How to Make Collaboration Work in the Work-From-Home Era

Giving coworkers opportunities to bump into each other stokes creativity. But you don't necessarily need a physical office to fuel collaboration.

The past year and a half has been hard on chance encounters in the workplace. Virtual meetings can do some things well, but the tools of remote work have yet to re-create the the pleasant surprise of making a new acquaintance in the hallway of a conference center or reconnecting with a colleague you haven’t seen for a while. Work-from-home environments don’t easily foster random connections with people from different departments, especially new arrivals. That’s a problem, because many leaders have argued that such connections are the source of innovations that help organizations thrive.

So how do you foster those in-person connections when a lot of workers, quite understandably, aren’t yet ready to have them?

In an article last week in the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller dove into some of the research around chance meetings and creativity, in response to JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s comment that “remote work virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine.” Dimon has a point. For instance, game companies with remote staffs during the pandemic have been slower to release new products, according to one study. But other research shows that meeting in person is mostly valuable when it comes to a first meeting, especially with people outside your particular silo.

How do you create an environment where everybody in an organization knows who’s an expert at what?

Even in those cases, though, there are disputes about the particulars—the game-company employees were still collaborating, but less often with people in separate departments. Other research suggests that in-person meetings are valuable for initial ideation, but not as important for follow-through. But the discussion points to the importance of being more precise about how to encourage collaboration remotely.

To address that question, consider the dynamic behind the brilliant collaborations we use to celebrate water-cooler connections. In The Innovators, a history of computing and the internet, Walter Isaacson discusses how companies like Apple and Intel created open-plan offices to encourage random meetings. But those innovations came from small groups of two or three people who needed specific expertise and sought out the people who had it. The inventors of the transistor at Bell Labs had specific problems to solve involving physics and conductive materials; big-picture computer visionary Steve Jobs needed programming whiz Steve Wozniak to build Apple; data-mining scholar Sergei Brin needed somebody who was smart about human-computer interaction to create Google: Enter Larry Page.

So rather than trying to figure out how to make sure everybody is all together in one physical place where they can potentially bump into each other, a better question for a leader to ask might be this: How do you create an environment where everybody in an organization knows who’s an expert at what, and thus are findable, in a way that stokes creative collaboration?

Easier said than done, of course. As Iowa State University researcher Matt Clancy told the Times, “the harder part is when you don’t know they’re there, you don’t know they’re valuable to meet, you don’t know their work exists and is important.” But it’s not impossible. Organizations can create “skill swaps” where people from different departments train each other up. Online tools can improve group work on writing projects or simply offer buddy-system-style encouragement. And the Times lists a few tools that can help create something like a water-cooler environment.

None of which are perfect for fueling collaboration. But neither was everybody working in the office. When everybody is safely together in an office, some conversations become easier, happy creative accidents more possible. But a culture of innovation is a product of intentional actions by leaders who want to see their people interact in new ways. And that’s a task leaders don’t have to wait to return to the office to work on.

What has your organization done to support collaboration among remote workers? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Alisa Zahoruiko/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!