I once had a pen pal from Connecticut, many years ago before I went to college there. We’d been introduced by a friend while I was still living in my native country of Turkey.
At the time, I was considering studying abroad where they lived—a degree in computer science at the University of Bridgeport. My pen pal was majoring in a completely unrelated field, but we had some of the most interesting conversations. Just the fact that we were from different cultures and backgrounds helped change both of our outlooks.
Now as an entrepreneur all these years later, I often reflect on how much that experience was able to help me understand a perspective I wasn’t accustomed to. That’s why as CEO to my form-building company, I believe it’s important to create opportunities for cross-department “pen pals” to engage with one another and foster more openness in the workplace.
I like to pride myself in creating a culture of inclusion and diversity, but I know that can mean very little if people aren’t directly learning from one another.
As Tessa Ann Taylor wrote for NYT Open,“The first step to leveraging the strength of a diverse team is, of course, getting unique voices to the table, but the work doesn’t end there. Once people are at the table, it’s important to create an inclusive environment where they can share their thoughts and perspectives.”
That’s why I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve taken to heart about this unique kind of collaboration.
The benefits of branching out in the workplace
Cross-departmental relationships are key for creating better communication and better alignment across your company.
One of my star employees who worked in the marketing department, Maggie, for instance, was struggling to understand the technology behind a new product we were developing. “I honestly don’t really get how these features work,” she told me after a meeting. After her feedback, I immediately connected her with one of our developers. Not only did this help with brainstorming for her own work, but also both team members were able to learn from the other person’s skill set.
Diversify the conversation
“It’s worth noting that though diversity and inclusion best practices are meant to benefit people from underrepresented groups, they actually benefit everyone and create a stronger team overall,” wrote Taylor.
Just as with my own pen pal experience all those years ago—pairing cross-departmental team members of diverse backgrounds goes beyond learning about a specific professional specialty, it opens up the conversation in new and interesting ways.
Ultimately, cultivating this practice changes your overall culture because people aren’t afraid of asking their colleagues from other departments for help or assistance—creating more autonomy. This kind of communication is essential for sustaining long-term collaboration.
Keep in mind that each of your departments working together harmoniously—IT, marketing, design, sales, customer support—will significantly influence your company’s success. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 report, workplace engagement has remained stagnant. But I believe that by diversifying the conversation with concrete practices like cross-department “pen pals” can move the needle forward.
Promote innovative thinking
When employees aren’t engaged, it doesn’t just drag down productivity, it also reduces innovation. Why? Because interacting with people from different niches stimulates communication and creativity.
Cross-department “pen pals” can elevate their own skills by problem-solving with other experts—as creative ideas often emerge from fresh perspectives.
While many leaders focus on team-building exercises to foster more innovative thinking, having a pen pal is a stress-free way to increase the sharing of information and knowledge. Teams become more agile and feel more involved in your company’s purpose.
Continuous growth and learning
After a few months of connecting with her developer pen pal, I’m happy to report that Maggie didn’t just gain more understanding about the technology behind our latest product—she also learned significantly more about what goes into IT thinking.
“It used to feel really overwhelming,” she confided to me over lunch one day. “But then something just clicked.” (She was in marketing, after all, not a techie.). Now, not only did she feel more confident to perform her own tasks, but also she was excited about new possibilities for future projects.
I’m a strong advocate for cross-departmental collaboration for this simple reason: It encourages ideas and helps build team morale.
Aside from promoting “pen pals,” my business operates with small, cross-functional teams where each group is like its own little business. Individuals are both independent and empowered to make their own decisions while also working on the same project.
Over the past 16 years, we’ve grown the company from a startup to a global business with millions of users and hundreds of employees. And over the course of that time, I’ve found that this kind of structure allows team members to become more committed and engaged—and feel a greater sense of belonging to the culture as a whole.
Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform, a leading online forms SaaS solution.