hybrid workplace jargon

C is for Collaboration – Decoding Workplace Jargon Series

Reading Time: 4 minute/s excluding links.

A short series attempting to decode hybrid workplace jargon to foster a more nuanced discussion on future work capabilities, workstyles and workplace in a post-pandemic world.  Part 3 “C is for Collaboration” describes the importance of understanding the wide range of collaborative activities and specifically what valuable collaboration means for you.

C3 scrabble tile

Collaboration describes a myriad of forms of interaction to create or achieve something

Collaboration is Not One Thing!

The “C word” was the inspiration for this decoding workplace jargon series, as ‘collaboration’ has been one of the most overused and misunderstood workplace terms in recent years!  I admit I am guilty of using it as well, and for a lot of people it’s a ‘catch-all’ word that encompasses a range of activities.  A recent HBR article[1] positing that we spend 85% of our time on collaboration drew a lot of critical online debate regarding what is defined as collaboration, with one colleague summing it up perfectly:

‘collaboration’ is organisational “loosey goosey language for any old interaction”[2].

However, it’s also become a highly obfuscating term for an enormous range of interactive activities we engage in as part of our work.  ‘Office for collaboration, home for focus’ has become the catchcry of post-pandemic workplace strategy.  This suggests it’s very similar across teams, organisations and cultures and can be addressed through a few sofas, team tables and ‘casual settings’ that look good on paper but often lack intent.

It suggests an intellectual laziness within business (expect blowback!) that we don’t sufficiently articulate the complexity of human interactions that are part of value-creating work.

If we cannot describe, how can we understand, if we cannot understand how can we design intentionally for these activities and behaviours?

What is Real Collaboration?

The Cambridge dictionary defines collaboration as “the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing” 

The dictionary’s ‘SMART Vocabulary’ cloud shows almost 100 related words and phrases including accord, collectively, confluence, cooperative, gang, pairwork, teamwork, synergistic, tandem, together, unity.

I could go on, but the point is that by increasingly using ‘collaboration’ as a one size fits all term we ignore the myriad forms of interpersonal connections that create or achieve something together.

These may include (but not be limited to) collaborative activities such as mentoring and coaching, side by side teamwork, problem solving, decision-making, brainstorming/ideation, providing feedback, reviewing things together, co-creating things, interviewing, requirements gathering and briefing, ideating, voting/assessing alternatives, having a discussion or debate, planning together.  All these interactions have the potential to create or achieve something – which of these collaborations are most meaningful and important to you?

These interactions are not necessarily optimally or only done face to face in the office. Since the 1970s researchers who have studied physical proximity (the distance employees need to travel to engage in a face-to-face interaction) have disagreed on the question of whether it facilitates or inhibits collaboration[3].

The reality is that many collaborative activities migrate asynchronously from face to face to digital and back again or are a synchronous blend.

To quote a colleague who knows his collaboration data “think of your office as one big device that connects people. Just because people are not there doesn’t mean they can’t be connected.”[4]

However, in designing offices to support ‘collaboration’ the very different needs across the spectrum of interactions, activities, behaviours and mindsets are often overlooked.

For example, when we are coaching or giving feedback to a team member, how do we want to be positioned – face to face or side by side?  Do we want to be sitting or standing and how close together should we be?  How important is it for the receiver to feel psychologically safe so the feedback is truly absorbed?  Do we want a more formal or relaxed environment and will white noise help or hinder the flow of conversation?  What impact does the journey to this destination have on each person’s energy levels and mental state?

Optimise for Collaborative Diversity

As I suggested in the previous post in this series “B is for Behaviour”, we would do well to spend more time on work analysis to understand what collaboration means within an organisation.

Ask yourself, what types of interaction are most common and what are most valuable?  What don’t we support effectively now?

Take time to consider these questions in the context of the future of work capabilities and behaviours that are important to your business.  Think about how best to support these specific activities wherever they occur, allowing for the likelihood of synchronous face to face and digital interaction when planning the physical workplace settings.

This is not an argument against multi-use, flexible settings that can accommodate a range of activities, rather it’s a call to design those spaces within the broader context of a workplace that is optimised to support the rich diversity of collaborative activities that will create the most value in future.


The next article in this series will explore one of our most cherished (or loathed) physical elements in the workspace, and attempt to unpack the massive influence it has had on workplace planning, design and measurement, not to mention the loaded emotional connotations associated with it!

[1] “Collaboration Overload Is Sinking Productivity” in Harvard Business Review, September 07 2021

[2] LinkedIn post comment by Geoff Marlow, 13 September 2021

[3] “Covid-19 has forced a radical shift in working habits” in The Economist, September 10 2020 edition

[4] “Interview with Cisco: Creating a digitally inclusive workplace” by Axiom, 2021