Employees are the heart of every organization. With an array of diverse skills, staff members bring life to any given company as they pump their energy and expertise throughout the enterprise. Yet, while operations typically depend on how these individuals conduct business and carry out the brand's mission, many organizations fail to provide an engaging environment that encourages collaborative learning.

For many companies, the departments within the organization are siloed—much like customer data. Employees possess great knowledge about the customer experience, but they rarely find the opportunity to share their insights with those outside their area of expertise. Instead, employees are left to approach customer service with tunnel vision, as they are unable to connect with those across all disciplines. Such staff members often lose motivation and disengage, for their desire to learn and educate remains unfulfilled.  Luckily, most companies are beginning to recognize the power behind employee engagement and the value each individual brings to both their brands' bottom lines and their strategies. 

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"When employees understand the bigger picture of how their role impacts the mission and vision of the company, they connect more with the company," says Beth Miller, president and founder of Executive Velocity. "They have a greater sense of purpose rather than feeling like a cog in the wheel."

By encouraging and facilitating collaboration, companies can enhance every element of their overall operations. From frontline customer service, to employee morale, collaborative development fosters the given company's need to grow by looking inward to unmask the wealth of knowledge within.

Often times, more learning takes place when people collaborate together on projects, thereby improving the employee development process. Miller emphasizes that, when it comes to cross-functional departments, learning pairs can be an effective method to deploy in an effort to cultivate this rich learning environment. At the most basic level, companies need only pair employees from two departments who are or will be working together on a specific project. They can then work to identify the specific goals they want to achieve, create a timeline with specific check-in points, and adjust the learning process all while spreading knowledge and transferring skills they would otherwise never acquire. Cross-functional team communication programs also uncover the differences in language and terminology used by different departments, and goals that may cause conflicts between departments, so plans can be developed to manage potential problems using shared language.

"Peer-to-peer collaboration provides employees with a greater ability to have input into company solutions that affect them and their roles in the company. If leaders are making all the decisions, then employees feel powerless and become disengaged. Conversely, if they are given the opportunity to help make and influence decisions that impact them, engagement will rise." 

For instance, when Wells Fargo Treasury Management merged with Wachovia, the company needed to integrate teams across all business units while maintain its high level of service. Through partnership meetings, George Larribas, executive vice president and head of client delivery and a 2013 1to1 Media Customer Champion, encouraged various client service teams to discuss the top 10 issues facing the customer experience. This strategy enabled employees from across the organization to focus on successes, determine necessary improvements, and outline the appropriate steps forward. Wells Fargo also values frontline employees as an informational source of knowledge that should be leveraged to enhance the company's customer-centric attitude. The Innovation Zone allows such customer-facing staff to submit ideas that will ultimately improve the customer experience and their personal work environment.

Though collaborative techniques come in numerous forms, all companies must incorporate these three factors into the backbone of their approach:

  1. Encourage Questions to Further Learning—In many scenarios, employees feel that asking questions may make them appear weak. Leaders must promote learning by encouraging inquiries and develop an atmosphere that welcomes the curious mind. If employees are too scared to ask questions, they will never acquire the knowledge necessary to advance their skills and abilities. Those companies that establish a collaborative infrastructure will enable employees to teach one another without judgment.
  2. Put People Before the Company—Many businesses are strictly focused on the bottom line. They are fixated on revenue growth, yet they neglect to invest in those responsible for customer service, customer perception, and customer loyalty. If employees are dissatisfied or disengaged, it will shine through in all they do. They are the company, and without their knowledge and support on the frontline, customer attrition would surely skyrocket. Also, while rewarding individuals for their successes is essential for employee growth so is recognizing and rewarding teams for their combined efforts.
  3. Strategize with Employee Ideas in Mind—Facilitating peer-to-peer collaboration may increase engagement, but satisfaction will soon wane if employees don't see their feedback or proposals in action. Developing a supportive environment means sharing and communicating ideas, needs, and suggestions. However, with this emphasis on teamwork permeating the entire organization, incorporating employee input during the decision-making process is paramount. Ensure that their voices have been heard.

The Motley Fool Breaks Down Barriers to Encourage Collaboration

For Todd Etter, chief collaboration officer at The Motley Fool, strong employee engagement begins by creating a trustworthy, open environment that perpetuates the company's core values of honesty, innovation, and fun. While the financial services website offers advice about how to invest in the stock market, internally, Etter and his team continuously invest in breaking down the walls that often lead to dissatisfaction. All employees are equipped with mobile desks, which allow them to unplug and move about the office as needed. Also, there are no offices, meaning C-level executives share the same space as every other member of the organization. This set up promotes equality among the entire workforce, emphasizing that everyone's opinion is important and eliminating the fear of approaching senior leaders with new ideas.

"Today, it's more important to connect with one another, and with modern technology, it's easier to do so both physically and remotely," says Etter. "We've left the era where someone gets a job, goes off and does it, reports back, and delivers when done. We believe in the "wisdom of the crowds" and that better ideas come from the group rather than individuals."

The Motley Fool also works to cultivate a small office environment by fostering the social, participatory elements of employee engagement in order to involve everyone in the big picture of the company. Just a few years ago, for instance, Etter and his team created a facial recognition and identification quiz that required every staff member to get to know every employee across every department. They were all required to pass, or else no one would receive a portion of their bonus—an incentive to bring employees together and build relationships throughout the organization. 

Yet, while getting people in a room together to share ideas will typically get the ball rolling, Etter notes that many companies feel the need to attach metrics to their efforts in order to gauge success. "Much of what we do is tough to measure," Etter says. "From the quiz, to happy hour, companies must simply have confidence that they are generating value and resist the urge to measure the outcome," he says. Companies must, instead, put their focus on sustaining trust, for few will be able to collaborate effectively if they feel threatened by someone who may steal their ideas. Everyone must come to feel part of one collaborative whole in order to achieve the desired results.