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Five steps to collaborative leadership

Pip White, Senior Vice President & General Manager, EMEA - Slack

For many, pre-pandemic work meant joining your colleagues in an office from 9 to 5, with executives and employees in separate working areas. Collaboration meant a conversation directed by the most extroverted voices. Decision making was handled by the leadership team exclusively.

Since the pandemic, norms have shifted—employees have shown a clear preference for a more flexible approach to work with 79% of global knowledge workers saying they want location flexibility, and 94% schedule flexibility. But this doesn’t mean that driving teamwork, communication and productivity within a remote or hybrid team comes without effort from leaders. 

In fact, employee perception of executive leadership has worsened over the past two years. 81% of executives say their company’s leadership is transparent about sharing new developments that affect the company, while only 58% of employees agree. 

As workforces become increasingly distributed thanks to hybrid working policies, companies need new leadership models that move away from a command-and-control style of management. Instead, we should place flexibility and greater transparency at the foundation of our new ways of working. And the first step toward that is by embracing collaborative leadership. 

A new, collaborative approach to leadership 

Collaborative leadership is a style of management that brings employees across all levels together. In collaborative workplaces, information is shared transparently. It sits in contrast to the traditional, top-down approach to leadership where a small group of executives controls the flow of information for the rest of the organisation.

Leaders who take a collaborative approach will seek out a diversity of opinions and ideas among co-workers to make decisions and problem solve. As a consequence, employees feel more valued and trusted, and a workplace culture is created that energises teams, enables creativity and productivity and, crucially, is joyful. Here’s how business leaders can get started. 

1.   Encourage open communication 

Remote work has meant we’ve had to adjust the way we create transparency and exchange ideas. With teams using communication platforms to work asynchronously (the practice of working on a team that does not require all members to be online simultaneously), it’s more important than ever to create the right environment so those spaces encourage open and inclusive communication. Open communication means all members of the team feel comfortable voicing their opinion and have the opportunity to contribute their knowledge and skills to a project. It also involves communicating transparently, so that all team members feel in the loop with where a project, task or decision is heading. 

Ocado Technology uses channel-based messaging to create this transparency amongst teams. Channels bring order and clarity to work by grouping the right people and information in one place, so teams can share ideas, make decisions and move work forwards. Using channels, the Ocado team has been able to recreate the sense of “overhearing” a conversation in an office so that everyone feels involved. It has also enabled the business to look back and examine production incidents in one place, for teams to then openly discuss what went wrong and consider what can be improved in the future.

2. Create clarity and purpose  

As part of their role, managers should prioritise creating clarity and purpose for their employees, using tactics such as: 

  • Show each individual how their work contributes to broader organisational goals.  
  • Establish norms and agreements so everyone is on the same page about how the team works together.
  • Provide a clear overview of roles and reporting within teams. 
  • Create clarity around working hours and meeting times, especially for those managing distributed teams.

3.   Be vulnerable 

Being vulnerable is not always easy for leaders, but it’s essential for creating a sense of teamship and trust. Research has found that when managers are open and vulnerable themselves, their teams reciprocate, and then go above and beyond at work. There are a number of ways executives can be more open with their employees, including:

  • Share more about themselves and what they’re feeling about work and world events. Then, encourage their teams to do the same. 
  • Show genuine interest in team members beyond their role and responsibilities at work. 
  • Show that they’re comfortable talking about employees’ emotions and interpersonal challenges, so they continue to feel safe sharing. 

4.  Create time for employees to focus on collaboration 

Both managers and employees will be less likely to embrace collaboration in the workplace if they feel it requires too many additional steps and adds time to their already busy schedules. Instead, businesses should look at the bigger picture and pinpoint which tasks and processes can be automated, so teams can focus on collaboration. 

This could be as simple as reducing time spent switching between apps by integrating them, or removing redundant processes. By using software and tools that automate tasks, teams can focus on the collaborative work that adds value to an organisation. 

5.  Build partnership skills

While most organisations want to encourage teamwork, the reason these efforts often fail is due, in part, to a lack of partnership skills. Fundamental to developing these skills within teams is acknowledging that everybody’s experience will be different — and that every experience is valid. If executives want to be in partnership with employees, they can’t use their position at work to make an employee’s experience uncomfortable to bring up — or to dismiss said experience. Otherwise, that partnership goes out the window, and so does trust. 

Make the shift to digital-first working with collaborative leadership

In a work-from-anywhere world, as organisations make the shift from a physical office first experience to one that prioritises the digital HQ (a central place for work and social interactions, regardless of location), companies need collaborative leadership that’s reflective of this change. This means moving away from a prescriptive, top-down approach to leadership and instead inspiring teams to engage in new and creative modes of working, both in how they work and how they interact with each other. The end-product is a happier and more engaged team, and a workplace environment that is both productive and joyful.

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