The power of collaboration, part 1

Helen Buckwell kicks off our series with a look at how to break down barriers and build a more flexible working culture.

Reading time: 5 minutes

Welcome to the first in a series of articles focused on the power of collaboration and the results we can achieve when working as a whole.

In this article we’re going to explore the challenge of building a more flexible working culture and consider how encouraging greater levels of collaboration can support the change that’s needed.

We’ve heard an awful lot about flexible working over recent years, and indeed, in many organisations it is now common practice. In many others though it can still be a challenge.

I strongly believe that if organisations don’t wake up to the need to create a better balance in the workplace, there is a high chance that very few of their most talented people will want to be in line for future leadership roles – it just won’t fit in with the way they want to work. 

Collaboration, I believe, is a key to making progress in many organisations. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think it has huge potential. It can help achieve a whole variety of goals, and as you’ll see below, encouraging collaboration can be an enabler to creating a more flexible working environment for all.

The drivers and blockers for change

The term ‘flexible working’ can mean a host of things – from where you work, to when you work. Whatever form it takes we know there are a lot of drivers for enhanced flexible working, including the need to:

  • Build greater equality and retain talented women.
  • Attract and retain millennials – a generation who prioritise achieving a strong work-life balance.
  • Retain an aging workforce who are also likely to prioritise balance in the latter stages of their career.
  • Release the pressure on office space through higher levels of home-working.

So, if there are so many advantages, what gets in the way?

Encouraging collaboration can be an enabler to creating a more flexible working environment for all

As is often the case, one can observe the barriers at all levels – organisational culture, the beliefs and actions of the current leadership team and the worries and inner voice plaguing the individuals wishing to work differently, but too worried to challenge the status quo.

A pragmatic response

Our Collaboration Formula highlights four main elements that can enhance levels of collaboration and thus performance. If we apply this to the dilemmas of enhancing a flexible working culture, some practical steps emerge.

Authentic leadership: role model and share the success stories

Who among your leadership teams is a real advocate of flexible working and/or someone who has made it work for them? Work with them to share their stories of how they work – giving others permission to do the same.

Some team leaders may already be working from home at times, leaving ‘early’ to get home for the kids, working a 90% week etc. Where this is happening, give them the nudge to talk about it with their team. Shout about it even! Celebrating the successes and talking about it can have a huge impact.

Clarity: never lose sight of the shared goal

To encourage successful collaboration you need a shared understanding of the goals and outputs the team/working group are focused on. When you’re not going to physically all be together all the time, this becomes even more important.

Ensure team meetings are focused and include a regular reminder of the shared goal and focus. This may only take three minutes, but it’s a valuable three minutes and keeps everyone’s eye on the prize.

If the goal has evolved, everyone needs to hear that – when you’re not all together day-to-day, you don’t have access to absorbing the deskside chats. We need to be more conscious of having these conversations and leave enough time for them.

Connection: invest in your working relationships

Having a high level of trust between colleagues becomes even more critical when you’re not physically with each other every day. As David Maister highlights in his Trust Equation (from his book The Trusted Advisor) ‘intimacy’ plays a role here.



Consider planning ahead to have certain days when everyone is in the building together. During conference calls, commit the first few minutes to just catching up with everyone – the equivalent of the chat on the way to the meeting room. You can’t afford to lose these conversations – you just need be more purposeful about them.

And when using video conference tools – turn the video on! So many teams I work with use these tools, but avoid being able to see each other. At Google Cloud they promote a ‘video-first’ approach to create the connection between everyone in the meeting.

Efficiency: agree your ways of working

Talk to each other about how you each want to work. Is this constant every week or will things vary? What process do you need to have in place to ensure there’s always enough team members in the office or at the client.

Stagger who works from home on different days. If someone is working part-time, are they willing to be contacted on their non-working day as part of their flexible working arrangement? How should they be contacted?

Avoid making assumptions – this can lead to misperception and frustration, so talk it through and agree the process.

So, while there’s never a perfect solution, have a play with some of these ideas, find where the supporters are and give it a go – little by little usually always wins the day!


About the author

Helen Buckwell is the founder of Hidden Strengths Learning.


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