Create high-performing teams with open communication

Autodesk’s director of open source strategy explains why teams thrive when members collaborate and ideas and knowledge flow freely

Workplace culture is increasingly shifting away from physical, face-to-face meetings and toward open communication and virtual collaboration. And that’s not just among the self-employed.

The number of workers who regularly work from home—(for an employer vs. themselves)—has grown 140% since 2005, according to the latest telecommuting data by research firm Global Workplace Analytics.

That means that as teams adopt communication platforms to connect across time and place—Slack among them—it’s more important than ever to set the right tone in those spaces and foster inclusive, supportive workplace communication.

Guy Martin, a former engineer who is now the director of open source strategy at Autodesk, a software company building software and services for 3D design, engineering, and entertainment, advocates  “defaulting to open” when it comes to sharing ideas and knowledge with colleagues.

In a recent study with Deloitte, Martin notes, more than 8,500 Autodesk employees are now on Slack, creating what he calls a “network of teams.” Across the organization, employees at all levels can easily share best practices and provide colleagues with greater transparency about individual team projects and goals.

Effective collaboration and practicing open communication across the organization, he says, can impact the success of a single project, as well as contribute to a company’s overall culture, its long-term goals and also help cultivate high-performance teams.

Sharing means succeeding

Workplace culture, at least in the recent past, has relied on people contributing their knowledge and skills and being valued and promoted based on individual performance. As a result, the way that people hold, or even hoard, information has determined how power is gained and maintained in organizations. But, Martin says, “that individualistic mentality is not a path to long-term success in a person’s career.”

“I think, as humans, we are wired to work in community.”

– Guy Martin, director of open source strategy at Autodesk
Guy Martin, director of open source strategy at Autodesk

Once leaders realize how much the sharing of information helps team members learn from one another, they tend to work to transition their companies into an era of increased collaboration. “I think, as humans, we are wired to work in community,” Martin says. “Social science is catching up with us now in terms of how this impacts how you build software, and teams in general.”

Technology is also a factor. In software and many other industries, the processes needed to bring a product to market are now simply too complex to be engineered outside of a community of workers. “The days of one engineer building everything, soup to nuts, are long gone,” Martin says.

Changing hearts and minds on collaboration

Leaders working to encourage more open, community-minded work processes have plenty of examples at their fingertips to demonstrate the effectiveness of collaborating. Two examples that Martin points to are the crowdsourced online knowledge compendium Wikipedia and the open source Linux operating system. These projects are better because so many people can share knowledge. “Successful open source communities celebrate the intellectual capital and the intellectual contributions of the people that contribute,” he says.

“It’s incumbent upon us to bring in and help amplify other voices and viewpoints.”

– Guy Martin, director of open source strategy at Autodesk
Guy Martin, director of open source strategy at Autodesk

Projects like Wikipedia simply wouldn’t be as successful without diverse contributors from many backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures. Martin believes that the values of inclusion and welcoming diverse viewpoints can improve most projects and organizations. And, he says, people with obvious privilege have a responsibility to cultivate an inclusive environment where collaboration can thrive: “It’s incumbent upon us to bring in and help amplify other voices and viewpoints.”

Measuring success: Open communication leads to cross-pollination

It’s one thing to encourage more transparency and knowledge sharing at work but another entirely to measure the success of those efforts and how those principles enhance a company’s culture. One way is to look at how much time people spend communicating outside of their assigned teams. This is especially easy to see in shared Slack channels, and that is where, Martin advises, we “look for signs of cross-pollination.”

In Slack, cross-pollination can manifest as workers engage with a mix of channels that pertain to their job role but also their personal interests. That could include a channel about another type of project they find interesting within the organization, or it might mean joining a channel to discuss hobbies or other interests outside of work.

At Autodesk, Martin notes, the company’s #help channel has become an unexpected catalyst for building community. The channel contains FAQs that people in a variety of roles often need to reference. “We point people to #help, where they can find answers on their own rather than relying solely on an administrator,” he says.

Often, colleagues will direct one another to the FAQs without ever involving a member of the firm’s management team. “We’ve worked to build a community that’s self-sustaining,” Martin says. “That is one great sign of success, when we see individuals trying to help themselves. It demonstrates how they have internalized our workplace culture of support as well as self-sufficiency.”

Open communication offers everyone advantages, particularly because most workers won’t do the same job indefinitely. “We’re no longer in a world where you’re going to specialize in one thing forever,” Martin says. “To have a long and prosperous career, you need to continually learn, grow, and interact effectively with a wide variety of people.”

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