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Collaboration requires trust, not butts in seats

March 7, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Linda Yesh-McMaster, Joe DeSantis

Do you have to be face-to-face in order to collaborate? Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer recently stirred the pot on this question when she banned individual telecommuting arrangements in the company. The internal announcement of the policy change at Yahoo said, among other things, that it is “critical” to have all Yahoos “present in our offices” to achieve collaboration.

A lot of people agree with the argument that collaboration is built on relationships, and relationships are stronger when they are based on face-to-face contact. The argument goes this way: Most virtual communication is limited to the written or spoken word exclusively.  It means that the communicators cannot read body language, see facial expressions, or sense the “feeling” in the room to decide whether or not everyone is moving in the right direction. Technology does not easily impart tone, inflection or emotion that is part of the intended message.  The consequences, the argument goes, can be dire: misunderstanding, lost trust, wasted time, lost profits.

But the question remains: Does face-to-face communication actually increase collaboration?

Researchers Kevin Rockmann (George Mason University) and Gregory Northcraft (University of Illinois) divided 200 students into project teams that could communicate using either email, video conferencing or face to face.  The group using face to face demonstrated the most trust and cooperation. Northcraft and Rockmann concluded that real-life meetings, where participants can see how engaged their colleagues are, breed more trust.

So does this mean, in every case, that having everyone physically in the office will create more trust? Given the contrariness of human nature, one cannot even say that for sure. Suppose you call a face-to-face meeting of your stakeholders, but you do not invite all the right people? Or you invite the right people but at a time when they are not disposed to engage themselves in the subject matter? Or during the meeting you fail to use communication tactics that build trust? There is far more to building trust than simply gathering everyone together around the same table.  Actions always speak louder than words.

While face to face plays an important role in building trust, in this day and age it is more important than ever to focus on the basics of communication regardless of the medium you use. Those basics include communicating exactly what you mean, if necessary putting in the effort ahead of the communication to use the medium exactly how it is intended to be used; it means respecting the person(s) being communicated with; and it means doing what you say you are going to do.

Above all, trust comes before collaboration, not after it. Therefore, companies must creatively consider what type of communication, or combination of types, works best for them in building a culture of trust.

For those companies that are fortunate enough to have created a culture of trust, does that meant that collaboration will be a natural outcome?  Even that depends.  Has the company identified collaboration as an expectation and that every team member understands what his or her role is? Are goals set and measured regularly? Are all employees encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas?  Are all team-members included in large decisions? Does everyone on the team know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes?

So, is collaboration best accomplished face to face? The reality is that an organization’s ability to collaborate is not hinged on face-to-face or electronic communications; it is hinged on trust. Face-to-face may make collaboration a little easier for most people, but it isn’t necessarily required five days a week if the necessary level of trust is there first.

Presumably, CEO Mayer’s policy move is grounded in the desire to build more trust into Yahoo’s culture, knowing that collaboration will follow.

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