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There’s no ‘I’ in team: how to develop good relationships at work

In a world brimming with technology, more of us are working in virtual teams than ever.

But while tech skills such as cloud computing are in hot demand from employers, so are the human skills that ultimately underpin our ability to work as teams and carry out specific tasks.

According to research from LinkedIn, collaboration is one of the top three in-demand soft skills of 2019, proving that the ability to develop effective working relationships with colleagues is as vital as ever.

So, what are the practical steps you can take to begin building – or strengthening – such relationships?

Why collaboration skills are so important

Dr Andrea North-Samardzic, a lecturer in Deakin’s Faculty of Business and Law, says the world of work is complex.

‘The world’s getting more complicated and the more complicated the problem, the more you need multiple people and multiple interests to contribute to a solution,’ she says. ‘It’s rare these days that anyone can do anything alone.’

Collaboration is particularly relevant when it comes to innovation, Dr North-Samardzic says. ‘Innovation comes through drawing on what are seen to be often disparate areas to create something completely new and different.’

The problem with a lack of collaboration

We’ve all worked in places where working relationships can be less than harmonious, often leading to a toxic atmosphere, a lack of productivity or a steady stream of departures.

However Dr North-Samardzic warns against thinking any kind of conflict is bad.

‘All teams are going to have conflict, and conflict can be a good thing,’ she says.

‘If everyone is just kind of keeping the pace and agreeing with each other about everything, then they’re not actually engaging in proper collaboration. Collaboration requires testing ideas, throwing out bad and good ideas, and if people don’t feel that they can do that, then what’s the point?’

But I don’t really like them…

Personality clashes will always crop up, but it doesn’t mean you can’t start building relationships at work with someone you wouldn’t necessarily want to have a drink with, Dr North-Samardzic says. (Of course, setting up some social events with your team can sometimes help).

‘You don’t have to like someone, but if you can respect them enough to work together productively, then that’s really enough,’ she says.

In this case, she suggests trying to focus more about the work and outcomes, and the fact they’re probably doing a good job. ‘Then it’s more about the work and less about them as a person, because you can’t change who someone is.’

'Collaboration requires testing ideas, throwing out bad and good ideas, and if people don't feel that they can do that, then what's the point?'

Dr Andrea North-Samardzic,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Building relationships in a virtual team

So many people work in virtual teams now – perhaps across different offices, or even different time zones – that it can be difficult developing the same relationships you might have with the person sitting next to you.

Communication skills are the lifeblood of all teams. It’s all about being a good communicator and that’s why virtual teams can be challenging because communication isn’t always instantaneous,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

If possible, she recommends meeting up face-to-face at least once. Failing that, a Skype or similar style of meeting will also help.

How to have better relationships with your colleagues

Not everyone’s a natural-born networker. What if you’re more on the introverted side?

‘When we think of networking, we often think of it as going to a drinks event and handing out your business card. But it can be just as basic as having a one-on-one coffee,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

Your networking mission might be as simple as just getting to know that person, in which case listening to what they have to say is key.

As for working harmoniously within a team, Dr North-Samardzic says it’s all about developing trust.

‘Having people that you can trust at work and you can talk to is key,’ she says. ‘Is there at least one person can go to talk to, and say: “I just need to talk this through”?’

Developing that team relationship

While sports coaches instinctively understand the value of teamwork, Deakin researchers analysed more than 1500 AFL matches to find proof.

After developing a set of measurements that represented teamwork, the researchers were able to understand its influence on winning or losing football matches.

The study found teams more likely to win matches were the ones who not only had effective passing strategies, but who evenly shared passes amongst the whole team.

Dr North-Samardzic says successful sporting teams are a good metaphor for business.

‘When you’re playing on the field you’ve got a goal as a team, we’re there to win and whatever it takes to get there, you do that with each other,’ she says. ‘But when we’re at work, we tend to personalise things more.’

So remember that it ultimately may not matter who kicks the winning goal, as long as everyone is on the same team.

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Dr Andrea North-Samardzic
Dr Andrea North-Samardzic

Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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