The general trend these days is toward open office plans, where cubicle walls and office doors don’t impede communication. In fact, the International Facility Management Association reports that 70% of offices in the US now have an open floor plan. 

But tearing down the walls so we can yell across the room at one another doesn’t necessarily improve collaboration. In fact, a study in Finland found that employees on average waste 21.5 minutes a day getting distracted by overheard conversations, the top roadblock to productivity.

It takes more than just moving the furniture and hoping it will get people talking—it takes planning, intentional policy changes, and just a little hint of the unexpected.

These five unusual strategies for improving team collaboration will get your teams to work together in ways that make people feel comfortable sharing ideas. 

1. Put the Walls Back Up

Conventional wisdom says that open work spaces and shared offices get people to talk more, but the ambient noise and visual distractions can actually mean a loss of productivity. We cycle through the open-office-closed-door argument every decade or so, probably because the pendulum swings way too far in one direction or the other, leaving employees either isolated or distracted.

When employees have a quiet, comfortable place to work distraction-free, they feel more comfortable coming out of their shells when they need to work together. Cubicles, conference rooms, and separate offices help define meeting times and let employees choose when they engage with others, rather than the open office layout that stifles quiet time.

2. Build an Asynchronous Communication Policy

Many workplaces have implemented instant messaging apps, crowd-sourced employee documents, and project management tools that increase the opportunity for collaboration. But that’s not enough—you also have to create expectations around how employees use those tools

Communication apps like Skype and Slack, can and should be used with an understanding that communication happens at your discretion. 

Asynchronous communication models the sort of communication that happens between parts of a computer: information is sent when it’s convenient for one part of the system, and the other part of the system receives and responds at its convenience. This way, the receiver’s current process isn’t interrupted, which helps team members stay focused on important work. 

Offices that use wikis, email, chat tools, Kanban boards, and project management tools that let users view notifications and changes on their own time show respect for the individual’s flow of work. Users can set "do not disturb" hours so they won’t receive distracting notifications, and use a batching system to take care of all secondary communication outside of their focus times. 

Asynchronous communication gives employees the freedom to focus without that fear of missing out on important decisions. When companies empower employees to communicate within dedicated time frames, they send the message that they appreciate when employees focus on single tasks, rather than splitting their attention between communication and assignments. 

3. Implement: "No Agenda, No Meeting"

It’s many people’s worst office nightmare: a meeting with no plan. Requiring that all meetingsno matter how trivial or informalhave at least a bullet point outline puts both planners and attendees at ease. 

Agendas also keep your teams focused on outcomes. Teams that plan in advance and share agendas stay on track and reduce distractions that can devolve into lost time and unhelpful disagreements. Build policies about tangential discussions and how to deal with disagreements, so your employees know how to handle new and uncomfortable situations.

Meeting agendas protect meaningful individual work time, and helps the group stay on task. This reduces friction due to off-topic talking, lets attendees collect their thoughts and ideas before the meeting, and defines the scope of work so all participants understand what’s expected. Collaboration is much easier when everyone knows what’s required. 

Once the group completes the agenda, release employees to check off the items on their personal to-do lists. You can always schedule follow-up meetings to resolve new issues. 

4. Build an Inclusive Remote Work Infrastructure

Finding top talent is harder than ever, and ensuring that your employees have a good work-life balance is an HR necessity. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 24% of employees worked from home at least part of the time in 2015. Working remotely from a home office or co-working space in a different city can increase employee happiness and productivity and limit distractions from office shenanigans (looking at you, Sales Departments). 

Companies that allow remote work or work from home policies need to build communication and collaboration into the lifestyle of the company. Use video conferencing, chat programs, screensharing & remote desktop access, and project management tools to bring employees together virtually around your  goals. 

Ensure that not only workers but also managers and executives understand how to use the remote technology, and are comfortable engaging with the crew. Use your video calls for 1:1 weekly meetings to check in, and build chat channels where your whole team can hang out. Allow teams to build their own chat channels around shared interests (Trivia, Fantasy Football, great restaurants, etc.) to cultivate a connected culture and engage employees during downtime. These connections remind us that our colleagues are more than their work projects, they are people too. Humanizing remote teammates helps to foster empathy, which in turn smooths out whatever rough patches you'll hit during collaboration. 

5. Build Relationships via Tough Conversations

Whether collaboration takes place in the office or remotely, in real time or asynchronously, in a conference room or in the middle of an open office, it’s important to build communication policies that promote openness and honesty. Conflict and criticism are inevitable, but collaboration doesn’t have to suffer: the whole team can communicate with emotional intelligence. 

By planning for the inevitable, you can ensure that tough conversations happen with sensitivity—building relationships among team members, instead of eroding them. 

Designate mediators for teams, plan regular communication skills workshops (quarterly, not just once a year), and discuss different communication styles. 

Collaboration is More Than Seating Arrangements 

Improved team collaboration takes more than sticking everyone in a room and hoping individual genius will compound in a group setting. Real business-oriented collaboration requires careful planning, investment in technology, and breaking down outdated ideas of what teamwork and productivity look like. 

About the Author:

Tamara Scott is an analyst at TechnologyAdvice, a research company that connects buyers and sellers of business technology. She writes about project management, marketing, sales, CRM, and many other technology verticals.