I’ve been fascinated by a recent online debate taking place between the CIPD and the British Institute of Facilities Management about what makes for a great workplace.

‘The workplace conversation’ comes from the premise that the three main parties involved in creating the optimum workplace – HR, IT and Facilities Management – often tend to work in their own silos and rarely collaborate.

As part of the joint initiative, practitioners from all disciplines have been challenged to come up with innovative ideas for creating next generation workplaces that inspire engagement and productivity.

There have been some interesting suggestions, ranging from a new degree level qualification in workplace productivity, the use of gamification to engage employees and creation of a workplace wiki.

One of the key themes to emerge, however, has been around communities and how bringing people together – both physically and virtually – can help to create a sense of ‘belonging’, and build the trust that underpins great performance.

So whether your business is large or small, how can you create happy and healthy workplace communities that allow people to do their very best work?

Exploit technology

Technology that enables people to collaborate across disciplines and work anytime/anyplace is now widely available and accessible to even the smallest of businesses. Many HR software systems, for example, now come with internal social portals which encourage internal networking, facilitate cross-functional working, and make it easy for people to access information and get quick answers to questions. However, recent research from Unify UK suggests that employees are regularly frustrated because either the technology they have doesn’t work properly or they are denied access. The top bugbears include email downtime, not being able to log-in remotely, and not having access to files. If companies want their people to be productive, they need to keep up to speed with changes in the way people work, and provide the technological tools to support them. A people management software can help with this. More than three quarters of respondents to the Unify survey said collaboration technology was fundamental to the way they work with clients and colleagues, with 62 per cent predicting the need for these tools would increase significantly over the next two years.

Involve employees in creating communities

Workplace communities work best when employees are actively involved in shaping them. It’s vital to get staff involved from day one so that the business fully understands how people want to communicate, what tools would help them do their job more effectively, and what gets in the way of collaboration and productivity. Focus groups which bring together representatives from across the business are a great way to make sure you understand what will really make or break a great workplace community. Identifying internal champions who will encourage colleagues to get involved is also a good way of getting any kind of internal social platform off to a good start. Look for the people you know will be early adopters and get them involved right at the start.

Consider the culture

It’s important to recognise that any internal social platform will reflect the culture of the business. If you have a very open transparent culture where people are encouraged to speak up and offer new insights, they will feel comfortable about voicing opinions and engaging in debate. If the predominant culture is authoritarian and bureaucratic, employees are less likely to engage with attempts to create a new workplace community for fear they will get rebuffed or ignored if they speak out or try to get involved in areas that don’t directly concern them. Giving people an open platform can feel scary for the business, but the truth is that if you trust people to use internal social media sensibly, the vast majority of them will. If open debate hasn’t been the status quo, managers need to lead by example, making it clear it is ‘safe’ for employees to have a voice, actively encouraging their team members to take an active role.

Stimulate collaboration

One of the great things about internal social portals is the opportunity they provide for people from across the business to work together. Breaking down departmental silos and actively encouraging people to get involved in projects outside of their normal scope is a great way to drive innovation and creativity. It helps the business generate new insights, and allows people to make connections with others who can actively help them achieve their goals. It can take time for people to feel comfortable about ‘sticking their nose’ into areas that wouldn’t normally concern them. Identifying some cross-functional projects early on and nudging people to take part can be a good way to build trust and engagement and get an internal community off the ground.

Nurture the community

There’s a tendency for organisations to launch internal communities with a big splash – and expect that everyone will enthusiastically take part. The truth is that internal communities need to be nurtured. Employees need regular reminders – both formally and informally – about how they can use collaboration tools and why these will make their job easier. It’s also important to recognise that in a multi-generational workforce, not everyone will be comfortable with using technology. Make sure you provide training and support where necessary in the early stages, so that the community becomes inclusive and ‘technophobes’ don’t get left out. Don’t overlook the need for face-to-face communication to continue too. Think about whether work-spaces are organised in a way that encourages people to talk to each other and make sure you supplement online communication with plenty of opportunities for people to also engage face-to-face.

One action to take this week: When was the last time HR, IT and facilities people sat down together in your business? Get everyone together for a coffee to talk about how you might work better together.

You may be interested in reading: five ways to encourage digital collaboration in your business.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.