Learning & Development, Startup HR

No Employee Is an Island: Bringing Cross-Functional Teams Together

In an oft-quoted sermon by 17th-century poet John Donne titled Devotions upon emergency occasions and several steps in my sicknessMedication XVII, written in 1624, Donne writes:

cross functional team buildingNo man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The idea that “nobody is an island” has come to represent the interconnected nature of humanity, that no one is truly self-sufficient, and that we all rely on others and impact others with our actions.

Interconnections in Hybrid Work Settings

Sometimes, though, and particularly in hybrid work settings, employees may feel they are islands. And yet, in modern business, once largely siloed business functions like marketing, sales, accounting, finance, legal, operations, IT, etc., now rely on cross-department collaboration to achieve shared and companywide objectives. Cross-functional teams made up of members from different functions of similar seniority levels need to be able to understand one another and collaborate effectively without getting into turf wars.

We reached out to business leaders and organizational management experts to get their input on best practices for facilitating effective, efficient, and productive cross-departmental collaboration.

Place a Focus on Teambuilding

“Teambuilding” is a term that understandably makes many people groan and roll their eyes. Stale exercises involving mandatory company social events, icebreakers, and even the dreaded trust fall are all aimed at building relationships between members of an organization. While the tactics are not always the most exciting or effective, social bonds between colleagues is essential to any cross-department collaboration. Cross-functional team members don’t need to be best friends, but it certainly helps if they understand each other’s personalities and work styles and have a sense of empathy for one another.

“Empathy is an important characteristic that builds working relationships,” says Danny Speros, VP of People Operations at Zenefits. “Being able to see a situation and give others the opportunity to view it through another team’s eyes can be groundbreaking, especially if teams are siloed.”

This could be done in a fun way, Speros suggests. For instance, asking employees to share “what a typical day looks like” can be a way to build rapport and can help employees get to know people at the company, which is especially important in remote or hybrid work environments.

“Leaders have to be empathetic and lead with their humanity and that can resonate more with people than any fun team bonding activity,” Speros says.

Speaking the Same Language

One of the problems of business functions’ becoming too siloed is that they tend to develop their own lingo, jargon, and acronyms within their divisions and departments—in addition to the industry-specific lingo, jargon, and acronyms that already complicate collaboration between specialized teams like IT, legal, and finance.

Ensuring disparate teams are speaking the same company “language” can help facilitate smoother and clearer communication and avoid potentially costly miscommunications. Some companies even maintain a glossary of terms and acronyms on a company intranet toward this end.

In addition to what people are saying, how they say it and over which media are also key considerations when fostering better cross-departmental collaboration.

“Something that works to foster cross-departmental collaboration is to have a standardized communication method,” says Zachary Hoffman, CEO of DigitalPR. “Teams will often have their own communication preferences and use different tools that best suit their needs, but to ensure that everyone in the company can easily collaborate, there needs to be a standardized method of communication,” Hoffman adds. “Teams can still use their preferred methods internally, but they should also be active on the main communication channels as well.”

Creating Alignment

When companies look at why their business functions don’t work together as well as they’d like, it often comes down to a lack of alignment on goals and incentives. The sales team may be motivated by their sales-specific commission structure to sell, sell, sell, but that can put pressure on the operations team to keep up with production or on the finance and legal teams to ensure those sales are in the company’s best interest.

“Team building events are great to help people learn more about each other on a personal level and can open the door to empathy, but productive teamwork comes from alignment and reliability,” says Speros.

Teams that are aligned on the same goal are always going to work together more effectively than those with their own personal or departmental agendas and motivations.

The Role of Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are often thought of in terms of characteristics like race, gender, and age. Indeed, these are important and fundamental facets of diversity. However, diversity and inclusion can also be thought of in terms of the skills and professional backgrounds people bring to the table. After all, that’s the whole point of building cross-department teams in the first place.

“We’ve learned to emphasize diversity in our team compositions when working on projects as we transition to hybrid work,” says Michael Hammelburger, CEO of Sales Therapy. “We believe in creative collaboration to spur innovation through neurodiversity.” Financial and tech companies are now more eager to cultivate and foster a culture of diverse talents and skills in the workplace, Hammelburger adds. “We’ve noticed among our clients an increase in hiring individuals with excellent math and numerical skills and then letting them work with creatives. It makes the workplace more engaging, letting individuals discover more about different talents and skill sets and making the working environment more conducive for collaboration.”

Companies that are conditioned to value diversity and inclusion in terms of race, gender, and other traditional facets of those concepts are more likely to be inclusive of diverse technical and professional backgrounds and viewpoints. This can only help grease the gears of cross-department collaboration.

Just as no employee is an island, no department and no business function is an island in today’s business world. To remain competitive in the modern global economy, companies need to be able to marshal all of their resources to work together collaboratively and achieve common and often complex goals. This means the IT team needs to be able to collaborate with the legal team, the sales and marketing teams need to collaborate with operations, etc.

To the extent companies can find ways to socialize their disparate business functions to develop trust, understanding, and collegiality before a collaborative project emerges, they will find that collaboration is much smoother and more efficient.

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