What Really Drives Collaboration and Innovation in the Workplace?

"What Really Drives Collaboration and Innovation in the Workplace?" header image

Lately, we’ve all been forced to adapt. Everything from how we work and socialize to the way we shop for groceries has been impacted by the need for social distancing.

While some of these adjustments have been easier than others (wearing gym shorts to the “office,” anyone?), the sudden shift to remote work has also forced many of us to re-examine our understanding of teamwork.

As a team leader, one of your primary goals is to motivate and inspire your employees to perform their absolute best. In many ways, the new reality of forced remote work directly challenges that goal.

What does the new reality of work mean for those who belong to (or lead) a tight-knit team? Is it possible to embrace the shift to remote work and turn it into a tool for innovation? Let’s unpack some of the prevailing theories about how teamwork and creativity occur in the workplace — whether it’s a live-work environment or distributed teams working from home.

Where Does Innovation Come From?

Just as you can’t force creativity or inspiration, innovation isn’t something you can order on demand. But that doesn’t mean you there’s nothing you can do to encourage your team to work together and think outside the box — even from afar.

While there may not be a reliable formula for innovation, a workplace that encourages collaboration naturally explores a wider range of solutions from a larger number of perspectives. This can give rise to truly creative ideas, features, and workflows that propel your company into the future.

In other words, collaboration breeds innovation.

How Can You Promote a Collaborative Work Environment?

Illustration of two people changing a lightbulb on a ladder

Distributed or not, it always takes a lot of work to build a culture that values collaboration and encourages innovation.

There are three key elements required to create the ideal conditions for team-wide collaboration, and thus creative solutions:

  • Trust
  • Technology
  • Teamwork

When employees learn to support each other, the entire team benefits. In many cases, fostering employee engagement may be key to promoting a collaborative workplace where teammates can rely on each other.

There’s plenty of evidence that shows engaged employees are more productive, attentive, and committed to their work. In fact, a survey conducted by Gallup involving 1.4 million employees found that strong employee engagement is associated with 21% higher productivity. Stronger employee engagement is also linked to lower absenteeism and turnover.

Illustration of a statistic stating that engaged employees are 21% more productive

So, here’s what can you do to keep employees engaged and collaborative despite working from home offices and other remote locations.

Translating Healthy Team Dynamics to the World of Remote Work

It seems the prevailing idea is that by working remotely, teams lose some of the "magic" that comes from in-person encounters and drives things like collaboration and innovation.

But does true collaboration require working together in-person? Not if you’re willing to reimagine your understanding of teamwork for the distributed workplace.

If you want your remote team to produce creative, innovation, industry-shaping solutions; you must create a culture built on trust, transparency, and teamwork — while also providing access to technology that supports distrusted teams.

A triangle, where the three corners read teamwork, trust and tech

1. Strive to Earn (and Keep) Each Others’ Trust

Embrace the Freedom of Remote Work

Great leadership has nothing to do with supervision or monitoring an employee’s online activity. When you trust employees to work independently, they’re more likely to trust themselves and their own instincts — which is a precursor to new ideas and open communication about differing perspectives.

Set Clear Expectations

Trust is a sign of respect. Respecting your employees means trusting them to get their work done and manage their responsibilities from the comfort of their home office. One of the best ways to set remote employees up for success is to provide clear expectations about their role and duties. This can lead to greater achievements and productivity.


Prioritize Effort Over Perfection

Building trust requires that you accept, but not judge, your employees’ humanity and fallibility. That means acknowledging mistakes, accepting imperfections, and framing failure as an opportunity for growth and learning — rather than a punishable offense.

Instead, reward creativity, collaboration, and out-of-the-box solutions. By encouraging employees to try new approaches, speak up when they need advice, and accept responsibility if something doesn’t work out; you can also remove some of the stigma associated with appearing vulnerable in the workplace.

2. Build a Community that Values Teamwork

Encourage (and Model) Open Communication

Collaboration is driven largely by culture. A remote workplace that empowers employees to be innovative and collaborative requires mutual respect, freedom to fail, learning opportunities, and transparent leadership.

A remote workforce needs managers who encourage open conversations and requests input from team members on how to improve culture, productivity, and work-life balance. Ideally, try to minimize the need for all-hands meetings while also inviting input from as many team members as possible.

In order to accommodate employees in different time zones, consider setting up an online survey that must be completed by a specific date. If you have important announcements, consider recording it so everyone can watch or listen on their own schedule without attending a meeting that cuts into their productivity.

Invest in Remote Work Culture

Just as you would celebrate victories and milestones at the office, it’s important to give remote employees opportunities to celebrate and connect with teammates. Whether you host weekly happy hours on Google Hangouts or play games together on Slack, invest in activities and (optional) online social events that bring your remote team together.

3. Leverage the Best Technology for Every Touchpoint

Make It Easy to Stay in Touch

How can remote teams achieve the same level of collaboration as their in-office counterparts? If the shift towards remote work had come a decade earlier, the answer would be uncertain. However, thanks to modern technology and communication tools, it’s more than possible for remote teams to work in sync.

Use video calls in the place of in-person meetings. Choose a text-based chat platform for your team, like Slack or Google Hangouts, to send instant messages instead of just relying on email. There are hundreds of apps and other digital tools on the market — especially now — that make it easy for distributed teams to stay in touch.

Provide Access to Shared Tools and Knowledge

One of the keys to effective teamwork in a distributed setting lies in the technology they use to manage internal knowledge. If you haven’t already, find and provide access to tools that enable remote team members to easily store and share information digitally.

Some key tools may include an accessible project management platform; a centralized knowledge base where everyone has access to the information they need to do their job well; an eSignature tool like HelloSign to streamline onboarding, sales, and other workflows; and other cloud-based solutions that enable teams to access shared files and work from anywhere.

In Order to Collaborate and Innovate, You Must First Be Prepared to Adapt

Transitioning to remote work introduces both new opportunities and challenges. However, great leadership can set the tone by providing access to the right technology and demonstrating a willingness to work together despite obstacles.

Remote or not, a leader who promotes trust, technology, and teamwork can create a workplace that enables team-wide collaboration and innovation.

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