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9 types of collaboration to use in the workplace
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9 types of collaboration to use in the workplace

Discover 9 types of collaboration to use in the workplace to boost alignment and performance. Benefits, challenges, and tools to use.

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It’s true—highly collaborative companies enjoy better product development and quality, leading to a 27% increase in sales and 41% improved customer satisfaction.* 

That’s because, when you pool resources and knowledge, you can achieve more together than you could alone. 

However, while collaborative teams perform better, you need to know how to adjust your working and communication style based on who you're working with and why. To do that, you need to understand the  different types of collaboration. Then, which to use in certain situations to achieve your goals. 

In this post, you’ll learn about seven types of collaboration to use in the workplace,  when to use them, and how to implement them–to hit your goals. We’ll also cover how Switchboard creates the right environment for any type of collaboration. 

Get a home base for more productive teamwork.  
Switchboard’s persistent rooms unite everyone–and everything–you need for your project in one place. 
Learn more

9 different types of team collaboration 

There are various collaboration types, from real time to asynchronous to cross-functional and cross-industry. Let’s take a look at what they involve and the advantages and challenges of each. 

1. Internal collaboration 

Internal collaboration between members of the same team or company requires individuals with similar expertise or objectives to work together towards a common goal. It’s ideal when people have a shared understanding of something, like your users or product. 

Imagine you want to improve website conversions by improving user flows. To do this, your UX team works together to conduct user surveys to uncover pains and drop-off points. Then, they brainstorm design solutions, create a wireframe and prototype, and test it with beta users before launching to the general public. 

The benefits of this type of collaboration include:  

  • Highly targeted skill sets and expertise lead to focused problem-solving and effective solutions 
  • Efficient communication between people who are used to working together and speak the same professional or technical language 
  • Streamlined workflows where all team members are familiar with your processes and tools 

Of course, even with single-team collaboration, your goals should also align with broader company objectives to maintain alignment and avoid conflicts over resources, priorities, etc. 

Switchboard team room with apps and sticky notes
Create a persistent team room in Switchboard so everyone can always find each other—and what they need. Source: Switchboard 

2. External collaboration

External collaborations involve partnerships between companies or entities to work toward a shared goal. For example, two companies pooling resources and customer bases to reach new markets or, a complex consortium of companies, nonprofits, and governments tackling complex societal challenges like poverty or climate change.

Examples include:

  • Strategic alliances or cross-sector partnerships. Two or more companies share resources and expertise, even access to customers, to achieve a common goal like creating a new product.
  • Research and development collaborations. Common in industry or science, entities combine expertise, data, and skills to discover new solutions.
  • Joint ventures. Companies create a new entity to pursue a goal, contributing assets and sharing risks and profits.
  • Crowdsourcing. An entity makes a challenge public, inviting everyone from suppliers to customers to research institutions and even competitors to participate in finding a solution. Open-source projects like Linux are a good example of this.
  • Supplier-client relationships. Both parties come together to find solutions that ultimately translate into better products and services for the company’s customers.

The benefits of external collaborations are:

  • Sharing diverse perspectives, resources, and skills lets you leverage each other’s strengths and achieve more than you could alone
  • Shared risks mitigate the impact of failure on any single entity, allowing you to take on more ambitious projects
  • Combining forces to create unique products gives you an edge over companies acting alone
  • Learn new strategies and practices you might otherwise never have been exposed to

External collaborations aren’t without their challenges, however. Innovation is always risky and you need to choose the right partners and goals to avoid exacerbating this. A good shared understanding and watertight agreements covering IP and risks are also essential when sharing confidential information.  

3. Cross-functional collaboration

Cross-functional collaboration is when individuals or groups with different skill sets and knowledge unite to achieve a common goal. This might be an internal collaboration between departments or people on the same team. For example, product, software development, and customer success teams collaborating to improve your app. Cross-functional collaboration might also involve external stakeholders, as outlined above. 

Cross-functional collaboration is important because it brings different perspectives to bear on problems. This benefits creativity and innovation, making companies more agile, adaptable, and competitive

Elliott Brown is a Startup Marketing Consultant focused on high-impact GTM strategies. Of cross-functional collaboration, he says: “You get people with an array of skills and experience to contribute to the same project, adding all their unique value to get more done or create something that couldn't be created with the expertise of just one person or one team.” 

Here are some other benefits of cross-functional collaboration:

  • Helps eliminate working and information silos and boosts alignment 
  • Exposes people to new ways of doing or thinking about things, leading to better products and more efficient processes  
  • Can boost employee engagement when people have autonomy and feel like their ideas are valued 

For cross-functional collaboration to work, you need to establish shared KPIs, trust, and good relationships. It also takes collaboration skills like great leadership and communication to manage different personalities and mitigate conflict.

Pro tip: Create a dedicated, persistent room in Switchboard to unite everyone and everything you need for your project in one place. 
Switchboard room for a website redesign project with team members and apps
Switchboard lets you open all the browser-based apps and files different teams need, all in one place. Source: Switchboard 

4. Real-time collaboration

Real time collaboration involves team members interacting simultaneously, whether they’re in the office, using video conferencing, or messaging over internal collaboration tools. Either way, there’s an expectation of an instant reply.  

Synchronous collaboration is best, says Brown: “When it comes to getting aligned, sharing goals, learning, setting plans for the coming year.” Having everyone in the same place makes it easier for them to contribute, hash things out, and achieve buy-in.  

For example, multiple department leaders might meet in a dedicated Switchboard room for quarterly planning. Having shared materials there before the call, everyone’s up to speed and ready to work when it starts. During the call, they pull up all the browser-based tools they need and work side by side to put together the roadmap for projects and releases.   

The benefits of real time collaboration include: 

  • Direct, spontaneous interactions that help build cohesive teams and engagement 
  • Great for brainstorming and problem-solving, especially with complex topics 
  • The chance to ask questions and get instant feedback boosts clarity and lets you adjust on the fly 

Of course, if you default to meetings for every decision, that impacts people’s ability to get work done, so you need to balance real time with asynchronous collaboration. You also need to set boundaries and configure notifications to avoid overload from tools like Slack.

5. Asynchronous collaboration

Asynchronous collaboration is when people complete tasks and answer messages on their own schedule, rather than simultaneously. This lets you move work forward with fewer meetings, so you get more time for focus work. Plus, it’s handy when schedules or time zones don’t overlap.  

Async teamwork is ideal, says Brown, for when “people need to accomplish things, get work done, and carry out the duties that go into launching a project… when it’s time to go heads down and do the work part of work.” 

As well as tasks and messages, you can also do all or part of some meetings async. Imagine your product team leader shares user stories from the backlog in a Google Doc inside your persistent Switchboard sprint planning room. They also pull up an asynchronous collaboration tool like Asana and set a task for people to leave feedback. Team members then hop into the room on their own time and add their input. Once all comments are in, the team lead uses Switchboard AI to summarize them before sharing them with the team. 

Some benefits of async collaboration are:

  • Fewer meetings means more control over your day and greater productivity 
  • Sharing materials async before meetings makes the ones you do have more productive   
  • Async allows for more autonomy and flexibility, which helps boost employee engagement and satisfaction 
  • Work from anywhere and structure your day to suit you

That said, sometimes you still need to talk to build relationships or resolve things quickly. It’s about knowing when to work async and when to hop on a call. You also need to document everything well and use the right asynchronous communication tools to avoid information silos.

Switchboard room with project tracker app and comment thread
Switchboard enables async-first working, so you can move faster with fewer meetings. Source: Switchboard 

6. Virtual collaboration

Virtual collaboration involves sharing, viewing, and editing files in real time on the cloud. For example, when a product marketing team creates a launch plan using Google Docs inside their Switchboard room. 

Because files are updated live, multiple collaborators can work on the latest version without having to be physically in the same place or message each other to get hold of it. This helps avoid notification overload, information silos, and duplicated work while allowing people to collaborate across time zones and locations.

Other advantages of virtual or cloud collaboration include

  • Share and store larger files than you can via email  
  • Improves alignment as everyone is–literally–on the same page 
  • Being able to work from anywhere lets you hire talent globally and offer remote or hybrid working 

There are few downsides to virtual collaboration but when people don’t interact much in person you need to build strong, connected teams to avoid them feeling disconnected.

7. Visual collaboration

Visual collaboration involves using visual elements and tools like whiteboards or digital workspaces to collaborate and communicate ideas. For example, to brainstorm ideas, map processes, create designs, or visualize user journeys.

As well as creative teams, this lets everyone from marketing to C-suite get big ideas down, tackle complex problems, and get organized without wading through reams of text. It’s especially useful for cross-functional collaborations when people are sharing concepts that collaborators are unfamiliar with.  

As Brown says, visual collaboration “decentralizes the conversation somewhat. When you don't have that visual element in a shared space, one person is driving, presenting, leading the conversation. When you're in a visual environment, everyone can explore simultaneously… Everyone's adding things at the same time [and can be] more involved, with more of a stake in what's going on.” 

Other benefits of visual collaboration include: 

  • Caters to different learning styles, including visual thinkers
  • Easy to get feedback and iterate as you go 
  • Less room for the misinterpretations you can get with text 
  • Creates a visual record of discussions and ideas that’s valuable for knowledge sharing

Note, though, that visual collaboration is less suitable when you need a single, focused narrative that you want to focus people’s exclusive attention on. For example, presenting a deliverable or plan to C-suite. 

Switchboard room with design apps, project brief, and whiteboard
In Switchboard, you can work side by side in real time or async alone on any type of visual collaboration tool, including third-party or built-in whiteboards. Source: Switchboard 

How to choose the best kind of collaboration

The best kind of collaboration for your organization and teams will depend on their size and location, the nature of the project, and whether you have the necessary resources in-house. 

For distributed teams, virtual and cloud collaboration are essential, and async collaboration is a definite advantage. Brainstorming or discussing complex topics, however, are often best done in real time. For complex projects and innovation, cross-functional collaboration may be necessary, whether it’s between departments or with external stakeholders. 

Ultimately, it’s about assessing your goals, the task at hand, who needs to be involved, and what they need to achieve their best work. 

Which skills are important for successful collaboration?

Effective collaboration of any kind takes a mix of interpersonal and technical skills, like: 

  • Clear, concise, transparent communication to avoid misunderstandings and achieve alignment and empathy. 
  • Leadership skills to manage different personalities, with different working and communication styles, especially if they’re not answering to their usual line manager. 
  • Adaptability and flexibility so you can navigate challenges and be open to new ideas.   
  • Problem-solving skills to overcome challenges.
  • Digital skills to use collaboration tools correctly and efficiently.
  • Project management skills like planning, prioritization, and time management to keep everyone on track and achieve your goals.

Different types of collaboration: Get teamwork right, every time

Collaborative teams perform better when they pool resources, perspectives, and skills. But you need to adjust working styles based on your goals and who you’re working with. Understanding the different types of collaboration–and when to use them–puts you in a better position to achieve your objectives in the most efficient way possible. 

For example, if you have everything you need in one team or company, internal collaboration is sufficient. However, if you need access to resources and expertise from others, you’ll need to collaborate cross-functionally or with external stakeholders. Either way, you need to balance real time with async collaboration, often using visual and virtual collaboration tools to share materials and communicate. 

Whatever type of collaborative work you do, Switchboard gives you a home base where everyone can find each other—and what they need. Just create your persistent project room to share materials and work side by side in real time or async alone on anything.

Get a home base for more productive teamwork.  
Switchboard’s persistent rooms unite everyone–and everything–you need for your project in one place. 
Learn more

*Benefits of collaborative work, Institute for Collaborative Work 

Frequently asked questions about types of collaboration

What is collaboration in the workplace? 

Collaboration in the workplace involves individuals or teams working together to achieve common goals. This requires sharing ideas, skills, and resources. Effective collaboration relies on achieving alignment, shared objectives, clear communication, and good relationships between team members, among other things. 

What are the benefits of collaboration? 

The benefits of collaboration include:

  • Better problem-solving, creativity, and innovation through diverse perspectives and shared knowledge 
  • Greater company agility and competitive advantage
  • Better products and solutions 
  • Improved employee engagement and job satisfaction
  • Opportunities for skills sharing and development

What are some types of collaboration between companies? 

Some types of collaboration between companies include:

  • Strategic partnerships like joint ventures or alliances. For example, to jointly develop a product that serves the users of more than one company. 
  • Industry consortia where groups of companies working together on research projects
  • Cross-sector collaborations featuring partnerships between businesses, government, and nonprofits to address complex issues that no one organization can tackle alone 

Stop, collaborate, and listen

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