When people think about learning, they tend to picture a classic academic setting – a classroom filled with students. And in academia, every student is a solo act. Sure, there are occasional group projects, but for the most part, every one is focused on their learning, not the person’s next to them.
But in the modern workplace, it’s different. Most workers can’t do their job alone. Team collaboration or team-wide goals require employees to work together to get the desired results. And workplace learning should reflect this reality.
Luckily, research suggests there’s a way for workplace learning to increase and improve collaboration. And it’s simpler than you think: Have learners learn and practice new skills together.
Researchers at Stanford University conducted a series of studies to see how “synchronous activity” – performing activities together – affect people’s attitudes toward collaboration.
In one study, the researchers divided participants into two groups. In Group One – the synchronous group – they were asked to sing the Canadian national anthem together. For Group Two, they simply listened to the anthem on headphones at different times.
Next, both groups were respectively asked to engage in a “betting” exercise commonly used to measure group productivity and trust. The closer a group’s “bets” are to each other’s, the more money the group will be rewarded. Crucially, the group members could not speak to each other, so there was no way to strategize or discuss the exercise.
The study found that Group One – the group that simply sang together first – significantly outperformed the second group. Most importantly for the exercise, they earned 14% more money. But that’s not all. They also expressed greater feelings of being on the same team and trusted their teammates more than the members of Group Two.
Through the researchers’ series of studies, they showed that participants didn’t have to feel good about the group, or enjoy the activity, in order to be more cooperative. In fact, the results suggest that just performing an activity together seems to strengthen social attachment among the group members.
Applied to workplace learning, this research suggests there are real benefits for conducting group learning sessions beyond learning goals. Here are some suggestions for how to apply the research in your organization.
Have teams learn together. According to the research, engaging in the same activity at the same time enhances teammates’ social connections, and these social connections build trust and a greater sense of teamwork.
Conduct group practice sessions. Gathering learners into the same room is the first step. But having them engage in group exercises together will take full advantage of the power of synchronous activity.
Consider conducting role-plays, group discussions and practice sessions that ask learners to engage in an activity together. They will not only improve their skills but also strengthen their social bonds, leading to stronger collaboration.
Allow time for teammates to socialize. Provide opportunities for learners to engage in activities outside of the traditional work environment. For example, after a group learning session, consider getting coffee together or bringing in a snack for everyone. Studies have shown that these small social activities provide more benefit for a collaborative culture than you might think.
Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1-5.
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