What is team collaboration and why it matters?

Organized and productive team collaboration is the fuel that drives the contemporary workplace. As the nature of work continues to grow increasingly complex, specialized, and interdependent, we are becoming more reliant on the synergy of skills and efforts of separate teams and their individual members. 

This article deals with the fundamental principles of team collaboration, introducing the key terms and concepts, crucial elements, and the main benefits of collaborative work in the dynamic workplace of today.

Team collaboration — basic definitions

Before we dive deeper into the matters of team collaboration, it is important that we clarify our starting points and define the two terms that outline the field of play — team and collaboration

What is a team?

While different definitions may vary in their specific wording, they all agree that a team is a group of individuals working together towards the achievement of a common goal. 

To further expand, according to Leigh L. Thompson, the author of “Making the Team: A Guide for Managers”, members of a team are “interdependent with respect to information, resources, knowledge, and skills”, which they combine in order to achieve said goals. This interdependence is reflected in the diverging nature of expertise among the team members and the necessity of coming together and joining efforts through activities such as planning, decision-making, active discussion, etc.

Furthermore, this approach emphasizes the shared achievement of a team rather than the individual contributions of its members.

To clear away any doubts, it is important to make the distinction between a team and a workgroup. While the two concepts are quite similar, the key difference between them lies in the degree of dependence: while the members of a workgroup will most often work independently towards the realization of the defined goal, members of a team will always pool their individual resources and work together towards that objective. In other words — collaborate

What is collaboration?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines collaboration as the “situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing”. Narrowing it down to a professional context, it represents the working relationship between members of an organization in which they contribute their unique skills to a joint effort towards the achievement of a business goal. 

Collaboration in a workplace setting implies the cross-functional nature of the process of achieving the shared professional goal, where the participants utilize different skill sets, as opposed to performing the same tasks. 

What is team collaboration?

Now that we have clarified the two fundamental parts of team collaboration, we can already see the outline of their joint definition, although we need to add a few specifics.

Team collaboration is an approach to team and project management in which individuals with complementary skills work together in a cooperative way in order to achieve defined shared objectives. This approach is defined by equal participation of all involved individuals in different stages of the work process (brainstorming, planning, decision-making, etc.), and shared responsibility for its outcomes. 

Team collaboration can take place both on a single cross-functional team and between different specialized teams. Depending on the manner in which it is conducted, team collaboration can be:

  • synchronous: participants interact in real-time, whether in a shared office space or through online meetings, messaging apps, etc.
  • asynchronous: the interaction between participants takes place at different times, such as collaborating on shared online documents, contributing to a shared knowledge base, reviewing and commenting on the work of others, etc.

Differences between teamwork and team collaboration

Another defining trait of team collaboration is the reliance on teamwork. As these terms are similar and often considered synonymous, let’s first try to delineate the differences between teamwork and team collaboration

Teamwork is an umbrella term that goes beyond merely working together and involves a variety of elements that highlight and enable the strength of a team: open communication, mutual support, healthy interpersonal relationships. It highlights the value of strong professional relationships and emphasizes the achievement of the whole group rather than anyone’s individual effort. 

While all of this is applicable to team collaboration as well, the key distinction lies in the nature of the processes. The outcome of teamwork represents the aggregate result of individual contributions, while team collaboration is a collective effort. Put simply, in teamwork participants work independently on their share of the defined workload towards the realization of a set objective, while participants on collaborative teams actually work together and combine their complementary skills in order to achieve the set goals. 

It is often difficult to make the distinction between teamwork and team collaboration because teams and organizations can utilize both approaches depending on the specifics of their tasks and projects. The shifts between teamwork and team collaboration often take place spontaneously in response to specific work settings and requirements. In other words, teamwork and collaboration — as well as autonomous work — are legitimate approaches to project management that should be chosen and utilized based on the specific settings and requirements of the work ahead. 

Elements of quality team collaboration

Good and efficient team collaboration is rooted in a number of quality practices that enable a productive workflow between participants. We will dedicate the following lines to highlighting some of these universally recognized practices and principles and detailing their significance to the collaborative process. Depending on the source, there are a number of different classifications, but we have narrowed down what we feel are the five key elements of healthy and efficient collaboration: 

  • communication, 
  • coordination, 
  • transparency, 
  • accountability, 
  • and trust. 

Communication

Communication is both a prerequisite and a strong enabler of quality collaboration. With the ongoing global shift away from traditional office spaces and towards a more decentralized and increasingly virtual workspace, it is essential to view team communication in two different aspects:

  • Technological: reliable and effective communication channels are critical to the success of the modern-day workplace, particularly for teams featuring remote workers. It is one of the fundamental duties of organizations to establish clear communication channels and provide efficient communication tools that enable collaboration, such as real-time conferencing and chat tools, file exchange platforms, shared documents, and other collaborative software applications.
  • Interpersonal: productive collaboration goes beyond mere task delegation and work organization; it requires active communication and exchange of knowledge and ideas, which requires a respectful and inclusive environment. The communication between collaborators should be rooted in clarity, transparency, trust, and mutual respect.

*For in-depth information about communication on collaborative teams, visit our Team Communication Hub

Coordination

In order to enable the highest degree of productivity and efficiency, the activities of individual collaborators need to be organized in a way that maximizes their time and skills. Coordination ensures that all collaborators contribute to the end goal in the most impactful way.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, coordination is “the process of organizing people or groups so that they work together properly and well”. In the context of team collaboration, this process includes a clear definition of team goals, roles, and responsibilities, the timely availability of necessary tools and resources, as well as the proper organization and oversight of individual tasks. 

Coordination of a team’s collaborative activities can be the responsibility of a team leader/manager, or, less commonly, it can be achieved through the consensus of collaborators. Regardless of the organizational model, the key objective is the optimal division of responsibilities and the ultimate level of clarity and understanding regarding those responsibilities. 

The lack of proper coordination unavoidably leads to inefficient work, repeat activities, potential conflicts, general dissatisfaction of collaborators, and, ultimately, failure to reach the defined goals. On the other hand, quality coordination streamlines individual contributions, ensures efficiency and unity of vision, and provides work satisfaction. 

Transparency

Transparency is the foundation of quality collaboration. In order for team members to work in a truly collaborative manner, it is necessary that they all have the same level of access to all information relevant to their collective work. This objective is achieved through transparency. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines transparency as “the quality of being done in an open way without secrets”. In the context of collaborative teams, this openness incorporates several different aspects:

  • Transparency of vision: all collaborators should understand and agree on the defined goals and the reasoning behind them — this ensures that everyone is aligned and gathered around the shared team vision
  • Transparency of responsibilities: all collaborators should be aware of everyone’s tasks and responsibilities — this ensures that everyone contributes in the most impactful and efficient manner
  • Transparency of work: all collaborators should be aware of the work of their fellow collaborators and be able to access it — this enables continuous feedback, active collaboration, improvements, and adjustments, and helps avoid blind spots and other previously unidentified issues 
  • Transparency of communication: all collaborators should be open and honest about the status of their ongoing work (or the project itself) and any obstacles they might be facing — this enables teams to respond promptly to any arising challenges and help collaborators perform better

Transparency is particularly important for cross-functional teams and collaborations, as it helps eliminate any information silos, enables knowledge transfer, and encourages an active exchange of ideas and perspectives. Additionally, transparency promotes and fortifies mutual trust among collaborators. 

Accountability

The question of accountability is one of the most common stumbling blocks of collaborative work. Ideally, all collaborators will share a sense of ownership and responsibility for the success of the collective work and their individual contributions to the process. In reality, that is not always the case. 

Members of collaborative teams will occasionally feel that some of their collaborators are not pulling their weight and investing an adequate amount of effort. If such situations are not addressed on time, they may lead to project delays, poor team performance, and a decrease in the engagement level of team members. 

The shared ownership of collaborative work can be a double-edged sword when it comes to accountability, particularly on larger collaborative teams, as it can blur the lines of responsibility. If the course of the collaborative work takes a turn for the worse, it can be difficult to determine who should be held accountable. 

There are ways to install and fortify accountability on collaborative teams, both in their formation stage and through ongoing practices. Here are a few focus points that can help create clear and transparent lines of accountability on a collaborative team:

  • Defining roles: all collaborators need to know what is their specific role on the project, along with clear expectations for the role in question. 
  • Providing feedback: collaborators need to know whether they are meeting expectations or not. Whether through positive reinforcement or constructive criticism, it is important that all team members are aware of how and to what extent their individual efforts contribute to the overall success. It is important that any criticism doesn’t serve as finger-pointing, but as a starting point for improvements and continued development. 
  • Relying on technology: the right collaborative tools can reinforce accountability in different ways. Active collaborative communication clarifies the responsibilities of individual team members, while shared collaborative tools increase the visibility of individual assignments and add greater transparency to accountability lines.

Trust

Trust is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something”. This definition goes a long way in revealing the importance of trust for team collaboration. 

Members of collaborative teams — particularly cross-functional — must rely on their collaborators to do their share towards the realization of the team goal. This reliance is founded on the confidence that the collaborators are competent and motivated to contribute in expected ways. 

Trust among collaborators extends beyond the mere confidence in one’s abilities; it is also the foundation of a healthy collaborative relationship and a safe working environment where team members are willing to cooperate, share knowledge and information, and support each other towards the achievement of shared objectives. 

On the flip side of the coin, a lack of trust can lead to withholding knowledge and information, reluctance to cooperate, the formation of isolated cliques within the team, and damaged interpersonal relationships. 

The foundations of trust among team members are open and honest communication, a supportive and respectful environment, strengthening of interpersonal relationships, and individual accountability. It is the culmination of all other relevant elements of team collaboration coming together, enabling collaborative teams to perform at their absolute best.

Why team collaboration matters

For many organizations, the increasingly complex nature of work that relies on a variety of specialized skills makes collaborative work a necessity. On the other hand, even organizations that aren’t entirely dependent on the synergy of diverging skill sets stand to benefit from promoting collaborative practices.

The benefits of collaboration are multifold and extend into a number of key areas of operations — from business outcomes to knowledge transfer, employee retention, and beyond. Here are some of the most substantial ways in which team collaboration produces value.

Benefits of team collaboration

Team collaboration improves knowledge-sharing

Collaboration is always an opportunity to learn. Team collaboration gathers participants with diverging backgrounds and skill-sets. Exposure to other people’s approaches and manner of thinking, opportunity to ask questions, seek knowledge, and get relevant feedback — all of this increases knowledge on a team level, and thus the strength of the collaborative team. 

Team collaboration empowers creative thinking

Different skill-sets among collaborators mean different perspectives. The ability to approach a challenge from different angles increases the team’s collective problem-solving skills by introducing new perspectives. This, in turn, increases the team’s collective ability to think outside the box and seek out new answers to existing questions.

Team collaboration makes organizations more connected

Collaboration between people with different areas of expertise opens up new lines of communication inside organizations. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • It increases the understanding of the broader picture of how the organization functions and how individual teams and their members fit into the frame. 
  • It improves the overall information flow between different areas of the organization, thus minimizing information silos and increasing its overall ability to promptly respond to any arising issues. 
  • It makes collaborators more familiar with one another, thus strengthening interpersonal relationships.

Team collaboration increases engagement

Active collaboration brings people closer together and increases their level of engagement with their work and the organization as a whole. A recent study has shown that teamwork and collaboration with other team members play a major role in the employees’ feeling of engagement. On the other hand, employees who primarily work independently are far less likely to feel fully engaged with their organization. 

Engaged employees are far more invested in the success of the organization and more motivated to contribute to it. Additionally, the sense of belonging to a team and a shared goal leads to higher levels of satisfaction among employees, which has a direct effect on retention rates. 

Team collaboration increases efficiency

Collaboration is not best suited for every work situation. Sometimes going the route of independent work and doing away with meetings, coordination, and brainstorming will get the job done far faster. However, there are many types of projects where a collaborative approach makes teams more efficient, particularly in work that is complex, multi-disciplined, and demanding. 

Collaboration increases efficiency by dividing the workload evenly and by focusing team members on areas where their expertise and experience make the greatest impact. It also enables teams to solve problems faster and find innovative answers to pressing questions, it increases the collective knowledge level, and leads to higher degrees of motivation and dedication of team members. 

What happens if we collaborate poorly

Now that we have outlined the potential benefits of strong team collaboration, we must look at the other side of the coin and see what can happen when collaboration is not conducted in a quality manner. 

Collaboration doesn’t come without risks. Whether through organizational or human faults, collaborative work can often go wrong and yield results completely opposite of those expected. It is a complex process with many variables, and even with the best intentions, it can result in negative consequences for organizations. 

Let’s go through some of the most common risks of faulty collaboration:

Time wasting

In order to collaborate in a quality manner, participants must reach a point where they are all on the same page regarding the course of the work ahead. Reaching that point can be a time-consuming affair, as it often requires a lot of meetings, planning, brainstorming, and debating before anyone gets down to doing. Some of it is due to the nature of the process, but it mainly arises from organizational inefficiency. Before organizations settle on a collaborative approach, they need to carefully consider whether it is the best way forward. Once they make that decision, they must strive to make the project planning stage as efficient as possible. 

The complexity of decision-making

Collaboration is rooted in consensus and a shared vision of the collective work. However, with a number of different backgrounds and perspectives involved, reaching that consensus can be a complex and troublesome process. Without hierarchy, the decision-making process can be slow, burdensome, and even antagonistic. All of these scenarios can slow down the work and complicate interpersonal relationships among collaborators.  

Loss of autonomy

Collaboration is a team sport, but teams are made out of individuals accustomed to their own manner of doing things. Collaborative work requires all participants to concede a bit of their autonomy and adjust their processes to the needs of the team. However, not all team members are equally willing to cede autonomy, and different collaborations require varying degrees of adjustment. If collaborators feel that their autonomy and independence are threatened by the collaboration, they may become less engaged, and, consequently, less productive. 

Informational overload

We have already outlined the significance of an improved information flow among collaborators from different professional areas. Ideally, it provides a higher degree of clarity and connection among separate parts of an organization. In a less ideal scenario, additional information can be overwhelming, both to individual team members and to the course of the collaborative work, causing inefficient decision-making, loss of team focus, additional meetings, and less time for actual work. 

Organizational failure

Without a clear plan, vision, and roles, collaborative projects can easily become bogged down by misunderstandings, uncertainties, and general dissatisfaction. Before entering into a collaborative arrangement, it is essential to attain a clear understanding of where the project needs to go and how all participants fit into the plan. 

Damaged relationships

Good collaboration brings people together, while poor collaboration tends to pull them apart. Ineffective collaborations and poor collective performance can quickly turn into a blame game where everyone becomes cagey and protective, and interpersonal relationships among team members deteriorate. 

All of these risks are significant, but they are also preventable. They need to be taken into consideration while preparing for collaborative work and addressed swiftly as soon as they arise in order to ensure a healthy and productive team collaboration. 

Conclusion

With the ever-increasing complexity of work and the rise of remote and decentralized teams, quality collaboration has become crucial to the success of many organizations. Adoption of a collaborative approach can yield numerous benefits for organizations, but it is a complex process that requires careful planning and close monitoring in order to produce the best results. 

References: 

  • Thompson, Leigh L. (2007). Making the Team: A Guide for Managers, 3rd ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
  • https://hbr.org/2011/09/learning-to-live-with-complexity
  • https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/team-working-group-collocated-collection-9296
  • https://www.pgi.com/blog/2014/11/types-of-collaboration-synchronous-and-asychronous/
  • https://www.civilservicecollege.org.uk/news-understanding-the-differences-between-teamwork-and-collaboration-203
  • https://www.adpri.org/assets/the-global-study-of-engagement/

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