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How do you break down the barriers that exist between isolated departments?

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Question: "Last week a group of people our admin team has never worked with made a request of us, and from the reaction of a couple of my co-workers, you would have thought it came from space aliens. We just don't know what some of the departments in our company are really about because we barely interact, so when we do, sadly our first thought is, 'Who are these people to make this request of us?' As the team leader, I want to start making everyone familiar and comfortable with every department here, but how do I do that?" - Hanna, Administrative Supervisor

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Bennie February 27, 2015 at 12:04 pm

My company has allowed the CEO’s assistant to hold monthly assistant lunches. We all got together for maybe 90 mins and asked questions about policies, issues we were all having (copiers, Kronos, communication within our teams) and tried to find solutions. We also scheduled an exec or manager from different departments to come in and tell us what their teams were working on so that we could all stay informed. If you don’t work with a department you have no idea what they do or how you can help out each other. Another thing we did at these luncheons was sample different caterers or restaurants that deliver. This way if we needed to provide food at a meeting or event would could say, ‘hmmm, that place made great . . .’ whatever and order from them knowing better than just taking a gamble and an unknown provider.

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Sharon February 17, 2015 at 9:34 am

What great ideas! A few years ago, the place I worked at was against working with other groups at the office. A few of the admins had been there for over 20 years and developed severe prejudices against the other “offices”, so much so they refused to work with them and actually convinced the new people not to do so also. It made things very hard, and I ended up leaving partly because of it. I wish they had your ingenuity and suggestions-it would have made it a much better place to work.

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Kathy Moresi February 17, 2015 at 8:38 am

Piggy-backing on Celestine’s suggestion, we have schedule morning Coffee Chats (no more than 30 min). In our organization, each department has an assistant and we work as a Team and cover for each other. During these coffee chats, we rotate which assistant’s department is in the Spotlight, and invite folks from her team to come and ‘chat’ with us. This give everyone a chance to put names with faces. As an added incentive, we try to always have some sort of baked goodies. We aren’t that large of a workforce in the office, but it makes it easier to cover for each other when we know who is doing what for which department.

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Celestine Silverman February 13, 2015 at 9:52 am

Not sure how large your company is, but we have various departments that span several floors, and our administrative team hosts quarterly potluck lunches in our lunch room (i.e. Fall chili, winter taco fiesta, summer sundae afternoons) We have people sign up to bring in items, and whoever wants to come can come and enjoy the lunch hour and mingle. We always have a good turnout and people get to enjoy good food and good conversation. It is a great way to get to meet other people from different departments who we would not normally run into during the course of a day.

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Karen February 13, 2015 at 9:06 am

Hanna, I guess my first question would be if you know who these people are and what they do. In order to successfully contribute to the company, you should know the information first hand. Then you can conduct intros with the different team leads and the admins to break the ice. It can be very overwhelming for an admin to be taken through the building meeting a large group of people. I would slowly introduce and try to do it by vertical so the admin keep keep it all straight. To help mt admins, I created a small org chart with team leads, their phone extension, general location within the building and I did by vertical. Seems to go over well.
Good luck!

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Robyn February 13, 2015 at 8:54 am

Ask to speak at their next department meeting or have someone from their department speak at your next meeting. Its one of the best ways to forge those connections!

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Lola February 12, 2015 at 6:42 pm

In an environment with lots of silos, I found the simplest way of creating connectivity and relationship was to go visit the people who either needed my department’s help or the other way around. When I’d show up in their space, they were surprised about the time I took to come over. With some departments I’ve had to repeat the pattern over and over until they finally got used to me. Once I felt comfortable with that, I began to share general information and a once a week fun TGIF email with them. Now, if I don’t show up for awhile they want to know where I’m at. :-) They’ve even started coming over to my office. I also started an informal forum for the Executive Assistants and while we don’t get to meet all that often, this year the focus may be that we learn the ins and outs of their divisions – if we can get away from the work. We also started a Google Site just for the group to post anything they wanted to related to our jobs, and it’s growing. I have also joined another team that has begun meeting with various departments to learn about what they do and how it relates to contracts. That’s been quite an eye opener and it has smoothed the way to better conversations and fewer misunderstandings. None of this was mandated and no one was forced to do anything they weren’t comfortable with. Sometimes, it’s easier to glide in gently and to begin with just one person reaching out.

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Judy February 12, 2015 at 5:49 pm

A few years ago our company implemented what we call “employee swap”. Our executive Admin teams two people up from different departments and those two are requited to shadow each other’s job for 1/2 hour each.

This year we’ve taken it one step further and she created multiple “teams” of people from other departments (4 people each team) to meet a few times over the course of the year to get to know each other and to see what other departments do and the challenges they face.

It has been a very interesting experiment and a lot of good has come from it. We’ve developed friendships that we might not have before, but more importantly we’ve seen first-hand how our departments rely on one another to accomplish our goal.

Not everyone enjoys being forced to do this (& some do wiggle out of it) but has created a more unified workforce. It’s always interesting to see how other people’s roles contribute to the bottom line and creates some compassion and understanding between employees.

Just so you know, our company has around 250 employees so it’s quite an undertaking but we manage to do it!

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Jackie February 12, 2015 at 5:32 pm

Create a Q & A sheet and post it on the company’s intranet site.

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Sarah February 12, 2015 at 4:54 pm

We have what we call “Department Spotlights” in our organization. Each month, one department hosts a spotlight for about 45 minutes about what they do within the company. All employees are invited to attend. This is a great way to learn what other departments do and to learn how they fit into the organization.

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Anita February 12, 2015 at 4:33 pm

Hi Hannah, I get requests like this. I think it’s OK to occasionally help other departments and teach them who would be more appropriate to help them. Sometimes there is no gratitude but it comes down to helping the organization succeed. You can teach your staff by example by accepting the challenge with a positive attitude because they will be watching how you handle it. You can also be assured that word gets around, so it’s important to maintain a professional demeanor because your action may come up when you are being reviewed.

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Terron February 12, 2015 at 4:16 pm

I created a softball match between two departments as distant as you are mentioning with yours. It wasn’t a work-related match per se, but it allowed us to interact on a personal, casual level, while still being in the comfort of our own department teams. That in turn made it easier to simply say ‘hello’ in the common areas or interact with work when that time did come. I’m not saying a softball match is the answer for your situation, but doing something where people can relax and have fun showed as an effective way to get comfortable with co-workers in different areas of the business.

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Michelle February 12, 2015 at 4:05 pm

In our office a department who was curious what others did asked to sit in on the first 5 minutes of each department’s staff meeting. When they joined they meeting each person gave a very brief description of what they do, then we did the same. It was a simple and easy way to find out what others do around the building.

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Cheryl February 12, 2015 at 4:03 pm

It should be a company policy during “on-boarding” of each new hire (regardless of position) to cross-train or be introduced to all departments within the company. Maybe a few minutes to half-hour or half-day to expose them to the operations there and familiarize them with it. That way, when a request comes through, it’s not a “foreign” department or request and they can even know how and better who to ask questions of should they have any in the performance of completing the task.

Happy to help, Cheryl

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