Looking for Carrots: Ideas for Encouraging Online Collaboration in the Workplace

By Kim Ivey-Bourne | STC Member

Collaboration is quite the buzzword these days, and arguably a business necessity in the modern world. Online collaboration offers a great deal of potential for accomplishing tasks at work, because the people in virtual teams do not need to spend a lot of time together in conference rooms. However, a key obstacle to fulfilling the dream of thriving online collaborations in the workplace is very basic—getting people to actually participate.

Technical communicators often have no traditional authority over potential collaborators, yet they may be called upon to support collaboration as participants or facilitators. Technical communicators can step into an informal leadership role in collaborative efforts by modelling collaborative behavior and initiating conversations that clarify the collaboration’s goals. Leadership-minded technical communicators will likely find themselves wondering how they can encourage reluctant collaborators to participate in online collaborative work. What if we imagine this in terms of carrot vs. stick? (This idea comes from an expression where a carrot is used to entice a mule to move, but a stick is used to punish it for not moving.) Since using a stick is out of the question for technical communicators, what sorts of carrots can we use?

Carrot Tech

Technology does affect the motivations of potential collaborators, but it is ultimately social and psychological factors surrounding technology that have the most influence on collaborators’ motivations. People are more likely to use technology that is familiar to them, which makes training and instruction a handy carrot if they are not already familiar with the technologies that support the collaboration. If the technologies are new but similar to other familiar technologies, emphasize similarities to build collaborators’ confidence in using the new technology. Use caution when crafting training materials, and make sure that the instruction helps attendees become more self-sufficient and empowered to collaborate for themselves, rather than training them to rely on others to do their work for them. People who feel confident in their ability to use a given piece of technology are more likely to do so.

Keep in mind that collaborative efforts change over time, and technology requirements may evolve as well. As the collaborative effort matures, collaborators may need access to more data or enhanced features in the technologies they are using. For example, some collaborators may feel more ready to accept responsibility for system-configuration tasks or approving changes as they become more familiar with the technologies and their fellow collaborators. Making sure that collaborators have appropriate access and functionality for the tasks they need to complete increases the likelihood that they will feel inclined to produce some collaborative work.

Goals, scope, and participants will all change as time goes on. Team members who have established positive working relationships are more likely to feel that any rough edges aggravated by flailing with unfamiliar technology will be smoothed over by camaraderie, which can translate into an increase in participation. If the technology starts to lag behind the collaborators’ requirements, raise those concerns to people who are empowered to make decisions about the technology.

What Does Management Think a Carrot Looks Like?

If management has set goals for a collaborative effort, the technical communicator should make sure that the goals are clearly expressed and that all team members are aware of them. Periodic reminders and status checks against the goals are helpful to keep everyone focused and feeling that their work is meaningful and making progress. If management has set up a collaborative knowledge-building effort and has not given clear goals for it, ask for the goals! If people are uncertain of the reasons why they are working on something and how it fits into the bigger picture, it is powerfully demotivating.

Don’t despair if progress checks reveal that the collaboration is falling short of the stated goals. In this case, the purpose of measuring against goals is to help people understand where things stand, and it is not a reason for managers to break out the sticks. Advise managers to put the sticks down, because sticks will adversely affect trust, which is discussed below. Initiate conversations with team members about why the collaboration might be missing its goals, listen attentively, thank people for their time, acknowledge their ideas, and escalate concerns to management (if necessary) to get things back on track.

Individual Carrots May Vary

People can be motivated by organizational goals, but the bigger carrots are found at the personal level. People who feel a great sense of identification with their team of collaborators are more likely to find team-level goals inspiring. In online collaborations where distance is a notable factor and face-to-face interactions are limited, team cohesion can be a bit of a challenge. Regardless of their team’s stated goals (or lack of them), people are inspired by the idea that their work will become more effective or more efficient as a result of their willingness to collaborate—preferably both.

Make the case to individual collaborators that collaborating is worth their time and attention. If people believe that the outcomes of a collaborative effort will benefit them, they are more invested in helping it succeed. Talk to people about how the collaboration has been a good resource for you. If it is a new collaboration, talk about its potential, and ask other collaborators how they see its potential. Have conversations with people about the challenges they face that could be assisted by the products of the collaboration, and explore ways that the collaboration can pay off for them as individuals.

Carrot Culture

People are more likely to voluntarily collaborate with people they trust: people who will forgive minor mistakes (and major ones, too, on occasion), people who will not “throw them under the bus” when troubles inevitably arise, people who will not criticize or judge them harshly, and people who are generally approachable and friendly. In virtual teams, it can be more challenging to build trust, because people have less face-to-face interaction, and there is a tendency for people to project their own fears onto people they don’t know very well. Actions that result in a more trusting collaborative environment are often subtle and easy to underestimate, but the atmosphere they create pays off over time. Some studies indicate that reciprocity, the concept of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” is a key component of trust, and others emphasize a non-judgmental culture in which ideas can be expressed freely without fear of losing social status.

Transparent and timely communication about how the collaboration is going builds trust, because it counters the worry that participants don’t know the whole story and may be ambushed by something. Provide regular summaries and updates so that new or less devoted participants can easily find their place in the collaborative effort without having to sort through a lot of history and winding threads of discussion that may not directly relate to the present state of the collaboration.

The development of a Transactional Memory System (TMS) is one way that trust-building can pay off. In a TMS, people and their specific skills and knowledge are parts of a fluid social system that can be accessed by other members. Trust is a prerequisite for the informal connections between people in the system. People are more likely to reach out to others who possess expertise that they lack if they trust them, and this can save a lot of time and effort. People with expertise are also more likely to be helpful if they trust you and believe that you will return the favor.

Figure 1. Collaboration Carrots

Technical communicators may need to step in and out of informal leadership roles to build momentum for a new collaboration, or to reinvigorate older collaborative efforts if the work stalls. Even if a leadership role isn’t validated by the latest org chart, technical communicators can model behaviors that get results. Effective leaders take note of the motivations and goals in play for their team and take steps to find and articulate harmonies between personal motivations, team motivations, and the goals of the overall organization.

Simple leadership behaviors that technical communicators can use to inspire their teams are acknowledgment of work well-done and genuine expressions of gratitude for assistance. People who feel like they can do work are more likely to do it. Positive feedback and acknowledgment of a job well done can boost people’s confidence. Compliments are free! People who feel good about the work they are doing are more likely to keep doing good work.

If these behaviors take root in the culture of the collaboration, the benefits of a trusting collaboration will multiply. All team members can become informal leaders in this way even if they are only leaders of themselves.


Compeau, Deborah R., and Christopher A. Higgins. Computer Self-Efficacy: Development of a Measure and Initial Test. MIS Quarterly, 19 (1995): 189–211.

Hertel, Guido, Udo Konradt, and Borris Orlikowski. Managing Distance by Interdependence: Goal Setting, Task Interdependence, and Team-Based Rewards in Virtual Teams. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 13 (2004): 1–28.

Hill, N. Sharon, and Kathryn M. Bartol. Empowering Leadership and Effective Collaboration in Geographically Dispersed Teams. Personnel Psychology. 69 (2016): 159–198.

Rosen, Benson, Stacie Furst, and Richard Blackburn. Overcoming Barriers to Knowledge Sharing in Virtual Teams. Organizational Dynamics. 36 (2007): 259–273.

Wen, Ming-Hui, Chun-Chia Lee, and Jen-Wei Chang. Learn to Manage an Online Team—Mediating Effects of Crews’ Affective Commitment in an Online Collaboration Environment. Paper presented at the Second International Conference on E-Learning and E-Technologies in Education (ICEEE), Lodz, Poland, 23–25 September 2013.

KIM IVEY-BOURNE (iveybournek17@ecu.edu) has worked in the information technology services division of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro for over ten years. She is currently pursuing an MA in English degree with a concentration in Technical and Professional Communication at East Carolina University.