As we speak, almost every organization is busy figuring out which approach to hybrid working fits them best. From bakery to big tech, from automotive to investment banking, everyone is engaged in what -in previous blogs– we have called one of the biggest transformations in how we organize work since the onset of the personal computer. One of the key criteria in this journey of discovery, is to define for what purposes we need to have face to face contact at work. A lot has been said about for which tasks a team can best work together in-person. Less has been said about cross functional contacts, which means collaboration with people from other departments in the organisation. I came across a large-scale study done at Microsoft, which sheds some light on this topic (‘The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers;’ Yang et. Al in Nature Human Behaviour Vol. 6 January 2022).
The researchers studied e-mails, calendars, chat messages, online meetings, and workweek hours of more than 61.000 employees and came to some interesting insights:
- Firm-wide remote working caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.
- This made it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the organization.
What we know about cross-functional collaboration
Network topology (mapping of connections in a complex network), including the strengths of ties within a network, has a significant role in the success of both individuals and organizations. For individuals, it is beneficial to have access to new, non-redundant information through connections to different parts of an organizations’ formal organization chart and through connections to different parts of an organization’s informal network. This type of contacts, bridges ‘structural holes’ in the organization.
Network collaboration is associated with high quality creative output and knowledge transfer across the organization is a competitive advantage for organizations.
From ‘Media richness theory,’ we know that company wide collaboration is influenced by the modes of communication that employees use to collaborate with one another. Richer communication channels, such as in-person contact, or synchronous online working, are best suited to communicating complex information and ideas. A-synchronous communication, such as e-mail and chat are best suited to conveying simple information. Research shows that establishing rapport, the foundation form knowledge transfer, is impeded by e-mail use (Morris et al. 2002).
The research showed that firm-wide remote work caused business groups to become less interconnected. It also reduced the number of ties bridging structural holes in the informal network and caused employees to spend less time collaborating with the bridging ties that remained.
The shift also caused employees to spend a greater share of their time with the stronger ties (direct peers) and a smaller amount of time with so called ‘weaker ties,’ meaning non-formal working relationships. The benefit of these ‘weaker ties’ is that they are more likely to provide access to new information.
Remote working ossified workers’ ego networks, made the network more fragmented and made each fragment more clustered. In summary, the organization become more heavily siloed.
Although the authors of this study caution that these results, obtained in a high-tech company in the US, may not translate one on one to other industries or geographies, it echoes what we have heard from a variety of clients. Therefore, it warrants serious attention to look at how to maintain and stimulate cross-functional collaboration, knowing how important this is for an organization’s creativity, learning and problem-solving capacity.
What does this mean for hybrid collaboration?
When setting up policies for hybrid working, we need to not just plan for effective teamwork, but also think pro-actively about cross-functional collaboration. This question could be a starting point: how do we create opportunities, both online and in person, for employees to build and maintain connections outside their direct team, in a way that requires little effort and even spontaneously?
Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Promoting synchronous communication: speaking to people instead of mail or chat, when the task is complex or requires creativity.
- Planning time together in the office, leaving room in the calendar for spontaneous interaction.
- Designing office space to encourage spontaneous interaction outside one’s own team: coffee and lunch spaces, informal workspaces, social activities.
- Creating online spaces for informal connections with co-workers.
Fredrik Fogelberg is a chartered Organisational Psychologist specializing in leadership development and team facilitation in international organizations. He has over 30 years of international experience in the corporate world and as a consultant.