Collaboration goes deeper than sharing space - virtually or physically

Fidelma Butler Profile picture for user Fidelma Butler August 19, 2021
The past year’s upheaval is an ongoing invitation to explore the innovative use of space, authentic inclusivity, and the democratization of knowledge. Zendesk's Fidelma Butler outlines the pillars of post-pandemic collaboration.

Videoconference meeting with several remote participants © metamorworks - shutterstock
(© metamorworks - shutterstock)

The workplace is top of mind for us all. Some professionals are "yearning to be back in the office." Others are beyond reluctant to resume 10 to 20 hours a week of commuting to noisy open floor plans.

Whether yours is an enterprise-grade organization or a small business, the pandemic has shown that we all need to collaborate with more skill and intentionality than ever before. Times of crisis demand that subject matter experts come together — to develop shared understanding, collate cross-functional perspectives and solve complex challenges — to deliver on joint outcomes. Progress is built on togetherness — either in person or virtually. But what does that requirement for collaboration mean for the workplace and the workforce?

What follows are principles to inform how we design and care for the workplace and workforce of the coming years.

Be agile — and then more agile

Agility is the skill that employees and organizations have — out of necessity — displayed the most from the start of the crisis. Every company must continue to try and foster and develop this skill across the board — agility from leaders, from all people managers and from individual contributors, as well as organizational agility in what the company does and how. Agility for individuals means being comfortable making decisions with incomplete information, taking calculated risks, pivoting as you learn and having a growth mindset.

That agility must extend to employee programs such as performance feedback. At Zendesk we left behind some of our formal review processes over a year ago in favor of anytime performance feedback. Anyone can give feedback to anyone at any time using our internal tools — or verbally. We did this in part to help foster a culture in which our people can let each other know how they're doing in an ongoing way and embrace more agile ways of working.

Promote work-life integration

When it comes to work-life integration post-pandemic, we must consider individual needs and individual journeys. When we envision the workplace and workforce of the future, we cannot take a look across our 4,000-plus people spread all around the world and decree a one-size-fits-all approach.

Evolving the workplace was of interest to innovative companies and nations, even before 2020 forced us into an agile pivot. Look at Iceland. In 2015 the federal government and Reykjavik city council launched a trial of a four-day work week, with 2,500 workers. The results are now out and were found "overwhelmingly positive for people in a range of workplaces," reports Quartz, with productivity either unaffected or even improved. Now 86% of the country's workers have adopted a shorter work week, and more countries and organizations are looking into how they can facilitate this.

We are keenly interested in how we can best enable people to make the right decision for them. We hire adults. Let's have those adults largely make their own adult decisions about when, how, and where they get their work done. In some parts of the organization, there are roles and times that call for more prescriptive solutions, for example around sales quarter closing. But in most parts of the organization, meeting these adults where they are is important. For instance, in my own team, someone can be up early meeting colleagues in Europe and then take a break or finish early that day.

What's paramount is that we offer flexible solutions that work for the employee, the company, the customer, and for the teams that the employee works with as well.

Foster authentic inclusivity

Inclusivity is connected to all of this. In order to be agile and flexible and learning, you need to be operating within a psychologically safe structure. In conjunction with our focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, we've established empathy circles, to give employees safe spaces to come together, open up, express themselves, and listen to others talking about societal and racial challenges and experience. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to training people, for example, in psychological safety or in conscious inclusion, it's about trying to figure out what that individual needs or how to respect an individual need.

Respond to how best people learn

One of the major pivots from 2020 that will likely persist is the changes in how people learn. In the past, learning a new tool or skill often involved leaving your desk for a couple of days and going to a physical space somewhere for an intense period of knowledge-inhalation. Then you'd come back to your desk, get busy, and to some extent slide back into previous habits.

Learning now needs to be always on. It's much more bite-size — it's integrated into what you're already doing. Whether it's a post that you read on Slack, an article in a central knowledge base or something that pulls you into a virtual company's employee education platform — that's all part of the future of learning. And those intense, heavy, focused learning events must become more elongated, digestible and mixed in format and media.

Democratize knowledge and de-emphasize the shoulder tap

Champions of office-first workplace culture lionize the ability of professionals to approach one another in person. And, yes, in theory, being able to tap someone on the shoulder is a great idea. In reality, though, that is rarely possible in global large companies — and even worse, it can be exclusionary.

In shifting to asynchronous collaboration and building tools like knowledge libraries, we actually democratize access to the people who have the knowledge. It shouldn't matter where a Customer Advocacy employee is located. If they need to escalate an issue to a specialist based in Madison, being in Manila shouldn't put them at a disadvantage because they cannot just walk up to that person and seek their support.

If what we've experienced in this pandemic forces us to commit some things to (virtual!) paper that we didn't in the past, terrific. This is a very good thing. Organizations of every size and scale should foster equal access to resources and learning across their team.

Offices as hubs for collaboration

Pew research found that 87% of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships. We could not agree more.

We see our offices in the future as being hubs for collaboration. Our physical spaces are most valuable when people are intentional about how they're going to use their time there for collaboration. That means when you're there, you've ensured that the teams you work with will be there too. You'll use the time not to sit alone at a desk, but rather to really connect, and to collaborate, share and learn from each other. We're exploring how we can enable all of this through space planning and furniture design, and what we provide in the offices.

It's a shift from the office being a place for everything and being very clear that the office is a place where you should find yourself collaborating. If you're going to come to sit and work silently in front of your screen, that's ok too, but it's not making the most of the office space.


All of these pillars interconnect: In a survey of more than 19,000 readers, the Harvard Business Review found that "as the level of diversity and inclusion reported by respondents increased, so too did the organizational emphasis on learning." We as individuals and as organizations have learned so much during this pandemic.

None of us can predict the future, but we know there's no going back. Where we work, how we work and when we work — these are evolving constructs that are shaping how we collaborate and that are shaping us as individuals and teams in turn. We'll all keep learning and being agile and inclusive as we go forward and face the future together.

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