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Think Your Staff Are Actually Happy?

The workplace memo that rocked the world.

In one of Marissa Mayer’s first moves after taking the helm at Yahoo, she banned working from home. Although headlines trumpeted the loss of a flexible work option, the memo from Yahoo’s HR director suggested staff would gain something valuable: better collaboration.

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” the memo read.

Two years after Memogate, the debate still rages. With Millennial workers expecting (demanding?) mobility and so many technology tools to choose from, is ‘face-to-face’ still required to collaborate well in the workplace? Or are other factors more important to team dynamics? Let’s dive in.

The entrepreneurs:

While Mayer clearly thinks in-the-flesh interaction is crucial, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson says 'fun' is the key to bolstering collaboration.

“Foster an inclusive, family-like atmosphere and a sense of playfulness, because your staff’s happiness will be critical to sustaining your company’s success,” Branson advised on Entrepreneur.com.

For Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, building a great startup team hinges on hiring people who truly believe in your vision, especially when your venture is still fledgling and unproven.

“I think that’s it … Getting people to believe in what you’re doing – and in you – is important,” Musk said in a 2013 interview.

In her 2013 biography of Mark Zuckerberg titled Think Like Zuck, Ekaterina Walter asserts that the Facebook founder fosters workplace collaboration (and equality) by allowing staff to “form teams around projects they’re passionate about.”

“Not only does this approach ensure that employees give their best to the project,” Walter writes, “but it also provides opportunities for career growth based on smarts and competence, not on credentials.”

The research:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has basically cornered the market (if there is one) on researching best collaboration practices. Based on their 2009, 2010 and 2012 studies, MIT found that patterns of communication among team members are the most significant predictor of a team’s success, even more than all major individual factors (like intelligence, personality, skills and discussion content) – combined.

Among MIT’s other findings:

  • The most valuable form of communication is face-to-face, followed by phone or video conference, then email and texting
  • 35 per cent of any team’s success rate depends on its number of face-to-face exchanges
  • Teams that seek outside connections (and thus, fresh viewpoints) perform better, especially teams requiring innovation and creativity
  • Teams are most successful when members contribute and listen equally vs. dominating or holding back
  • Effective teams feature members skilled at reading people’s emotional states during face-to-face and online virtual communication
  • Women score higher in ‘emotional reading’ skills, so teams with more females outperform those featuring mostly men

The tech tools:

Yes, technology can improve workplace collaboration.

A 2009 study by (who else?) MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that virtual teams outperformed face-to-face teams in software development IF two key things happened:

  1. The virtual tools emphasized task-related processes to make sure remote team members pulled their weight;
  2. Managers boosted cohesion among team members through “socio-emotional” moves like recognizing their value and accomplishments and respecting their feelings.

Just last year, research from Toronto-based Softchoice indicated that consulting your staff before adopting collaboration technology can make or break the deployment. At firms where workers aren’t consulted, staff are three times more likely to doubt they’ll stay with their company long-term. While only 54 per cent of staff who aren’t consulted feel the technology boosts their productivity, 72 per cent of those who are consulted feel the tools do make them more productive.

So there you have it. Ask, don’t tell, your workers what collaboration tools they should use. Create face-to-face opportunities. Monitor employees’ collaboration EQ along with your collaboration IT. Finally, try baking some fun, passion and commitment into the mix. It might just help your whole team work better together.

Learn about the 5 collaboration that earn their keep…and then some. 

Image by Financial Times photos.

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with ITBusiness.ca, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

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