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How to Break Down Silos at Work

February 26, 2021
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Every organization has its internal groups. Sometimes they’re hierarchical (management and staff, leadership and subordinates); sometimes they’re functional (operations, marketing, legal). It’s natural, it’s efficient — and it can also hamstring your firm.

A rigidly siloed workplace can be a place where different teams working on scattered projects aren’t coordinating their efforts, or worse, one where they’re working at cross-purposes. (After all, if the marketing group’s top priority is to publicize a new launch while the budget team is tasked with cutting expenses, conflict is all but assured.)

“[Silos] can harm a company in numerous ways — including the workforce being less productive and having no teamwork, poor communication, and lower morale,” cautioned Michael Doolin, Managing Director for UK-based HR consultancy firm Clover HR.

The good news is that Human Resources is uniquely suited to dismantle silos in the workplace and get the entire company working together. Here, workplace experts share their strategies for breaking down barriers.

1. Solidify the mission.

To get the whole firm working in concert, it helps to start at the end: What are the organization’s goals this quarter? This year? Overall? And why?

“The best way to eliminate silos across your company is to make sure everybody's working toward the same goal,” said Ian Sells, founder and CEO of online cashback and rebate shopping site RebateKey. “If you don't keep your overarching company vision at the top of your team leaders’ and employees’ minds, departmental interest will start to take over.”

Ensuring that the company’s strategic and operational priorities — not just for the long-term but immediately, and in the short- and middle- terms, too — are not only clear but clearly communicated to all departments can go a long way in bringing teams together. 

“The most important action the HR team can [take] to help break down silos is to partner with the senior leadership team to ensure that there is a shared vision throughout the organization, with clear goals and transparency in communication to employees,” stressed Melodie Bond-Hillman, PhD, Director of HR and Administration for cybersecurity solutions firm XYPRO Technology Corp.

2. Cross-train your teams.

There’s no substitute for firsthand experience, and for firms looking to increase cooperation and transparency across departments, giving staff an inside look at other aspects of the business through cross-training can be a game changer.

Cross-training, the process of teaching employees company-critical skills and processes outside their normal job responsibilities, can be done any number of ways: by having employees sit in on other departments’ meetings (inviting the legal team to join a creative pitch meeting, for example), through trainings for the company as a whole (such as teaching everyone how to add a new customer to the company database), or through job rotations.

As an example, Samantha Roberts, a New York-based learning and organizational development specialist, said she’s seen companies use mentoring programs that create a company-wide cohort and pair employees from different areas to great effect.

“Mentees find common ground with each other and with their out-of-area mentors, despite their different work environments, and you see them have a kind of ‘Aha!’ moment,” Roberts said.

Cross-training teams isn’t just good for breaking down barriers; it can be a long-term investment in your retention strategy, too.

“By cross-training, employees become aware of what others do and how vital each other’s roles are,” Doolin noted. “Cross-training can also [boost] career development as employees can get a taste for other areas of the business that they may have an interest in working in, and can get a better understanding of the company’s strategy.”

It can be so critical that Diane Gayeski, PhD, Professor of Strategic Communications at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications and Principal of consulting firm Gayeski Analytics, even suggests starting the process of [cross-functional] collaboration with new hires by bringing members of other departments into search committee assignments. This gives new recruits deeper insights into the company’s functioning as whole — and can be revelatory for the company insiders, too.

“Search committees are generally pleasant assignments — it’s always fun to hire somebody — and the kinds of discussions that happen provide a lot of insight into a department for the outside members and [into outside areas for the department],” said Gayeski.

3. Share physical space.

Another basic solution with anything-but-basic results: Getting people together — in person, when it’s safe.

This could mean putting different teams on the same project and having them work in concert — in person when possible and over Zoom in the meantime — on a longer-range effort.

Team-building days are great, but a stronger idea is to work with team leaders in order to build actual, tangible crossover work where teams become more used to working as a unit rather than separately,” said Ethan Taub, CEO of financial and credit online resource Creditry.

It could even mean rethinking the floorplan. “The layout of the physical office space should be considered when trying to tear down silos to ensure the functional workspace supports a cross-collaborative and open environment,” Bond-Hillman said.

Whether that’s plenty of conference room space, a design that seats different departments in close proximity, or an expansive break area (the watercooler got its reputation for a reason), thinking of ways to get people moving and circulating can have a big impact.

4. Get talking. 

Facilitating communication between departments can be one of HR’s biggest tools for creating a more collaborative workplace.

“Establish easy and accessible ways for teams to communicate with each other,” advised Jenna Saponaro, Chief of Staff at Columbus, OH-based legal marketing agency Postali. “Setting up a meeting or sending an email may feel disruptive to team members, so HR can use a messaging platform to facilitate conversations across teams.”

For instance, Saponaro’s firm created client-specific Slack channels to encourage people across different departments to pool information. “As a result,” she said, “everyone now has a more holistic view of the work we’re doing and feels more inclined to share important tidbits with other teammates.”

Setting up Slack channels, hosting talks and trainings, and facilitating company events that bring different areas together to discuss the business can make a difference, according to Simon Elkjær, Chief Marketing Officer at Danish electronics site avXperten.

“What companies need to realize is that the only way one can beat a siloed mentality is through constant communication, no matter how small it may be,” Elkjær said. 

5. Have fun together.

But even in our work lives, the best way to unite people who work together is to play together.

It’s a fact that the pandemic has had a harsh impact on everyone, [and] the absence of interaction between [team] members can prove costly for your company,” Sells noted.

“It’s important to realize that the office is the place to coexist cohesively and contribute to shared goals, and honestly, that’s not possible without having a bond with each other.”

Social gatherings, lunches, and happy hours give teammates of all kinds a place to strengthen their bonds, said Sells. “During events, they step out of their departmental identity and it makes it easier [for them] to open up and interact.”

Just make sure your events bring all the different groups together instead of reinforcing the divisions, advised Kevin Miller, cofounder and CEO of digital marketing firm GR0

“Especially at large companies, departments sometimes separate into different ‘cliques’ socially, which affects how they may collaborate with other teams when it comes to their jobs,” Miller said. “Once different teams and departments have a chance to form bonds and relationships with each other, it will feel more natural to collaborate and work together to achieve common goals on the job.

“This is a great strategy because you avoid any chance of cross-departmental collaboration feeling forced by higher-ups,” he continued. “Instead, it will mostly be instigated by the employees themselves.”

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Workplace silos don’t happen in a vacuum. Sometimes they’re the byproduct of design, but it’s also how we’re wired.

“It’s human nature to form groups. The smaller the groups, the more comfortable you feel in them,” said Phil Strazzulla, founder and CEO of HR and recruiting software review site SelectSoftware Reviews. “[Employees] know and are comfortable with the members of their unit. Unless they absolutely have to, they won't leave it.”

The good news is, Human Resources has the tools to bring people together — and keep them working that way.

“HR services all silos, [and we] understand what each function does and the operating model of how they do it,” said Keri Higgins-Bigelow, founder and CEO of Human Resources consulting firm livingHR . “We’re in the unique position to create a better working experience for each functional team when we listen.”

Breaking down silos isn’t always easy, and it can go against the grain. But interdepartmental connectedness, communication, and collaboration make getting everyone’s efforts aligned that much easier — and the day-to-day business of working together that much more rewarding.