‘Work is no longer associated with a physical space’
7 July 2022

‘Work is no longer associated with a physical space’


Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery is head of content and community at Ciphr. She was previously deputy editor at People Management magazine. You can find her on Twitter @c_newbery.


Leadership and management Technology


At last week’s SD Worx European Conference, HR experts discussed the challenges of encouraging disparate teams to collaborate

Experts debated the benefits and pitfalls of using technology to improve collaboration in the workplace at last week’s SD Worx European Conference.

“Our understanding of collaboration has changed in the past 10 years,” said Annette Böhm, senior general manager of group HR at KBC Group, a European bank. Collaboration is happening “among employees themselves, between employees in different silos, and between managers and employees, who have become more like partners with equal rights,” she said.

The definition of collaboration has also shifted because work is “no longer associated with a physical space,” said Dr Nicola Millard, head of customer insights and futures at BT Global Services. “We know how to collaborate in physical spaces – even if the spaces discourage it – but add a digital dimension and we are trying to override our natural instincts, because collaboration is a lot to do with trust and relationships.

“So it’s easy to do in a physical world, but we are increasingly globalised and distributed – which means we have to rethink how we collaborate. Collaboration is central to high performance; we are doing more of it, but we are doing it differently. People will often agree it’s a good thing, but it often doesn’t happen. That’s because collaboration requires purpose, and there isn’t always an obvious purpose in business.”

Trust is particularly vital for collaboration efforts to succeed, Millard added. “On social media we tend to form weak ties, which don’t correlate highly with collaboration but are good for awareness. Strong ties are vital for collaboration, which means that need to meet face-to-face won’t go away.”

Böhm agreed: “It’s the mix of technology and people that make collaboration happen,” she said. “You have to bring people together from time to time; collaboration will not be as effective if you only use technology.” With locations across Europe, she said it’s vital the HR team comes together four times per year in person to meet and discuss ideas.

Speaking in a separate panel debate, Andy Doyle, former chief people officer at WorldPay, pointed out that most organisations’ bonus structures don’t reward collaboration. “There needs to be a wholesale cultural change to encourage it,” he said. “ we worked hard to create a single organisation language and framework.” There were even rules in place to encourage employees to connect with each other: “If you were in a queue and didn’t know the person next to you, you had to introduce yourself. Toilet and coffee queues are great places to meet people.”

Doyle also noted that startups are naturally more collaborative than bigger organisations. “They can’t afford not to be. The smaller the organisation, the easier it is to collaborate – there is a greater sense of common purpose, and employees tend to be passionate about it. There’s less politics as well – that’s what slows down larger organisations.”

Hans Casier, group HR director at DEME, a dredging and marine engineering firm, agreed. “People get lost in the structure of a larger organisation,” he said. “Low collaboration scores can be because of a lack of management skills – people with low EQ aren’t natural managers.”

Sally Austin, group HR director of Costain – where three-quarters of employees are engineers – said she had encountered similar challenges when working with technical staff who are “generally introverted, and low EQ”. Her solution? To define and communicate a clear purpose for the company. “We wrote a simple strategy that fits on one page, and put it in a language that everyone can understand. After doing that, we held a conference about employees’ personal values, looking at how they fit with the organisation’s values. You simply can’t underestimate the relevance of purpose.”