed context regarding their potential impact on the big picture. When companies rally around a combined vision, collaboration becomes second nature.

When engaged employees and improved teamwork are the norm, big things happen. 

Providing opportunities to work cross functionally can revitalize the workplace

Although any form of teamwork can contribute to your company’s success, cross-group collaboration will streamline internal processes and improve productivity even more.

Workplace collaboration helps create an environment where employees feel valued for their unique skills as well as for their continuous input. Having employees who are happy not only impacts company culture and increases retention, it inspires lasting change. 

In fact, organizations that firmly embrace a collaborative mindset begin to notice several benefits beyond the adoption of cross-functional skills. Many advocates of cross-group collaboration recommend the practice to others because:  

  • It spurs innovation among coworkers. Although it may seem counterintuitive, selecting teams with a range of disciplines and skill levels can actually strengthen performance. Varied backgrounds and diverse ideas result in creative problem solving while increasing the probability for a more innovative work atmosphere. 
  • It helps people learn more together. When working together and given equal opportunity to share, employees become more eager to pool their talents and strengths to expand skill sets and learn from one another. Since collaboration requires input, it can also bolster cross-departmental relationships.
  • It cultivates more empathy at work. By its very nature, cross-group collaboration gives your employees more opportunities to understand how others perceive a situation. Working together to overcome a mutual challenge allows people to identify with, and become invested in, each other’s well-being.
  •  It develops a common language. Working cross functionally is effective at eliminating ambiguity. By using shared jargon or referencing past events, colleagues can take less time to get their point across. Using simple terms or phrases to communicate complex concepts can also reduce unnecessary downtime.  
  •  It fosters trust among colleagues. Cross-group collaboration breaks down hierarchical boundaries, eases tensions between departments, and promotes camaraderie. When people trust one another, they begin to communicate with greater clarity and operate as a more unified and cohesive unit.

Cross-functional collaboration can become a transformative force in your workplace. But it will take time and experimentation to determine what works best for your organization. Regardless of its advantages, don’t force collaboration. Remember, your employees will still need clearly defined and delineated roles to maintain some autonomy in their job.

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