Over the years, I’ve worked for a number of companies that discouraged, and even forbade, the inter-mingling of departments. Inter-mingling… It sounds so naughty. These companies were guided by incredibly rigid departmental silos. If you worked in customer service, you had no knowledge or access to anything that was happening in the product development department. Part of the finance department? Don’t even think about connecting with a colleague in human resources to consider a problem from different sides.
In one company that I worked for, I was in a particularly high-paced department. I was really overloaded. One afternoon, someone from another department offered to help out. Her boss was out of town and she was bored. Even so, she had to hide what she was doing for me, because working for another department was not allowed. Rather than being rewarded for helping out her colleague, she had to worry about getting caught and being penalized for her efforts. How does this make sense?
After too many years of working in inflexible corporate structures, I am so happy that I now work in an environment that actually promotes the sharing of tasks and projects. Man, have I been missing out.
At Jonar, we don’t just allow people to cross the departmental lines, we actively encourage it! We check in regularly with all our team members and ask them to think outside the confines of their job descriptions. What else would they like to be doing? What other department interests them? What ideas might they have for a new or existing project? This is where you really get to know the people you have been working with every day. You find out about their hidden talents or dreams. This is also when you can start to cultivate a genuinely happy employee.
So, what are the other benefits?
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we are doing, we end up working in a bubble. And sometimes, we tell ourselves that our work is more important than anyone else’s. On the other hand, working in silos can result in a “grass is always greener” attitude. Your staff may start to think that the other guys are having more fun and that can be incredibly de-motivating. But, when you break down the walls between departments, you also knock down all of these negative assumptions.
When you are forced to work within your own department, you can stagnate, because you are not hearing new ideas from outside people. When you start to share projects and tasks, the ideas flow, the brainstorming heats up, and guess what? Everyone starts to have more fun. Work becomes more interesting.
We have seen countless times that when people are empowered to share their knowledge and experience, great things can happen. Employees want to feel empowered to help others, to teach and to learn about their own abilities and potential. If something works for one department, why shouldn’t they share that knowledge with everyone else?
During our weekly staff meetings, in addition to sharing highlights from what each department is working on, team members are invited to present on a topic of interest. The topics rarely reflect their specific work experience. We’ve had a software engineer who talked about the parallels between military and business strategy, a graphic designer who presented on urban planning and a customer service rep who shared insights on effective listening. These meetings give each team member the opportunity to talk about topics they are particularly passionate about while sharing valuable knowledge with their colleagues.
Destroying departmental silos also means people are given the opportunity to explore new avenues. Maybe you have a budding artist who has been writing code all her professional life, but should really be designing. Maybe you have a bookkeeper who is great at creative writing and has marketing potential. How will you know if you don’t let everyone stick their toes in all the pools?
Encouraging inter-departmental cooperation and teamwork leads to a better overall culture. Everyone pitches in to help everyone else. People feel valued when they can make a real impact for their colleagues. Plus, there is no more uncertainty about what is behind curtain number two. The curtain is open and everyone knows.
When I look back at the way I used to work…the times I was curious about what my colleagues were working on… the times I wanted to help someone who was obviously stressed… the times I just wanted to try something new….It was really hard to toe the line and follow the rules. I was not a happy camper. But now I know there is a better way to work. Sharing workloads and information and skills has never harmed a company. It’s a good thing. I promise.