Workforce Collaboration: Building a Strong Team Foundation

by Randi S. Brenowitz and Tracy Gibbons, Ph.D.

This article appeared in Information Executive, Jan/Feb 2002 and in the August, 2003 issue of

The ever-changing economy, technology, and global market demands are compelling enterprising organizations to manufacture products faster and cheaper without losing sight of their objective - selling product. Since today’s drivers of success are speed, cost, and quality, it’s important to consider who in the organization is responsible for keeping the process running smoothly. In most thriving enterprises that responsibility is delegated to teams that are expected to meet corporate goals through a collaborative effort. To that end it is critical to create an environment that supports their efforts. Organizations that follow proven methods to enable workforce collaboration among people and their functions develop a vision that everyone can subscribe to. From an employer’s perspective this synergy provides for better inter-dependant working relationships among workers who ultimately produce better products.

Team Essentials

One of the first steps in creating a collaborative team effort is laying out the ground rules. Gone are the days when individuals within an organization work independently from one another or from other departments. Team effectiveness relies on:

  • Providing a supportive environment
  • Defining a clear purpose and clear goals
  • Selecting competent, dependable, trusted team members
  • Deciding upon a set of team agreements describing how members will work together

Elisabeth Ekman is V.P. of Engineering for Zilog, in Campbell, California, a company that specializes in designing and manufacturing computer chips. She describes what her organization was like before they took the initiative to build robust collaborative teams. “It takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight and it needs constant reinforcement,” says Ekman. “We have been at this collaborative team building effort for nearly two years and now it’s pretty much running itself. But, what’s important is to stick to building the team effort consistently. Weekly meetings are essential to set the pace and the agenda.”

According to a recent survey conducted by Industry Week, Census of Manufacturers (publication 9.18.00), 26 to 99 percent of employees who work in manufacturing plants, are working in teams and 39 percent of manufacturing operations reported up to one quarter of their workers are team members. Overall, 68 percent of small-company plants are reportedly using teams to varying degrees to solve problems, realign business processes, and create new products and ideas. As a result, these companies have reported significant improvements to the overall productivity of their organizations.

Strong Leaders Are Results Driven

One key to the success of any team effort is choosing a strong team leader. Much like a conductor in an orchestra, the team leader sets direction and continues to foster the efforts from individual team members - while helping all to work toward the common goal. When choosing a team leader, organizations should select someone who is respected by both the members of the team, as well as senior management. This individual must have access to senior management in order to secure resources for the team, possess a collaborative style, and be open to coaching.:

Look for identifying qualifications in a team leader such as:

  • Strong communication skills
  • Belief in group process
  • Strong connections within the organization’s hierarchy
  • Respect from all key participants

While these characteristics provide a model for the ideal team leader it would be unrealistic to believe that every organization can produce this individual. For that very reason choosing a leader who is willing to be coached and mentored is important. Leaders can learn how to lead and build consensus without becoming dictatorial or passive. A positive attitude will go far in leading a team toward a shared goal. It is the work of the team leader to facilitate the team as it determines its purpose (why the organization exists), mission (what it will accomplish), and vision (what it will look like and how its stakeholders will be affected by the mission’s success).

Voted Off the Island

Not everyone is cut out to be a team player. As Ekman relates, “Some people can leave their ego at the door and some can’t, and you will immediately know who is on and who isn’t.” Individuals who have been involved in collaborative team thinking consistently name “trust” as the essential requirement for good teams. True, the knowledge, ability and self-starting nature of each team member are what comprise the dynamics of the team. However, regardless of how skilled a team member may be, he/she may not have the capabilities to work within a team setting. In that case the approach should be similar to a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. If at all possible, individuals who cannot work well within a team setting for any number of reasons including a lack of time, should be allowed to escape without incurring any negative effects on themselves or the team.

On the other end of the spectrum, teams may incur problems with members who have agreed to the team’s goals and decisions, but are unwilling to keep their agreements or unmotivated to move the team closer to its goal. This attitude does little to support a collaborative team effort and in some cases, it is possible that the member be voted off the island. This course of action should only be taken after every other avenue has been tried to get the team member to function effectively on the team. At times, because of a unique skill or set of circumstances, a team member cannot be taken off of the team. In those cases, the team should engage with the problematic member to see if some sort of working agreement can be constructed that will allow both the individual and the team to be successful.

Virtual Teams & Geographically Dispersed Teams

The complexities and demands of today’s marketplace have also set the stage to create teams that are not co-located. While corporations and organizations have had distant satellite and sales offices for years, never before has the need for interdependence been so great.

Geographically distributed organizations have recognized that team members may not necessarily share the same office space, yet they are expected to work inter-dependently and share accountability for a single product, or project. For individuals to work and communicate collaboratively, Virtual Teams (VTs) and Geographically Dispersed Teams (GDTs) have become necessary in most organizations today.

One of the benefits of VTs and GDTs is that members, regardless of their corporate ranking, can participate in teamwork from any location, depending on what the project dictates. Just as a solid foundation should be in place to ensure an effective co-located collaborative team, the same goes for VTs and GDTs to accomplish team goals.

The requirements for building and reinforcing VTs and GDTs include:

  • Face-to-face start-up meetings
  • Development of a clear set of roles and responsibilities
  • Creation of a conflict/resolution process
  • Training in the use of electronic tools and applications

Many organizations currently relying on VTs and GDTs caution that while technology plays a major role in the emerging business arena, creating virtual teams is not always an ideal situation. Most agree that it is harder for virtual teams to be successful than for traditional face-to-face teams.

According to a recent study by Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa, Graduate School of Business at the University of Texas/Austin, Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams, “It is understandable that, with computer-mediated communication, team members can build stereotypical impressions of the others based on limited information.” The report shows how the global nature of virtual teams can present concerns with possible cross-culture differences in communication behaviors. Individuals from different cultures vary in terms of their communication tactics and group behaviors, including the motivation to seek and disclose information. It’s important to address the issue of communications “cross-culturally” from the very start, so that each member of the team understands what is expected of them.

As with co-located teams, one big issue is trust, and by virtue of communicating with one another solely through technology, without the periodic face-to-face meetings, team efforts via VTs and GDTs can leave too much guesswork in the process. What is necessary to promote trust between geographically dispersed team members is carefully planned and facilitated face-to-face meetings, and thoughtful, strategic use of technology and telecommunications tools.

This approach includes:

  • A face-to-face start-up meeting intended for the creation of a clear set of team agreements, with the development of clearly articulated and agreed-upon goals
  • The development of a clear set of roles and responsibilities
  • The creation of a conflict-resolution process
  • Training in the use of electronic tools and applications

If properly facilitated and appropriately supported technologically, VTs and GDTs can be an effective competitive advantage rather than being the source of a new set of problems.

Creating Workforce Collaboration

The key to building a solid foundation that will support a collaborative team effort is recognizing that today’s complex and rapidly changing technology and marketing efforts make it impossible for a single individual to hold all of the intricacies of a new product or idea. Tapping the collective brainpower of individuals, setting clear and agreed upon goals, carefully selecting a team leader, and providing the tools to support their effort, are some of the best ways an organization can begin an effective team effort.

Organizations that follow proven methods of creating strong team collaboration among people and their functions will create a vision that everyone can support and build on. Most importantly, when all team members understand the vision, purpose, and goal, the result is long-term workforce collaboration. Once in place, organizations will realize substantial benefits including less turnover, better overall morale, and faster time to market.


For more information on this topic,
contact Randi Brenowitz at
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