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Breaking down silos and building team cohesion

Future of work
Team photo from Montreux, Switzerland

Ever wondered why some companies seem stuck in a rut, unable to innovate or move forward? It could be 'silo working'.

It's something that is adopted, often without discussion, following a few leadership decisions that create the perfect environment for it to thrive.

Your company could be working in silos right now and you might not be fully aware of it.

If your team are reluctant to share information with other departments, isn't working with anyone outside of their team and you've heard the phrase "that's not my job", you are likely working in silos.

It's a barrier that blocks collaboration and efficiency and can limit growth for individuals, departments and the organisation. It's something that needs to be recognised and solved for the health of everyone involved.

We break down exactly what causes it and methods for how to get back to a cohesive and collaborative team.

What is Silo Working

Definition and key traits

Silo working

Silo working is an organisational structure where each team works independently, without communication or collaboration with other departments.

This mindset of working independently hampers the overall flow of information across the organisation. It also impacts team cohesion and can leave you with a disconnected and unhappy workforce.

Key traits that characterise silo working :

  1. Independence: In a silo working structure, departments work as standalone entities, each having distinct goals, processes, and workflow.
  2. Limited communication: Communication between departments is kept at a bare minimum. Information is shared only when absolutely necessary.
  3. Isolated problem solving: Problems and challenges are also resolved in isolation. Departments do not generally seek input or assistance from other units.

All of these traits can cause inefficiencies in the wider business as each department has to figure things out on its own. This is a drain on time and resources as information is not readily available when needed.

When teams are forced to solve problems on their own they can become protective of their findings which can create a sense of unhealthy competition across departments. All things to avoid if you want a healthy work culture.

Origins and development of silos in organisations

Silos were initially developed within hierarchical organisational structures where departments were created with specified functions and roles.

Over time, these departments developed their own objectives, work cultures and ways of doing things. They essentially created their own mini-organisations within their team.

This can occur due to a few factors:

Overemphasis on specialisation

Departments concentrate on their niche areas, creating a barrier with others due to a different focus. Without realising it, teams can also create a communication barrier between them and the rest of the business. Because of their specialisation, the team focuses inward and develops its own way of communicating and sharing information.

When an employee from the wider business needs something, they're usually falling at the first hurdle as they don't know the best ways to communicate with the team to get what they need. This isolates the team even more and it becomes a vicious circle.

Leadership style

A leadership style that does not encourage cross-departmental interaction can create silos. Independent work is encouraged but should be included alongside collaboration. Often an independent leader will only know how to lead a team independently.

This can be more common in teams where collaboration is limited anyway due to the team's focus. For example, in teams where a full process is handled by one person, opportunities for collaboration are already limited and silo working seems natural unless recognised and remedied. This is even more present in remote workers.

Organisational structure

A hierarchical organisational structure is a common drive behind the creation of silos.

As opposed to a more collaborative leadership style, such as participative leadership, a hierarchical structure is more likely to lead to silo working. When a structure separates managers and leaders, it's no wonder that silo working follows.

Negative impacts of silo working on productivity

From what we've discussed so far, it's not difficult to see that silo working can have negative effects on a company.

Here are some of the top dangers of silo working:

  • Lack of innovation: Operating in silos curbs the natural flow of ideas across departments, which results in a stagnation of creativity and innovation. Your graphic designers, for instance, may miss out on valuable insights from your marketing team and vice versa, if there is limited information sharing. This then restricts the development of unique and effective campaigns and creates more work for each department.
  • Decreased efficiency: If departments are not able to easily access the information they need, they are forced to spend additional time trying to find it. For example, the procurement department may keep piling up a certain product, unaware that the sales department is struggling to sell it which leads to inefficiencies and wastage of resources.
  • Employee dissatisfaction: The work environment tends to be less inspiring for employees when there is a lack of camaraderie and team spirit. As a result, employee morale dips, leading to higher attrition rates, which poses additional challenges to the entire organisation. If you want to learn more about attrition rates and how to improve yours, you can read more about that here.
  • Information bottlenecks: Silo mentality increases the challenge of information hoarding, where vital information stays locked within a specific team. As a consequence, the data or insights required to complete a task often reach the concerned team late or donโ€™t make it at all. Information ends up getting stuck in a bottleneck and doesn't allow for the smooth flow of operations.
  • Weak interdepartmental relationships: Lack of communication can alienate departments from each other, which can create a sense of 'guest and host' within the organisation. This separation can cause potential friction, redundant efforts and mistakes due to miscommunication.
  • Delayed decision-making: In a silo working environment, leaders may struggle to make informed decisions promptly, as they don't have a full overview of work being completed in the business. This causes the business to slow down and can compromise their standards against their competitors.

By rooting out silo mentality, businesses can begin to work towards better interdepartmental relationships, efficient operations, and a more cohesive, positive working environment. This requires serious effort but can be transformational if done correctly.

Is there a right time and place for silo working?

While we've shared the drawbacks of silo working, there are some situations where it can actually be beneficial.

There are times when silo working, or working in separate departments or teams without much cross-collaboration, can be beneficial to a business.

For example, when a project requires highly specialised skills or expertise that only a specific team has, silo working can allow them to focus and complete their tasks without distractions from other departments.

Additionally, during times of rapid change or crisis, having clear boundaries between teams can help in quick decision-making and problem-solving without getting bogged down by unnecessary coordination.

The key to effective silo working is the time spent in that environment. If you want to implement it, set a time limit for how long you want your team or department to be in that work style. When that time is up, have a plan to get back to a collaborative environment so silo working doesn't become the norm.

Comparing silo and collaborative work environments

Switching from a silo work style to a collaborative one isn't just about breaking down the barriers between teams; it's about developing a new way of thinking about and approaching tasks.

Benefits of a collaborative workspace

The collaborative workspace model has many benefits for companies looking to enhance communication, boost innovation, and increase overall productivity by enhancing the sharing of knowledge and skills.

With barriers down, colleagues can bounce ideas off each other and work collaboratively. For example, a marketing team can better understand the products they're promoting by collaborating with the production department. This cross-department collaboration promotes a comprehensive product representation, whilst also giving opportunities to team members to work together on a shared goal.

A collaborative workspace can help to reduce the repetition of efforts and streamline workflows. Consider two teams working on similar projects in a silo environment, there would undoubtedly be duplication of efforts, which if done together would have saved time and resources.

Collaborative workspaces create a sense of community and a corporate culture that inspires. As we've mentioned, by having a positive work culture, teams feel more connected, absenteeism is reduced and attrition rates are improved. Not to mention productivity increases due to a happy and healthy workforce.

Pitfalls of consistently working in silos

Consistently working in silos can begin to promote an 'us and them' mentality within departments. A lack of collaboration between the sales and customer service teams, for example, may result in a poor customer experience.

Silos also cause a lack of information sharing, causing a significant delay in decision-making processes. For example, a finance department not sharing crucial financial data in real-time with the procurement team may result in ill-informed purchasing decisions.

A department working in a silo may become resistant to change and may lack an organisation-wide perspective, leading to challenges in achieving the company's overall goals. For instance, the IT department implementing software that might be technically sound, but user-inefficient for other departments. Without this feedback, the IT department may have spent a lot of the business's money on something that might not work for the whole organisation and would have been useless.

For organisations to thrive, it's important to strike a balance. As we've mentioned, silo working has its place in organisations, but a conscious shift towards a collaborative approach, backed by an understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of each, can provide significant performance boosts.

Strategies to dismantle silo mentalities

At this point, you'll likely have an idea of whether your company is working in silos or not. Recognising it is the first part of this process, the following tips are the next part: how to dismantle it.

Promoting open communication

Open communication is the foundation of a transparent and collaborative work environment. To promote this, organisations can adopt a culture of open dialogues, regular collaboration meetings, and open-door policies.

These actions will ensure that employees from different teams can freely air their thoughts, share their ideas, and contribute to joint initiatives. A strategy like implementing a simple, efficient communication protocol prevents misunderstandings and brings trust among groups of people.

Aligning goals across departments

Another key strategy is to align visions and objectives across various departments. Consider developing a unified vision, with clearly-outlined goals for every department which all tie into the overarching organisational objectives.

This approach gives workers a clearer understanding of the bigger picture and how their own work plays into the larger organisational goals. Success metrics and KPIs can also align with this unified vision, reinforcing collective success over individual achievements.

Implementing cross-functional teams

Having cross-functional teams is an efficient silo-busting strategy. Cross-functional teams include members from different departments, working together for a shared goal. Instead of having silos of specialist skills, cross-collaboration encourages knowledge sharing and gives works a chance to work with people outside of their department.

Using technology to enhance connectivity

In the age of remote work and digital workplaces, technology plays an integral role in dismantling silo mentalities. Online collaboration platforms and task management tools, for instance, can significantly enhance connectivity across an organisation.

These tools can facilitate smoother workflows, file sharing, and telecommunication, thus improving overall teamwork and productivity. If a process is made simple, it's more likely to be adopted by your team.

Encouraging team collaboration

We're not just talking about team collaboration in the office, but outside of it as well. Regular company retreats and team-building activities are a great way to build employee experiences and let organisations get to know each other better.

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This farmhouse in Devon is ideal for teams who are seeking connection and opportunities for collaboration.

Looking for something a little further afield, why not take your team to this mountain resort in Zermatt? What better way to work together than to experience skiing and snow sports together?

Conclusion

So, you've seen how silo working can limit your organisation's potential. It's not just about hampering efficiency and innovation but also about stifling open communication and collaboration. But it's not all doom and gloom. You've got the power to change the narrative.

By creating channels for open communication, aligning goals, promoting cross-functional teamwork and harnessing technology, you can dismantle these silos. It's about creating a transparent, collaborative culture that encourages innovation and teamwork.

Remember, breaking down silos isn't a one-time task. It's an ongoing process that requires commitment and effort from everyone in the organisation. If you start today, you can watch your organisation flourish as it becomes more connected, collaborative and innovative!

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