Many researchers have had to reprioritise aspects of their work, finding new ways to reach stakeholders and manage reduced lab time. As we are entering a different phase of the pandemic, organisations are becoming more interested in adopting a hybrid model to encourage staff to return to the workplace 2 or 3 days a week. It seems that meeting in-person remains a preferred option for many leaders, to boost collaboration and increase a sense of community and get things done more effectively.

Whilst the conversations seem to be focused on the ideal ratio between home and office/lab work, I would like to focus on the way we interact and work with each other. So less about “where we work” and more about “how we work”!

Working in a “VUCA” world

We live in a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The global pandemic has turned our world upside down and impacted the way we work in research and beyond. For many of us “working from home” became the norm and as we are “returning to the workplace”, organisations are focusing on performance, productivity, and impact.

Amid a global health, climate, and refugee crisis, we need to really understand how teams can work effectively to increase performance and impact.

The effective hybrid working model: the power of collaboration

One of the most important twenty first century skills is the power of collaboration. Research funders have highlighted this in their quest to trust leaders to build multi-disciplinary teams which can reach a wide range of stakeholders and demonstrate impact beyond Academia. 

I have highlighted below the benefits of effective collaboration practices in research intensive environments:

  • Information and knowledge sharing from different disciplines and sectors
  • Increased creativity and problem solving leading to innovation
  • Extended capacity and increased impact

How can you enable your team to collaborate effectively?

There are many factors at play to boost collaboration and create a collaborative working environment and I’ll focus on three: distributive leadership, a fit for purpose structure, and an inclusive and innovative culture.

1 – The art of distributive leadership to boost collaboration

You will have heard of different leadership styles which can go from command and control to “laissez-faire”! Each have their own purpose, benefits and drawbacks. Research suggests that leaders need to adapt their style to a given situation. The distributed leadership dynamic model is well suited for teams working on complex problems. It empowers individuals with the greatest knowledge to step in, investigate, recommend, and find solutions.  It relies on trust, openness, collaboration, and a clear purpose. The model relies on a strong team leader who can create this environment and clarity, and highly skilled team members who can work well together and support each other’s strengths. 

2 – A fit for purpose team structure to enable collaboration 

Many organisations are considering different team structures to help respond to current challenges and adapt to a hybrid working world. There may be less focus on tight job descriptions and linear line management structure where many team members report to one person. This is specifically true in fast moving, research intensive, cross disciplinary and cross sectorial teams.

With such diverse teams, who are often working either remotely or in different locations, it becomes incredibly hard to ensure everyone has access to the right information at the right time. So, when you think about structure, you may want to ask yourself: “how can I ensure all team members will be able to share information in a timely manner to foster collaboration, problems solving and increase productivity”.

Flat structures, where everyone is empowered to work with each other, matrix organisations, and dedicated project teams are best suited to boost collaboration. 

3 – Nurturing an inclusive and innovative culture for effective collaboration and impact

The third element is the impact of culture. This magic word can encompass many elements which can make or break a collaborative ethos. One way to define culture is to think about the way people work together. What is acceptable in terms of behaviours and beliefs in an organisation, team, or partnership? My recent conversations with research leaders seem to point to two critical factors: shared values and “rituals and routines”.

Shared values are easy to understand. Team and organisational leaders need to make sure that shared values are visible, clear, and lived by everyone in the organisation. Values drive behaviours so adding collaboration and teamwork as core values is a good start, providing all staff are abiding by them and leading by example. It is also important to unpick related values that are linked a collaborative ethos. And this may involve defining the level of trust, cooperation, coordination, autonomy and accountability for a specific project and team.

When we look at “rituals and routines”, we need to assess what this means in a hybrid world.  It can include the following:

  • the number of meetings one is expected to participate in and the ways they are structured;
  • ensuring there is a rotating chairperson for every meeting;
  • distributing an agenda prior to meetings;
  • having a clear process to acknowledge contributions, successes, failures, and birthdays!

Whilst many processes are documented, rituals and routines are often seen as “best-practice”. To boost collaboration, you need to ensure that these rituals and routines are inclusive and supportive of a level of failure or what we can relate as “trial and error”. Solving complex challenges and working on complex projects with a wide range of stakeholders will require, at times, bold and creative solutions. Understanding how lessons are learnt, shared and work is celebrated, is key ingredient to boost collaboration. 

Can we get this right and increase performance?

It takes time and effort to get it right and these inter-connected elements can contribute to a powerful collaborative culture, which in turn leads to increased impact. It is also important to remember our power to positively influence the people we work with. Leading by example and having the courage to step-up is often a fast-track to developing our leadership competencies and increasing our impact.

Sharing best practice and supporting each other can also be extremely powerful so I invite you to post a comment below and describe how you increased collaboration in your organisation. You can also get in touch to discuss how we may work together.

About Natacha Wilson

Natacha Wilson is a learning and development director who works with transformational leaders in highly intensive research environments. She creates tailored development programmes, which combined 21st century skills, mindsets, and wisdom, to boost leadership capabilities and nurture innovative cultures. Her mission is to support “leaders in the making” solve global challenges and create a greater world.


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