The professional world sometimes forces us to work together with co-workers we may not know. Those situations are fantastic opportunities to learn the ins and outs of another department and diversify your own professional experiences, but they can also be stressful, especially if you aren't sure how to work together on a complex project.

The teamwork rhythm you're used to may not be applicable in this new situation, and you may have significantly more or less expertise than your new teammate. The balance will feel off at first, but if you make a concentrated effort to cultivating a relationship built on cooperation, you should have no problem completing your tasks together.

Try using these tips when working with someone new, and maximize your chances of successful, productive teamwork.

1. Start Things Right

Before you start working together, you need to introduce yourself and work together to make a plan. The only way you're going to work well together is if you both agree to a system from the get-go. Simply divvying up tasks over an email is simply not enough.

Schedule a time that works for both of you to hammer out a system--whether that means splitting the individual tasks down the middle and coming together at the end, or setting aside time each day to work collaboratively on tasks. Both of you need to agree to the general outline you put together, and that includes a mutual timeline. Set clear expectations about how you expect to work together, and set an atmosphere of respect and appreciation.

2. Be Open About How You Work Best

You might be tempted to try and accommodate the other's person's work style at the cost of your own, but that isn't always the most productive system. Your work preferences are important, and you need to express those openly. For example, if you strongly prefer communicating via email over phone or face-to-face meetings, don't be afraid to express that. Bringing up your preferences isn't necessarily a demand that they must be met, but your partner can't hope to understand your strengths and weaknesses if you don't present them.

Likewise, if there are areas where you aren't comfortable working or areas where you don't have much expertise, be open about it--it isn't an admission of weakness so much as it is an acknowledgment that an alternative work system would be more advantageous.

3. Listen to How They Work Best

The flip side is you must actively learn how your co-worker works best, and do what you can to accommodate those preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. Don't interrogate them, but feel free to ask questions about what they've found to be helpful and unhelpful in their past teamwork assignments.

You shouldn't expect your co-worker to bend over backward to accommodate your preferences, and likewise, you don't have to go out of your way to accommodate theirs. But it is important that you acknowledge these qualities, and work together to find a compromise. For example, if one of you prefers an even split of tasks and the other prefers collaborative work on each of them, consider doing the first half of the project one way and the second half of the project the other way.

4. Spend Some Time Together

One of the best ways to improve your teamwork skills is to spend some personal time with the other party. This is especially helpful if you're completely unfamiliar with the other person. You don't necessarily have to be friends, but office environments can prevent people from opening up, and it's much easier to work with someone if you already have a connection to them.

Before you get too deep into your project, make plans to get coffee before work or lunch during a break in the day. You'll see a side of your co-worker you won't ever see in the office, and you might learn something about him/her that makes it easier to get along in a working environment.

5. Manage Your Reactions

If you're working with someone unfamiliar, you might be more sensitive to various obstacles and challenges that come up. For example, if your co-worker makes a mistake or forgets about a specific task, it's far easier to lose your cool with someone you don't know than with someone you do.

Before you react to anything surprising, take a step back. It's important to manage your reactions and logically assess the situation before you respond. Otherwise, you could make a bad impression and introduce tension and resentment unnecessarily into your working relationship.

If working from a distance, avoid drafting an email until the dust has settled. If you're working face to face, it might be worth your time to step away from the workspace and take a deep breath before you bring up your thoughts on the matter.

6. Keep Each Other Accountable

Just like you each have different preferences for how you work together, each of you'll have a different system for staying accountable. But when you're unfamiliar with the other person's work history, it's important that both parties work to keep the other responsible.

How you go about this is completely up to you. If you're splitting up tasks down the middle, you can follow up with your co-worker to ask them for any items they've missed, or upcoming assignments. If you're working together, you can have regular meetings about your progress and review any materials or items that are outstanding or roadblocked.

7. Provide Lots of Feedback

Feedback is one of the most important pieces of the unfamiliar working relationship. It's impossible to know how your partner feels about your end of the work unless they express that information to you. Objective, clear feedback is the best way to communicate this information, free of charged emotion and intended solely to improve productivity.

Provide feedback to your co-worker at regular intervals throughout the project so your partner has time to learn and make adjustments before you're too deep to change anything. Likewise, it's important to ask your co-worker for honest feedback about your own practices.

8. Plan a Mutual Reward

Nothing incentivizes people like the prospect of a reward, so why not plan a mutual reward with your partner for when you complete your project together and on time? You could plan a dinner or an outing, or simply buy yourselves a gift to enjoy together. The reward will serve two purposes: first, it will keep you both invested and motivated to complete the task at hand. Second, it will bind you both together. It will be a mutual shared experience, and either one of you can bring it up during especially difficult moments.

Whether you prefer team projects or working alone, working with a new teammate can be difficult. But finding ways to work with new people is an essential skill in the business world. You might even find new ways of working that improve your productivity and effectiveness in your own line of work.

If you're looking for more tips on how to stay productive or better manage your time in a high-stress environment, check out my articles 15 Instant Productivity Hacks You Need to Know and 7 Unwritten Rules of Productive Office Environments.

Published on: Nov 26, 2014