Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tech giants Google, Facebook, Genentech, IBM, and Microsoft devoted millions of dollars to the redesign of their workspaces in the hope of fostering cross-team collaboration. Amazon has “community-oriented spaces," Facebook has “loop booths” and a sunken garden, and Google has play spaces replete with climbing walls and video gaming.
What’s the deal with cross-functional teamwork? Why do these innovative companies think it is so valuable, and how can it work in a hybrid environment where some team members work remotely?
This guide explains why innovative companies try so hard to foster cross-functional teams. We show how this work structure benefits both the individuals involved and the organizations. Lastly, we outline how to ensure a cross-functional team, hybrid or not, can work successfully toward its goals.
Many workers are siloed into one department or another, whether it be sales, research and development, or accounting. But there are times when individuals have the opportunity to work with teams from other departments. This is called “cross-team collaboration” or cross-functional collaboration.
An example of a cross-functional team is sales and DevOps collaborating to design a customer support solution.
Collaboration can happen organically where a team takes the initiative and gets the go-ahead for a formal project. But more typically, cross-functional team collaboration is a conscious and purposeful strategy to leverage employees' skills from different departments.
Companies that have a flat structure and encourage workers to socialize in shared spaces—Google, Facebook, Microsoft—are attempting to encourage cross-team collaboration.
These companies replaced cubicles and traditional private offices with large open spaces, smaller team spaces for collaborative work, and pods for private conversations. No, they are finding ways to keep team members engaged in hybrid work environments. Why? The hope is that individuals will work together, share ideas, and come up with new and better ideas to solve problems.
For more on team culture, read “Team Culture: The Secret of Successful Teams”
Individuals and organizations both benefit from cross-functional team collaboration. Individuals reap the rewards of working with experts from another area because they are exposed to different work methods and to new disciplines.
Working with co-workers from different areas of an organization, and even outside an organization, provides new experiences and new skills. For example, an individual might work in marketing but be assigned to a cross-functional product development team. The team might be composed of R&D personnel, software engineers, and finance or accounting specialists. The marketing representative will learn the roles that each team member contributes to product development.
Cross-functional teams can tap into the diverse knowledge and expertise that each team member has. When professionals from different disciplines work together, their collaboration efforts may result in new ways of working, fresh ideas for process improvements and instill a culture where staff members work together towards a common goal.
Organizations that encourage cross-team collaboration tend to be progressive. They are open to experimentation to find new and improved methods of working. When a cross-functional team collaborates, one team member may question the processes of another department. In this way, old ideas are challenged, rigid processes are exposed, and new systems are established to bring about positive change and greater employee engagement.
Related: “Welcoming a New Team Member Onto Your Team”
Although it has intimidating connotations, effective cross-functional collaboration is really no different from any team collaboration. The main concerns are establishing project goals and effective ways to communicate among a group of people. If you are working with a new team, there are three things to establish.
1. The mission or the objectives for the team collaboration.
2. Team roles. Particularly, who will lead.
3. Communication rules and collaboration tools.
Working as a team, whether cross-functional or not, requires organization. But that’s hard to achieve without a goal. The whole team should have a clear understanding of the company goals and their role in achieving that goal. The team may want to establish metrics or KPIs to monitor how well it meets its goals.
Once the goals are outlined, the team can begin to agree on its organization and functions. For example, who will lead, and how will the group communicate with each other.
Each team member has responsibilities and is accountable for their participation. The representative from the sales team is there to offer insights from the market perspective, the R&D representative is there to explain the research perspective, and the finance people are there to advise on resource limitations or the best way to allocate them.
A team leader is important to keep workflows on track, organize and guide meetings and decision-making, and resolve inevitable conflicts.
For more on leading teams, read “What Does a Team Leader Job Description Look Like?”
Rules for Communication
Good communication is vital among team members, and each member must be comfortable with the tools used. It’s no use if some members agree to use an app or Slack for a team project, but one member insists that real-time messaging is too distracting and wastes time.
If a project management tool is going to be used—Asana, for example— each team member should be comfortable using it or receive training. There needs to be agreement on how the team communicates, how and when meetings will be convened, and who will lead them and record them.
Team communication rules and tools are critical for remote work or team members in different time zones. In hybrid work situations, remote workers should feel just as much a part of the team as office-based team members. They should receive the same information and should not be excluded from meetings.
When cross-functional teams collaborate, at least for the first time, the members will not be used to problem-solving with one another. A lack of trust will be detrimental, so the team should focus on getting to know each others’ skill sets in the initial meetings.
After that, there should be a regular check-in to find out if anyone has any concerns or suggestions for improvements. Also, the team leader should have one-on-ones with each member in case they are reluctant to open up in a team meeting about a concern.
Regular meetings with remote teams and office-based teams will keep them on track, but once a project is completed, there should be a review of what went well and what went wrong. These insights can be used as the team continues to collaborate or for different teams formed for new initiatives or new products.
There is little downside to cross-functional team collaboration for individuals or their organizations. Everyone benefits from diversity, and having more minds engaged in a project injects new ideas leading to innovation. Team members break out of their silos, are exposed to different perspectives, and can learn from their peers.
That said, a high-performing team must be organized so that its members can work together and conflict is managed when it arises. Team organization requires a shared goal, a leader who is respected, and agreement and proficiency with communication channels and tools.
Cross-functional team collaboration will benefit everyone involved if these three things are managed.