The power of collaboration – the notion that two or more brains are better than one – is a given in business. So how does our work-from-home situation in 2020 affect our ability to collaborate? Certainly, there are drawbacks to collaboration when people cannot be physically in the same location. But in other ways, working in virtual settings actually increases engagement and inclusiveness thereby creating new opportunities to improve collaboration.
Here is a list of 10 ways collaboration is enhanced when people – especially diverse global teams – are working virtually:
1. Chat and React: During any brainstorming or creative meeting, the virtual setting adds the ability to contribute to the discussion via the chat feature nowadays offered by all online platforms. No longer can people solely contribute ideas and view by speaking-up and jumping in at the right time in a conversation. The chat feature allows some people who may otherwise be left out (such as introverts and non-native speakers) to share their views and ideas in real time but without having to fight for air time with those who tend to dominate the conversation. And the use of emojis, thumbs up, smileys, etc. create additional engagement that can easily be seen by all involved in the conversation.
2. Deeper Socialization: In the brick-and-mortar setting, some people don’t wander out of in their office or cubicle, never linger at the water-cooler or lunch-room, nor attend corporate social events. They miss out on spontaneous or organized socializing that is viewed as crucial to enhance networking and collaboration. In 2020, to compensate for the isolation and potential burnout from work-from-home settings, some companies have instituted virtual social activities. Virtual lunches and happy hours, games (such as scavenger hunts and workout challenges) as well as other non-work-related activities have aimed to enhanced the social interaction amongst employees. When engaging in such activities from home, employees (who chose to) are more exposed to each other’s interests, home environments, pets, families, etc. adding a deeper level of social interaction than at the office. This renewed focus on the value of socialization and inclusiveness can lead to greater collaboration and inclusiveness.
3. Captions: Hearing impaired, visual learners, and non-native speakers (for those hosting international meetings) all benefit from the instant transcription and captions now available for online meetings. In the international context, the variety of accents, and varying proficiencies in the language, can make it difficult to follow and understand, and some find it intimidating to speak. Most virtual meeting platforms offer an instant-captions feature that will augment the verbal and sound with written transcription that benefit all.
4. Collaboration Technology: Virtual settings benefit more from collaboration technology than face-to-face meetings. While white boards, TV screens or even flip-charts (yes, they are still in use!) are used to track notes, designs and ideas during face-to-face sessions, the best collaboration tools are online ones. While collaboration technology like Trello, Workplace, Dropbox, and many others have been around for quite some time, 2020 has seen tremendous innovation and integration of these with other applications to make team-work easier. The focus has been on making these more accessible and user-friendly as they have become the norm when collaborating virtually. (29 Of the Best Online Collaboration Tools – Tried and Tested – in 2020)
5. Focus on Effective Communication: The use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other online meeting tools has renewed the importance of effective communication techniques. While the merits of active listening, speaking clearly and succinctly and not interrupting others aren’t new, these techniques are too often dismissed in-person. The change to virtual settings has required a renewed focus on these effective communication practices (albeit in a new setting and with new challenges) and overall serves as a good reminder of their value.
6. Innovation and fun: To compensate for the lack of physical proximity, smart- and remote- work has led to a tremendous surge in innovation. The advent of 3D interface, virtual and augmented reality (such as Spacial https://news.mit.edu/2020/spatial-vr-collaboration-0710) that mimic the physical setting, as well as the addition of dynamic views (such as Microsoft Teams Together Mode) are aiming to be as conducive to collaborative participation than relying on our physical senses. These technologies can be fun to discover and use allowing people of all backgrounds and ages, regardless of their tech-savviness or role in IT, to be exposed to cool new technologies that keeps them connected and engaged.
7. Equalizing factor: Ever notice how sometimes rank and seniority can affect not only where people sit in a meeting but who speaks up and in what order? There is a certain equalizing factor associated with virtual conversations when all faces appear on your screen, randomly positioned, without anyone sitting at the head table or in the back row. This type of inclusiveness is vital to foster better organizational collaboration.
8. Work is an Activity not a Location: Too often we equate work with the physical location we enter and leave, and we take work colleagues who sit in close proximity to us for granted. When people stop connecting work with a location but rather link it more with an activity, there can be a number of side benefits. Increased motivation, enhanced productivity, and greater work-life harmony will make people happier and more apt to work with others in ways that can greatly benefit collaboration.
9. Not Missing in Action: Virtual meetings and the collaboration tools used to track information and projects are recorded and available any-time, on demand. The consequences of missing a meeting, being unable to travel and attend in person, or being double booked can be overcome by having access to the recording and notes. That also means being able to fully review and then still contribute after the fact to the discussion, ideas and recommendations shared at the event.
10. International effectiveness: While we can’t get participants from a wide range of time-zones to all attend a meeting during their working hours, there are several benefits to virtual compared to in-person meetings for international groups. Gone are the costs of travel, the extensive time away from work and family, and the visa restrictions. Also, virtual offers a great way to avoid the inevitable jet-lag that makes it difficult for those who crossed the globe to be engaged in all-day in-person meetings. Participating in several, shorter meetings without being jet-lagged – even if these fall during early morning or late evening hours for some – provides a good setting for greater global engagement and inclusiveness.
Each of these ways to increase engagement and inclusiveness benefit collaboration. Rather than dwell on the challenges of the virtual work environment, let’s recognize and leverage what we’ve gained in positive habits, new tools, as well as increased engagement and inclusiveness that can enhance collaboration.