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Breaking Down Silos: How to have better cross-team communication in a hybrid working world

Finance is on the second floor, HR on the third and everybody is partitioned by screens…

We've all worked in places with a set-up like this – one where siloed working thrives or is even encouraged, and individuality takes precedence over teamwork.

Close working between team members is not an issue in itself; it can hone specialisms and skills. A problem arises when collaboration between teams is rare rather than routine.

More than half of companies (55%) have siloed teams (Bloomfire). And without the mechanisms to bridge them, workplaces risk incubating a culture where inefficiency, poor knowledge sharing and second-rate customer service are the norm – the result of misaligned priorities, resistance to change and a lack of trust (Indeed).

More than eight in 10 (86%) corporate executives, employees and educators cite a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures (Bloomfire).

Has the hybrid working explosion further cemented silo mentalities, or has a post-pandemic change in attitude and workplace norms – including greater use of tech – boosted team communication?

Our panellists at Best Companies Live Q1 2023 –all representing companies featuring in the top 100 Best Companies league tables – discuss the team-building activities and other approaches they’re taking to break down or prevent silos in this new hybrid working world.

This article shares highlights from the conversation. If you prefer to watch the full session, you can click on the video above.

1. Buy-in to a shared purpose, vision and values is fundamental

All employees must understand how their work contributes to the company’s goals and success. Helping them see that everyone shares the same vision – that they’re all pieces of the same jigsaw – can encourage collaboration.

HR software developer Huler chose to re-set its values. “It enabled people to connect to our culture, purpose and vision,” says Co-founder and CEO Nicky Hoyland. “Our values then were not just posters on a wall; it was vocabulary we could all use and share and talk about together.”

And fellow software company AppLearn ensures its values explicitly embed cross-team collaboration.

“Our ‘all for all’ value is trying to build a culture where it’s about ‘we’, not ‘me’, says CEO Andrew Avanessian. “It’s about us winning together and losing together. So, if we win a deal, it’s recognising that it’s not just the salesperson but the 17 other people who’ve helped do that.”

And another of AppLearn’s values is focused on preventing rank-related silos:

“’Ego at the door’ is about permission to challenge at all levels. Just because I’m the CEO or somebody is the VP of XYZ, it doesn’t make them have all the answers. It’s about encouraging people to be part of the business,” adds Andrew.

For Andrew, working at AppLearn is ultimately about having fun with a purpose: “We know what we do, we know why we’re doing it, and you want to work with like-minded individuals.”

Meanwhile, the Youth Sport Trust, has overcome the natural tendency to slip into silo by specialism by ensuring all employees recognise their three common functions, whether in finance, IT or out in the field.

“’The three pillars’ are something everyone can own,” says Alison Oliver, MBE, Chief Executive Officer. “When you do an elevator pitch, talking about what the charity does and somebody asks ‘what’s your role in it?’, you can say: ‘I help deliver the mission, I help resource it, and I lead it.’ You can then talk about the specifics.”

2. Don’t underestimate the power of socialising

Taking people out of a pressurised work environment and creating opportunities where staff can naturally get to know each other in a relaxed way can help break down real or perceived barriers and develop a sense of unity.

“People spend a huge amount of their life at work, so you should really get on with the people you work with,” says Chris Attewell, CEO of digital marketing agency Search Laboratory. “We’ve always tried to facilitate the socials outside of work, particularly for graduates where it may be their first proper job and where they’ve moved to a new area. They have an opportunity to create a lasting friendship group, and we’ve seen that countless times over the years.”

And for AppLearn, socialising is a crucial aspect of employee engagement.

“We wanted to balance out everything we did for employees across four key areas – wellbeing, giving back to the community, the social aspect and belonging,” says CEO Andrew Avanessian. “We’re doing the ‘Three Peaks’ later in the year, a charity run in Bratislava and resilience training for staff because the world we’re living in seems to be crisis after crisis, so how do we all cope with different things?”

3. Make meet ups intentional and meaningful

A diary full of meetings that lack clear goals and actions, virtual or in person, can build up resentment individually and between teams – even more so when they eat into employees’ desire for flexibility. But hybrid working can be a force for good in re-focusing and making meetings more productive and collaborative.

“I think work is something you do, rather than where you go,” says Huler’s Nicky Hoyland. “We take a ‘where, when, who and how’ approach. We may choose a Thursday for our purposeful and intentional connection in a physical space and build flexibility around that for people who may need to start a little later, finish a little earlier, or collaborate with different people outside our teams.”

And Search Laboratory ensured it involved its team in deciding what day would be the company’s office day:

“Thursdays, everyone is in the office together, and it’s fantastic. It really does work,” says CEO Chris Attewell. “We surveyed staff, and we did a trial period over 10 weeks where we did different variations of flexible working and based on feedback, we decided on Thursdays.”

4. Be inventive in forging connections

AppLearn’s cross-department ‘Team Houses’ – named after tech leaders like Bill Gates – are an ongoing team-building exercise, continuously promoting cross-team collaboration and building social relationships.

“In a tech business, you’ve got salespeople who are generally more extroverted and see the world differently from developers, and then you’ve got everyone in-between,” says CEO Andrew Avanessian. “During Covid, we did quizzes and 80s gameshows, and it created permanent bonds, a sense of belonging and understanding. And if you can see something from another person’s perspective, problems get resolved quicker.”

And post-Covid, the initiative is still having an impact:

“People are sitting with people they wouldn’t ordinarily sit with because they’ve got relationships outside their own department,” adds Andrew.

5. Be creative with your office space

“The world’s changed, so when we welcomed people back after the pandemic, the office had to feel different,” says the Youth Sports Trust’s Alison Oliver, MBE. The charity’s employees helped redesign the office to create a more collaborative feel.

“It was about intention,” adds Alison. “If we’re going to have some days in the office, the intention is to be collaborative and creative. We took out all the pod desks with dividers and created long tables everyone could sit around, encouraging people to work differently. You used to have different teams in different parts of the office; they’re really mixed now, and that’s lovely.”

And for Search Laboratory, encouraging the office to be a social space as well as a working one continues to work wonders for collaboration.

“Our drinks fridge and games room are open every night after work if you want to hang around with colleagues or friends you don’t have to go to the pub,” says CEO Chris Attewell. “And because most people are in the office on a Thursday, it’s organically become our team after work drinks night.

“We also have a different food truck coming once a month on a Thursday, and we’ve redone our coffee area, so it’s good to see huge groups of people from different teams sitting together.”

For Huler’s Nicky Hoyland, technology still needs to underpin a successful hybrid workplace:

“Technology can bring connections like recognition – reaching people who aren’t necessarily in the office to hear sales wins. It’s still inclusive, it’s still collaborative, and you still feel connected to the wider business.”

Our panellists have shown that there are many ways to break down silos, from team-building activities to a new and improved hybrid working environment. But all these initiatives must be underpinned by an understanding that everyone – no matter role or team – is in it together, working under shared vision and towards the same ultimate goal.

Do your employees consider themselves part of one harmonious workplace family, or is there an ongoing, frustrating battle between departments? Let our b-Heard employee engagement survey highlight where you are on the path to a shared purpose and vision – what you’re doing well and where you could be doing better.





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