The Collaboration Conundrum: Is Our Inner Caveman Holding Us Back in the Digital Workplace?

Dr. Nicola J. Millard, Head of Customer Insight & Futures, BT

Dr. Nicola J. Millard, Head of Customer Insight & Futures, BT

Collaboration can be a bit of a conundrum in many global, digital, and distributed organizations.

On one hand the digital workforce is enabled to work anytime, anyplace and anywhere. Our entire office can now fit in a backpack, a shoulder bag or a handbag (whatever your preference happens to be). Wherever we lay our hat, that’s our workplace. In our recent survey of global business executives, nine out of 10 believed that productivity was the main benefit of this digital revolution in the workplace.

On the other hand, when we don’t see our colleagues on a day-to-day basis, our inner caveman tends not to trust others so easily. When it was a battle to just survive without being eaten by a roaming sabre-toothed tiger, you trusted your tribe, the people around you — and feared strangers. Decisions were simple: fight or flight, friend or foe.

Is today’s digital work style upsetting our inner Neanderthal?

Evolution has led to a more complicated society. Collaboration is no longer always face-to-face, and we are constantly connected to friends and strangers alike by communication networks. Thanks to technology, we’ve discovered the freedom to roam while still being able to collaborate — and this flexibility has proved to be very precious to us. It gives us more control, has improved our ability to achieve more, and can allow us to better balance different aspects of our lives by cutting the chains tethering us to the office.

Strategically important things like innovation depend on ideas flowing through open and diverse networks of people

But has your inner caveman got the memo that things have changed?

Do we still commute to the office every day, despite knowing we will be constantly distracted and unproductive? Do we feel guilty about working from home because our colleagues may think that we are watching daytime television, rather than pulling our weight? Is “virtual face time” all about how long you are available on instant messenger? Despite thinking collaboration is generally a good idea, do we do it, especially if we don’t ever meet the people we are collaborating with?

Distance reduces our levels of trust. When people are strangers and have very little in common beyond their ability to connect, the weaker their bonds are. It’s that caveman mentality popping up (club in hand); suspicious of a stranger who isn’t one of the tribe. And yet, our “tribes” now span teams, departments, supply chains, organizations, and continents. This makes it hard to form strong teams and it can put barriers in the way of true, effective collaboration.

Plus, work today — particularly for knowledge workers — involves juggling different demands on your time. Do you focus on ticking the boxes on your individual performance to-do list, or do you work for the greater good of the organization and spend time sharing your knowledge to help others achieve? Your cave brain wants to target what appears to be most important — visibly achieving things on your scorecard rather than unselfishly helping others by sharing knowledge and skills. It wants to pile up complete work assignments like primitive hunting trophies.

And yet we know, with our wise, developed minds, that collaboration brings benefits to us, our teams and our organizations. Strategically important things like innovation depend on ideas flowing through open and diverse networks of people.

The bottom line is that collaboration needs nurturing, and a big part of that is recognizing we’re caught in a power struggle between our cave brains and the requirements of today’s society.

For a start, collaboration doesn’t happen by magic. It doesn’t even happen by virtue of having the technology in place to do it (although that helps). It happens with purpose.

Purpose happens with good leadership. The digital leader can’t lead by seeing people at their desks, or by counting the number of hours people work anymore. Leaders need to be able to continuously and clearly define purpose. They must also be connectors between team members—the perfect party hosts, if you will. They also need to establish common ground for collaboration. By that I mean that they must choose a place – be it digital or physical – which is accessible to everyone involved, and appropriate to the task.

The key is to make it as easy as possible for people to collaborate, giving them tools that work together and making sure they understand how to use them. We need to value collaboration within our organizations so that we can overcome our inherent urge to put our own interests first. And we need to lead this new approach to collaboration from the front, choosing and training leaders to champion new ways of working, knowledge sharing, and productivity.

Digital tools could be as radical as the discovery of fire—transforming the way we work. But just like fire, it needs to be harnessed well, or you can get badly burnt and run back into the old, familiar cave.

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