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How to break down silos: 7 effective strategies to unite your teams
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How to break down silos: 7 effective strategies to unite your teams

Discover how team silos negatively affect your employees and business. Plus, 7 steps to break down silos and boost collaboration.

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Imagine this scenario: you're a product manager in a small tech startup and you're working with a cross-functional team to build a new product feature. But there's a slight problem. You notice the developers work together, collaborating over lines of code in GitHub, while the designers comment on designs in Figma. Working on separate platforms means potential delays in the communication of design changes to the development team or difficulties in interpreting code-related feedback by designers.

Without a unified platform to move projects forward together, the team is vulnerable to miscommunications and bottlenecks. 

Comment threads and information spread across platforms harm team alignment and productivity. This is because they can lead to people working in silos rather than cohesively as a team. That’s why leaders need to understand the impact of silos on team productivity and morale and be intentional about breaking them down. That means bringing information and people together for more effective teamwork.

In this article, you'll learn what team silos are, the challenges they create, and strategies to break down silos. We'll also show you how visual collaboration platforms like Switchboard act as a source of truth by unifying all your people, information, and tools.  

Goodbye silos, hello true collaboration. 
Switchboard’s persistent rooms bring everything you need for your project together—so you can always find what you need. 
Learn more

What are team silos?

Team silos happen when teams work independently and don't collaborate effectively with other teams in the organization. Team silos aren’t the same thing as information silos, but one can exacerbate the other. For example, when information isn't easily accessible for different teams, it can contribute to widening the existing gap between them. 

Team silos can also form due to a lack of team players, over-specialization of departments or roles, hierarchies or structural barriers, lack of communication and trust, and using too many different tools. 

"Many times, people aren't intentional or aware of team silos until they have to work with or depend on someone they don't really know that well," says Brian Border, VP of Consumer Marketing Strategy, Internet Brands, "It's a lot easier to avoid them if you start thinking about building relationships in a cross-functional way." 

Below, we explore the impact of team silos on your employees and business alike.  

What challenges do team silos create? 

Just 22% of business leaders say their teams share data well. Without access to accurate and relevant information, teams can't perform at their best because they're working without full context. This makes it hard to build cross-functional teams that bring their skills and experiences together to solve complex problems and form creative solutions. 

Here's why: 

  • Too much communication and too little collaboration. In team silos, communication tends to be restricted within individual departments. When people do engage in cross-team communication, it's usually over long comment threads across different channels, which makes it hard to work together and build team unity.
  • Lack of knowledge and resource sharing. Silos limit the sharing of valuable knowledge and resources between individual teams. 
  • Time wasted trying to find what you need. Siloed information makes it challenging for employees to find what they need, which can keep people from sharing resources. Toggling between different tools and notifications to find what you're looking for can cost your teams up to four hours each week. 
  • Inefficient or duplicated work. Without collaboration, teams may unknowingly duplicate efforts or work inefficiently, resulting in wasted time, resources, and potential conflicts.
  • Less creativity and innovation. If teams don't brainstorm or share ideas, it's hard to innovate. Plus, if they’re overworked and burnt out due to silos and duplicate work, it’s hard to be creative.  
  • Missed opportunities. Teams may lack awareness of opportunities emerging in other parts of the company, leading to missed chances for growth, improvement, or collaboration. For example, your sales team didn't pass on crucial customer feedback, so product teams missed an opportunity to create an in-demand feature and capture new users. 
  • Employee frustration and low morale. It's frustrating to realize you're doing tasks someone else has already done. Plus, not working with others can limit your chances of growing and learning new skills, which can harm retention.  

Now that you know the challenges involved in team silos, let's explore seven ways to break them down and get everyone working better together. 

7 strategies to break down team silos

There are many advantages to highly collaborative and connected teams, including increased agility and the ability to better meet user needs. That's why 72% of leaders believe merging teams and responsibilities can improve operational efficiency. 

Here are seven ways to break down team silos and improve team effectiveness

1. Create a culture of cross-functional collaboration 

According to Deloitte, 83% of digitally maturing companies use cross-functional teams because they don’t believe different organizational processes should interfere with a company's ability to stay nimble. In fact, they can enhance it. 

Here's what you can do: 

  • Create opportunities to work in cross-functional teams. For instance, on specific projects or initiatives. This encourages employees from different departments to collaborate, share expertise, and contribute to common objectives.
  • Offer training. Provide training opportunities that expose employees to different aspects of the business. This could also include shadowing or peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities. For example, giving a UX designer a chance to experience a day in the life of an engineer. Cross-functional training like this helps team members understand the roles and perspectives of colleagues in other departments, which contributes to breaking down silos. 
  • Integrate team and individual performance metrics. Develop performance metrics that emphasize both individual and team contributions. This ensures employees are evaluated not only on their own work but also on their ability to work collaboratively towards shared goals.
  • Foster a culture of continuous learning and knowledge sharing. Encourage employees to share their knowledge, experiences, and lessons learned from cross-functional projects. Then, shout them out on Slack or your newsletter for their contributions and cross-team wins.
Screenshot from a Slack "wins" channel
Shouting out cross-functional team achievements can inspire people to work together and build new relationships. Source: Switchboard

2. Use the right collaboration and communication tools 

Whether it's responding to comments in Google Docs or tracking feedback in Slack or email, teams need visibility into all types of communications to stay aligned. However, too many tools and communication channels can lead to burnout from context switching.  

Platforms like project management software, asynchronous communication tools, and document collaboration tools can break down communication barriers. However, by using these tools in isolation without a central place to find your people, tools, and projects, you still run the risk of team silos. 

Switchboard solves this problem by acting as a single source of truth for your teams, organizing everything related to your project in persistent rooms. With all your browser-based apps, tools, and files in one place so you don't have to keep switching contexts or screens. You also save time trying to find information and keeping people updated because your work is always right where you left it. This lets you work side-by-side in real time or async alone. That means you can cancel more meetings and get back more time for focus work.

Switchboard room populated with stickies, Google Docs, and apps sidebar
Switchboard lets you review both open and recently closed apps in your project room, so it's easy to track progress and stay on the same page.  Source: Switchboard

3. Foster open, transparent communication 

"Relationship building early and often is critical," says Border. The first step in doing this is establishing psychological safety and open communication. That means a working environment where everyone feels safe being themselves and speaking their minds. 

Here's how: 

  • Lead by example. Leadership should exemplify open communication by sharing relevant information, admitting mistakes, and encouraging feedback. When employees see leaders embracing transparency, they're more likely to follow suit. For example, you might tell your team about a mistake you made during a product launch and how it shaped your approach to team leadership and informed your decisions.  
  • Establish shared vision and values. Accountability, trust, and empathy all help promote open communication and transparency, which you need for great teamwork. 
  • Encourage an open-door policy. When employees feel comfortable approaching leaders at any level with concerns, ideas, or feedback, it fosters a culture of accessibility and openness.

4. Codify how and where people communicate

To create an open and inclusive culture, you need guidelines that outline expectations for tone, frequency, and communication channels. This makes sure employees have a shared understanding of how to treat one another, and how to use different internal comms. 

For instance, you might use Switchboard as a home base from which to communicate and work async and in real time. Slack is appropriate for quick, synchronous updates, while email is good for mass announcements, newsletters, etc. 

If you're an async-first workplace, you might also include asynchronous communication examples in your communication guidelines so people have a guiding star. Or you might ask people to update their Slack status when they’re engaged in focus work, so people know they’re unavailable.  

Screenshot of Slack status
Slack statuses are great for letting people know when they can and can’t expect a response from you.  Source: Switchboard

5. Get clear on roles and responsibilities 

Silos exist when people aren't clear about their role and how it feeds into the bigger picture or workflow. For example, let's say your product marketing team only sticks to its specific tasks and isn’t aware of potential crossovers or collaboration opportunities with product development. That means they could miss out on the opportunity to include upcoming features in their campaigns. 

Here's how to get everyone crystal clear on what they need to do: 

  • Provide visibility. Gather team members from different departments to discuss and document current roles, responsibilities, and potential areas of overlap.
  • Create a roles and responsibilities matrix. Develop a visual representation of the roles and responsibilities of each team or department. This can highlight connections, dependencies, and shared responsibilities across teams. Then, add it to your Switchboard room so cross-functional teams can refer back to it anytime.
Figma and a virtual whiteboard in a Switchboard room
Switchboard makes it easy to visualize who’s doing what on a project using the built-in whiteboard or your tool of choice. Source: Switchboard
  • Define decision-making protocols. Especially for cross-functional teams that may not be reporting to their usual line manager, specify who has decision-making authority and the final say. You should also establish a process for making decisions collectively when needed.
  • Ask for feedback. Regularly check in with team members to identify challenges, address concerns, and make necessary adjustments to their roles or responsibilities. 

6. Set common goals 

Common goals are the glue for a strong team. To establish them, individual goals should tie into team ones, which tie into department goals, which tie into overall company objectives. When you achieve this, it enables a unified vision, reinforces the idea of collective success, and lets you measure team productivity.

For example, when product developers see the direct impact of their coding efforts on the success of marketing campaigns, it can boost morale and make them feel more connected to each other. By contrast, when marketers gain insights into development timelines, they’re more aware of the importance of aligning their strategies with the product roadmap. 

Here's how you can set common goals and get everyone singing the same tune: 

  • Identify key business priorities. Goals that require collaboration between different teams are interesting as they’re obliged to collaborate to meet them. Priorities might be related to product launches, customer satisfaction, or market expansion, among other initiatives.
  • Establish goals. Ensure that goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART). This clarity helps in understanding the purpose and progress of each goal. 
  • Set interdependencies. Clearly define how the goals of one team are related to those of other teams. This highlights the necessity for collaboration and emphasizes the interconnected nature of their objectives.
  • Connect departmental and company goals. Establish a direct connection between departmental goals and the overall objectives of the company. One way individuals and teams can do this is to create objectives and key results (OKRs) to define measurable goals and track progress.
Screenshot of Operations OKRs for a company
Setting OKRs helps keep individuals, departments, and company goals aligned and on track.

7. Use team building activities 

"Encouraging your team to have spontaneous one-to-ones or connect with the broader set of team members through activities or challenges can pair up folks who don't normally work together—and create connections," says Border. 

This means you need to create team collaboration activities for people to get to know each other and break down silos. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Trivia games. Teams answer questions and try to rack up the most points. Make sure to mix people from different teams so they can form new relationships as they play.  
  • Virtual escape rooms. Teams work together to solve puzzles and "escape" from a themed room within a set time limit, which can increase problem-solving and teamwork.
  • Role-playing games. This doesn’t have to mean Dungeons and Dragons. You can also use workplace scenarios where team members take on different roles. For example, hosting a hack-a-thon where designers write code and developers design interfaces. 
  • Icebreaker questions. Kick off a meeting by getting people to answer randomly generated questions and get to know each other better. If you're using Switchboard, you can use the icebreaker questions feature to get the ball rolling.
Icebreaker questions feature in a Switchboard room
Start getting to know your team by answering icebreaker questions directly in your Switchboard room—and break down team silos. Source: Switchboard

Breaking down team silos: the key to better teamwork 

Remember those disconnected designers and developers we talked about at the beginning? Well, now they’re collaborating effectively as a cross-functional team. 

What made the difference? Giving them the tools, process, and resources to share information so they’re no longer dealing with comment threads and information spread across platforms. It’s made them more aligned, reduced distractions and context switching, and made cross-team collaboration part of your company culture. 

You were able to make a change because you understood the impact of silos on team productivity and morale. More importantly, you were intentional about using the tips on our list to break them down. For example, creating a culture of cross-functional collaboration, fostering open communication, getting clear on roles and responsibilities, setting common goals, and building strong connected teams. 

But what made the biggest impact was using visual collaboration tools like Switchboard. This lets you get visibility across all your tools, projects, and teams in persistent rooms that save your work. Now, everyone knows where to go to find people and information, so they can get more done together in real time or async alone.  

Goodbye silos, hello true collaboration. 
Switchboard’s persistent rooms bring everything you need for your project together—so you can always find what you need. 
Learn more

Frequently asked questions about breaking down team silos

Why should you break silos down? 

Breaking down team silos ensures team members have a more comprehensive view of the entire project or organization. This holistic understanding enables you to make informed decisions that align with overall goals and objectives. This can lead to a more efficient, innovative, and harmonious work environment.

What is the difference between silos and specialization?

Specialization is when people or teams focus on specific tasks, roles, or functions within a company and become highly skilled or knowledgeable in a particular area. Silos refer to organizational or team structures that result in individuals or groups working independently of each other. This can lead to communication barriers and a lack of collaboration. When people or departments are highly specialized, it can make it more challenging for them to work with others, which can exacerbate team silos. However, this can be avoided by building connected teams, fostering open communication, and establishing shared goals.

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Goodbye silos, hello true collaboration.

Switchboard’s persistent rooms bring everything you need for your project together—so you can always find what you need.