Making the dream work: How to improve collaborative outcomes with co-workers

In a perfect world, we’d all work alongside our best friends on projects we’re passionate about. Of course, reality is rarely perfect. Chances are, there will be at least a few people on your immediate team, around the office, or running the entire organization that you wouldn’t want to go out with on a Friday night. That’s OK. Not every co-worker has to be your friend, or even like you for that matter.

That being said, when inter-office relations turn sour and actively hostile, it can become a problem. Consider one relevant piece of research published in the scientific journal Academy of Management Discoveries that examined relationships among pairs of medical surgeons. There is no room for error on the operating table, but incredibly, the study found positive emotions amongst surgical teams played little role in determining surgical performances. The only factor that showed true influence? Tension. Less animosity among surgeons was associated with better surgical outcomes.

There are endless reasons why a welcoming office on Tuesday can feel like a passive-aggressive minefield by Friday afternoon. Many middle managers actively encourage competition among their workers, but this approach to leadership can backfire. Rivalries are known to turn friends to foes quickly, and collaboration is much more conducive to a productive workplace than competition. Alternatively, employees may grow resentful or bitter after being passed over for a promotion or opportunity, and take out their frustrations on co-workers that had nothing to do with that decision.

No one ever said teamwork is easy, but there are a number of innovative strategies that employers and employees alike can utilize in pursuit of a more productive, cooperative working environment.

Play video games

Despite being synonymous with adolescence and laziness in the minds of many, research tells us that video games can actually foster improved productivity in the workplace. A little bit of Mario or Zelda can serve as a great team-building exercise among newly formed pairings and groups. A study published in AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction found that after playing video games together for less than one hour (45 minutes), employee groups saw their productivity surge by 20%.

Express gratitude 

Turns out your grandma was right. A simple “thank you” can make a world of difference. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2022 found that when co-workers take just one to two minutes before a stressful, high pressure task to thank their teammates for their efforts, it actually results in a healthier cardiovascular response to the task at hand. This healthier physiological response to stress promotes better concentration, improved confidence, and ultimately, peak team performances. 

Avoid flashy clothes

Everyone enjoys dressing up from time to time, but it may be advisable to leave the luxury brands at home most workdays. While many believe expensive clothes and accessories project a certain sense of importance and intelligence, wearing too much Gucci around the office could lead to many co-workers seeing you as a snob. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports people are much more hesitant to collaborate with others who constantly show off a “luxury lifestyle” (designer clothes, bragging about first-class airfare, etc).

Brew up a fresh pot of coffee

Complex problems often come with the simplest solutions. If Monday morning has the entire office looking bleary eyed and feeling lethargic, brew up a fresh pot of coffee for you and your team. Research conducted at Ohio State and published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology tells us that when caffeine is consumed prior to a collaborative task, project, or test, team members rate both the overall group’s performance more positively – as well as their own individual contributions. Drinking caffeinated coffee before getting started was also associated with talking more during a team project, as well as improved focus and attention.

Share your experiences

It’s common to perceive another person one way from afar and then have that perception thrown on its head upon actually speaking with the individual. Even if you’ve already decided you dislike a certain co-worker or group of employees, consider sharing some of your past professional experiences with them the next time you find yourself collaborating. You may be surprised by how much you have in common. 
There’s no work environment more stressful (or important) than hospitals and other medical offices. One piece of research conducted in the United Kingdom found that when healthcare staff (both clinical & non-clinical) take the time to share their workplace experiences and the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis, it leads to more empathy and understanding among colleagues as well as superior collaborative efforts.