The New Culture of Collaboration at Work

The New Culture of Collaboration at Work


It was a year marked by social and political unrest. It was also the birth year of the office cubicle, that symbol of the modern workplace chronicled −and lamented− in Scott Adams’ wildly popular Dilbert comic strip. The designer Robert Propst created the flexible and inexpensive cubicle system to maximize office space and increase worker productivity. But, according to a Fortune Magazine retrospective titled Cubicles: The Great Mistake, he eventually dubbed the cube his “contribution to ‘monolithic insanity.’”

In making this admission, Propst might have foreseen the current shift in workplace culture away from the isolation regularly experienced by some 40 million American cubicle dwellers. As business strategist Evan Rosen explains in his book The Culture of Collaboration: Maximizing Time, Talent and Tools to Create Value in the Global Economy, we are witnessing the rise of a new office culture. More and more, we are leaving our partitioned workstations to collaborate face-to-face, and virtually, on projects and decisions regardless of our function, level or role.

There are different hallmarks of this cultural shift. A key one is the reinterpretation of our physical workspace. Early adopters of collaborative culture, like Microsoft, have redesigned their offices to include:

• More shared, open and social spaces

• Smaller cubicles with lower partitions

• Fewer private offices

• Plush kitchen areas

• Offices with sliding glass doors

• Write-on/wipe-off walls

In addition to these physical changes, the shift to a collaborative culture at work is taking place via our companies’ policies, programs and everyday practices. To facilitate teamwork and encourage an exchange of ideas, businesses:

•Communicate to workers that they are valuable and that their contributions matter

•Create opportunities for co-workers and team members to get to know, rely on and trust each other

•Support a variety of work styles

•Encourage sharing instead of hoarding

When our companies engage us in these ways, we experience how joining our individual talents and skills helps us reach common goals and succeed, individually and collectively.

Identifying this common ground is especially important since 60%-70% of us routinely work away from our co-workers. Whether we call our homes or third spaces like public libraries and local coffee shops the office, we are part of a mobile – or remote – contingent that will make up 73% of the U.S. workforce by 2011.

With so many of us telecommuting and working in virtual teams, it is not surprising that another hallmark of the new workplace culture is access to, and familiarity with, online collaboration tools. A basic suite of collaboration tools typically includes:

• Email

• Project, task and contact management

• File sharing and storage

• Instant Messaging

• Message boards

• Forums and chat rooms

• Web conferencing

• Calendars

Teams of mobile and on-site workers might also benefit from collaboration facilitated by:

• Social networking sites

• Blogs

• Photo sharing sites

• RSS feeds

• Wikis

With an assist from these online tools, the nature of team meetings has changed in the new collaborative workplace. There are some new ground rules and best practices for these virtual and in-person work sessions. First, participants should arrive fully prepared and authorized to make decisions. Active listening should be encouraged so that everyone has the opportunity to air questions, concerns and ideas. The session is more likely to stay on track if one person maintains the agenda and monitors time, another notes issues that come up and another records the meeting minutes. If team members come together from different time zones, especially different international zones, it is considerate and more efficient to rotate meeting times.

A new culture of collaboration is taking root at work through office redesign, company programs and policies and team productivity facilitated by online tools. Although we may never witness the death of the cube, as collaboration becomes a workplace norm, we will see a dramatic change in the business landscape that has been studded with Dilbertvilles for the past 40 years.