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The Collaboration Issue

How even the busiest leaders can boost collaboration and inspire team productivity

Get tips from experts in project management, neuroscience, and more on how to help your team maximize productivity and get the most out of their time.

Words by David Silverberg

Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu

Michael Smith will never forget the time a client threw his team the ultimate curveball.

The senior project manager at an advertising agency thought his latest campaign was buttoned-up when the client requested a change to logos the day before content was scheduled to go live across an entire media buy.

The last-minute request sent the agency’s creative and legal departments scrambling to make the change and avoid a costly mishap. They pulled it off, but the experience left Smith and his team with an unforgettable takeaway: You cannot wait for challenges to appear, especially within the chaotic fluidity that often comes with working at an advertising agency.

“An experienced PM can see potential roadblocks before they stall a campaign,” Smith tells The Workback. (For instance, he notes that he’s become especially skillful at correctly identifying when legal will issue a red flag over an advertising claim.)

Smith, a PM at Canada’s largest digital advertising agency, has no choice but to remain nimble and responsive amidst the day-to-day chaos of agency life. Each week, Smith’s schedule entails fielding client requests, leading brand campaigns, creating scopes of work, tabling budgets, crafting workback schedules, overseeing quality assurance, and much more. It’s a lot, to say the least.

However hectic his work days may get, Smith doesn’t lose sight of his most important responsibility: Inspiring his team to hit their productive stride everyday, even when they face a curveball. 

For Smith, seeing suspected slowdowns before they occur is just one ability he’s developed over the years as the nature of his work evolves. 

Below is more expert advice compiled by The Workback to help enterprise leaders build resilient teams, drive productivity, and use cross-functional collaboration to accelerate their organization’s success.

First things first: Clarify your team’s priorities

Creating clarity is key for managers of managers and company leads, especially as one of the most common barriers to productivity is a lack of clarity around priorities. When teams are spread thinly relative to their number of goals, they might take on tasks that don’t align with the project’s strategic goals. It’s key to ensure those goals are clearly connected and prioritized. 

“When everybody is constantly trying to juggle too many balls, that’s when some people are going to drop the ball,” says Bruce Tulgan, author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work and founder of management consultancy firm RainmakerThinking. According to Tulgan, leadership communication is the first step to preempt that kind of collaborative chaos. 

“Leaders have to ensure everyone’s priorities are clear,” Tulgan tells The Workback. “They have to provide marching orders that are applicable today, tomorrow, and next week. And they need to offer that guidance and direction right from the beginning. The thing is, most managers don’t do that.”

For insight on clarifying team priorities early, business leaders must have a clear and cohesive vision. 

Create a collaborative culture to increase productivity

When a collaborative environment sours, it creates friction and destabilizes team cohesion. For business leaders, the case for working to preempt or undo a toxic work culture is crystal clear: A sizable body of research shows that a toxic culture negatively impacts productivity. According to an MIT Sloan Management Review report, it also has an enormous effect on employee attrition and turnover, with toxic cultures reportedly being the biggest factor driving the so-called Great Resignation.

Creating a collaborative culture, then, is paramount to promoting team productivity. What’s more, that collaboration must be intentional—not just time spent working together, but time spent working together with a purpose.

“Your time together should be spent securing resources, having active discussions, and removing roadblocks from your projects, not, ‘Here’s what I did and why,” Michael Gamber, Asana customer and director of technology at New York Cares, says.

Illustration with the words "Inclusive teams perform up to 30% better in high-diversity environments.

Assemble a diverse team

Diversity fosters equality and a more well-rounded range of perspectives at work. It can also directly impact team productivity. According to a 2020 report from Gartner, inclusive teams perform up to 30% better in high-diversity environments.

Leaders may see the benefits manifest quickly when inclusionary efforts are folded into teams. Employee performance in diverse organizations is reportedly 12% higher than in those without inclusivity efforts. “We know there is a correlation between innovation and diversity,” notes Gartner Senior Director Analyst Daniel Sanchez Reina in a statement accompanying the report.

Design team workspaces with productivity in mind

The physical design of the spaces where your teams collaborate can lift creativity, foster focus, and lead to better productivity. Indeed, the cognitive benefits of a well-designed workspace can flow from unexpected places—like the ceiling, for instance. 

“There’s a way that you can place yourself into certain environments that will allow for abstract thinking, creative thinking, and indeed expansive thinking to emerge,” says neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman in an episode of the podcast Huberman Lab, focused on designing focus-friendly workspaces. 

Let’s pause there for a moment, Workback reader: If you’re reading this at work right now, look up at the ceiling. (Have you ever looked up at it?) Does it feel too low? Could it stand to be higher?

With that in mind, let’s continue.

According to Huberman, the height of the ceiling can affect creativity. Research into the “cathedral effect” finds that people working in high-ceilinged environments would shift to more abstract and creative thinking, affecting their ideas and work. By contrast, the lower the ceiling, the more those employees would excel at detail-oriented activities.

This is just one example of how workspace design can positively affect productivity. In a 2013 study, researchers at the University of Minnesota learned that a messy work environment could generate up to five times more creative ideas than those with a more neatly arranged office. “Disorder Produces Creativity,” the study title declares with authority.

Research has also shown that face-to-face interactions can have an impact on productivity, a fact that often helps companies design their office layouts. Employees should have the opportunity to “collide” in the work area because, as research like this 2010 paper published in The Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Journal suggests, creating these encounters—unplanned interactions between workers—improves employee performance.

Illustration with the text "Happier employees are 13% more productive."

Nurture worker-led social rituals

It’s tempting for leaders to instigate workplace outings or rituals to build stronger bonds between team members. But what can be more productive and empowering is handing the reins to employees, writes author Daniel Pink in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. 

He’s noticed that, before they practice, groups of rowers sing a song together. Of course, your team may not opt for that route, but allow them to create their own rituals that can help bring them together during off-hours, such as meeting a local café at 8 a.m. or going out monthly to compete in trivia nights. 

“Organic rituals, not artificial ones, generate cohesion,” Pink writes. Such camaraderie can foster a culture of joy at work, which is linked to increased performance. Indeed, happy employees are 13% more productive, according to research from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

This article includes Asana customers, partners, or employees. The Workback’s policy is to be fully transparent about the business relationships between our sources and Asana, Inc. We have identified those instances within the article as well.

Asana Forward takes place March 28, 2023 at 10 a.m. Pacific.