What makes collaboration click?

We’ve all been there before, staring blankly into the Zoom squares of a team retro. Someone asks if anyone has anything to add; the Zoom is silent.

Something feels off. Everyone leaves the meeting, and dives back into their work and digital “collaboration” tools, feeling as if something tangible has been lost.

Why does working together feel so hard? Even with clear goals, expertly articulated roadmaps—even collaborative digital spaces where we can “be together”—it often feels like we’re missing each other. What’s wrong with this dynamic? And how can we fix it?

When we say we are “collaborating,” what we actually mean is we’re performing a variety of synchronous and asynchronous acts that are in tension and harmony with each other. We wanted to better understand what it takes for people and teams to collaborate well—to identify gaps and empower people to improve their experience—so we did some research.

The Research

Diary Study

50+ designers, PMs, engineers, researchers, and writers told us something they did with another member of their team, every day for 5 days.

Diary Study

How do you collaborate?

50+ designers, PMs, engineers, researchers, and writers told us something they did with another member of their team, every day for 5 days.

Survey

When does it work?

100+ cross-functional teams rated how strongly these activities and attributes described their team.

Interviews

What does it feel like?

20 cross-functional teams—with a range of success scores—described what it feels like when things work, when they don’t, and why.

All the ways we collaborate

People consider a lot of different activities to be forms of “collaboration.” Including, but not limited to, work that’s carefully divided, giving everybody a role to play—for example, contributing asynchronously to a massive user journey diagram in a digital whiteboard tool. It can also be very freeform—for example, coordinating in real time to troubleshoot or file a bug via Slack or Zoom. It can be very high-stakes—for example, meticulously planning a kick-off workshop for an important company priority. It can also be super mundane, like reconciling a comment in a document or design file.

In order for work to be collaborative, the process or outcomes need to be shared. But different roles may think about their collaborative responsibilities in totally different ways, and the potential for failure is high. Without a more precise way to talk about the stuff that makes it work, “collaboration” will go the way of many corporate buzzwords—something we say we do without meaningful consideration for the rituals and behaviors that make it successful.

Some of the (many) things people do when they collaborate:

  • Give feedback that supports iteration
  • Recognize standout skills and expertise
  • Make good use of synchronous meeting time
  • Troubleshoot issues in real time
  • Generate divergent ideas through brainstorming
  • Clarify who makes decisions
  • Reflect on what’s working and make adjustments
  • Respond to ad-hoc messages
Different roles may think about their collaborative responsibilities in totally different ways, and the potential for failure is high.

“It’s complicated” is the default when it comes to working relationships today. Consider what you and your team are up against, and why making it better matters

What works for some, doesn’t work for everyone.

Some people think documentation is a waste of time; others want clear reference material. Some people want constant communication; others want upfront alignment and more independent work time.

The ROI can feel ambiguous—for teams and for the individual.

Collaboration isn’t cheap. When it’s broken, it feels like a huge waste of time. But many of us have also had the rush of 1 + 1 = 3 energy that you get when a team is really working well together.

The work is getting more complex, roles are more and more specialized.

Building apps and other software is complex work; it requires balancing trade-offs between shipping quickly and delivering high-quality results—all of which requires coordination and interdependence.

Being apart makes connecting harder.

Old ways of working together and connecting aren’t available to many teams anymore. The world isn’t going back to the in-office model we used to know. We need to make remote work, work.

Does good collaboration actually make better products?

We wanted to understand not just what collaborative activities people were doing, but which ones led to better product outcomes.

So we fielded a survey that asked teams to rate how well these activities described their teams and to rate the quality of the products they were building. We measured “great products” with 7 different questions, like meeting customer needs, being innovative, well-crafted, etc. Our analysis looks for the collaboration behaviors that predict better products.

We found five statistically significant behaviors:

Behaviors

1

Simultaneously working in the same file while bouncing ideas back and forth

1

Co-creation

Simultaneously working in the same file while bouncing ideas back and forth

2

Rapport

Building a sense of camaraderie, knowing one another beyond the work

3

Role clarity

Understanding who needs to be involved in making decisions

4

Feedback

Comments and discussion on design work that supports iteration

5

Reflection

Time to discuss what is and isn’t working and make adjustments

To further quantify the impact of the collaborative activities, we compared them to important organizational factors, like good planning, goal setting, and shared success criteria like KPIs. What we found was that the collaborative behaviors were just as important.

To wrap our heads around the relative size of the impact, we normalized the “great products” score into a scale. The way to think about this: a work group engaging in all of the team-level behaviors would score 25% higher than a team that did none of them.

These relatively simple collaborative practices lead to better products:

Factor
Survey Item
Impact

Factor

Organization

Survey Item

Our team has the right success criteria (e.g., metrics or KPIs)

Impact

+6.4%

Factor

Team

Survey Item

Our design process involves team members simultaneously working on and editing the same thing while bouncing ideas back and forth

Impact

+5.7%

Factor

Organization

Survey Item

The leaders of my organization set clear goals

Impact

+5.3%

Factor

Team

Survey Item

Our team has a sense of camaraderie (e.g., we know about each others’ lives outside of work)

Impact

+5%

Factor

Team

Survey Item

Our team has a clear understanding of who needs to be involved in making decisions

Impact

+4.9%

Factor

Team

Survey Item

Our team shares lots of useful feedback on our designs that helps us iterate

Impact

+4.7%

Factor

Team

Survey Item

Our team takes time to reflect on what is and isn’t working well and adjusts

Impact

+4.2%

Factor

Organization

Survey Item

Our team’s projects are given enough time to be successful

Impact

+3.9%

Vibe checks & balances

It’s not just one thing that makes work, work. Collaborating well takes practice, repetition, and reflection.

After following up with teams that had the highest product scores (i.e. teams were doing all the significant collaboration activities), it became clear that, in addition to participating in the five key activities, they also had a habit of reinforcing each activity throughout their process. So while it’s true that decision clarity or frequent feedback can have a measurable impact, those things in combination and in tension created a truly virtuous collaboration cycle. As you improve one, the others become easier and more impactful. But what does this look like in practice?

CO-CREATE: Make time to edit at the same time
ROLE CLARITY: Know who needs to be involved
RAPPORT: Know your team as humans
FEEDBACK: Make time for others to weigh in
REFLECT: Make time to adapt

Take role clarity, for example. Reinforcing the boundaries around different responsibilities can help smooth out synchronous co-editing time, which in turn strengthens a sense of rapport between team members. The same is true for feedback: By giving teammates the space and time to react and respond, you’ll naturally cultivate a reflective, constructive workspace where people are comfortable talking about what’s working and what's not. Each of these practices feed into and amplify each other, which is what makes the cycle of co-creation, feedback, reflection, role clarity, and rapport so vital. Here are some tips on how to nurture a collaborative system that is more than the sum of its parts.

Start small

Co-creation is rarely a large group activity. More often, co-editing sessions happen on successful teams with close collaborators with a lot of context. These sessions work, because collaborators can show one another what they mean instead of sifting through endless comment threads.

Know Your Role

The most successful teams understand who makes the final call. They’re leveraging the context and skills of others on the team to get “unstuck.” They’re not opening up every decision to a vote. When you have this clarity, a co-editing session isn’t a committee meeting. Each individual still has their part to play.

Start with camaraderie

If your team doesn’t have a basic level of camaraderie, start there. Simple warm-up or icebreaker exercises can humanize teammates, get everyone laughing, and create good vibes for your reflection time.

Allow for prep time

Give people a heads-up, so they can collect their thoughts privately before sharing. When people are comfortable being real, this openness and authenticity increases the team’s camaraderie, which then supports the effectiveness of future reflection moments.

Be Clear

Use reflection activities to have explicit conversations about the other important collaboration activities. Talk about how the team’s feedback approaches have (or haven’t) led to useful iterations or even breakthroughs.

Want to learn more?

Thousands of teams make collaboration click with FigJam, our online whiteboard for creative teams.

Learn more

Appendix

Diary study method

  • First, we conducted a diary study with 50+ product managers, designers, researchers, writers, and data scientists. Some participants used Figma and some did not.
  • To define “collaboration,” we asked participants to tell us about something they did with a cross-functional partner, every day for 5 days. To unpack “success,” we asked people to tell us a story about a successful and an unsuccessful project.
  • We interviewed 12 participants to get feedback on our list of collaborative behaviors.

Survey method

  • Then, we conducted a survey, completed by 100+ teams (324 people total). Participants included a range of cross-functional roles; they were using a range of tools, and are located around the world.
  • In the survey, participants rated how strongly the collaborative behaviors described their teams and how successful their team was at building great products.
  • In our analysis, we controlled for geography, role, work style, tenure, and primary design tool.
  • We interviewed 20 participating teams to get more detail on the most impactful collaborative behaviors.

How we assessed team behavior

We asked survey participants, “How well (or how poorly) do each of these describe your product development team?” on a 7-point scale:

  • We engage in activities that get everyone on the same page about our team’s goals
  • Our team produces many different ideas through brainstorming (or similar activities)
  • The members of our team are responsive to messages/emails/comments
  • Our team often edits different pieces of a larger design independently, working in parallel
  • Our team has a clear understanding of who needs to be involved in making decisions
  • Our team takes time to reflect on what is and isn’t working well and adjusts accordingly
  • And a dozen other behaviors…

How we measured great products

We asked survey participants, “How well do these statements describe the results of your team’s projects?” on a 7-point scale:

  • We’re able to solve really complex design problems
  • The user experiences we build clearly meet customer needs
  • The things we build are consistently well-crafted
  • Our design solutions address the needs of a wide range of users
  • Our projects have been effective in driving important metrics or KPIs
  • The things we build feel innovative

Acknowledgments

This research effort was led by Cristen Torrey and the Figma Research team. The diary phase of this research was conducted on the dscout platform in collaboration with the dscout research team. The survey phase of this research was conducted in collaboration with The Value Engineers. This report was written by Cristen Torrey and Amber Bravo.