Why effective hybrid collaboration must go beyond remote communications

GUEST REVIEW: When the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to allow staff to work from home, the biggest initial challenge to overcome was organizing ways to communicate effectively. Many have turned to services such as Zoom and Teams to enable group conversations while mobile has become the preferred one-on-one channel. Within months, most employees have become familiar with these ways to stay in touch while working remotely. However, now that hybrid working practices are likely to be a feature of corporate life for some time to come, many organizations are realizing that there is another challenge that needs to be addressed. In addition to enabling hybrid communication, there is also a need for hybrid collaboration capabilities.

Solving this challenge could be more difficult for leaders to manage, even compared to the rapid shift to remote working at the start of 2020. But while challenging, this new mixed approach to work can also be a major growth opportunity, as well just a chance to foster greater engagement and innovation.

The same old (centuries-old) ways of collaborating

This challenge is why Facebook’s introduction of a virtual reality workspace, Horizon Workrooms, is so exciting. Maybe we don’t all need Oculus headsets and VR avatars to restore the sense of teamwork. But Facebook is on the right track: It’s looking for ways to help people connect and collaborate, not just communicate, in virtual workspaces.

To ensure that this shift to the next normal has a positive impact, leaders and businesses will need to embrace a whole new mindset of collaboration. A study commissioned by Lucid last year showed that while managers worry about the impact of remote working on productivity, employees are more concerned about its impact on their ability to collaborate.

It’s not surprising. Collaborative tools have long been obsolete. While the advent of Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams has moved businesses away from operating solely through email, they remain communication platforms at their core, not collaboration solutions.

The office suites we use today are broadly similar to those we used 30 years ago; we always collaborate around virtual 8.5 x 11 documents, virtual spreadsheets and virtual slideshows. Even in Facebook’s workrooms, the whiteboard is just a 4-by-6-foot rectangle floating in front of you. But the thing is, we don’t go to work to deliver memos anymore. Why do we limit our collaborative work to what fits on a virtual sheet of paper or in an imaginary conference room?

Collaboration must be visual

We will work to build things, whether it is a company, a product or a market. And, as mentioned above, good communication tools are only part of what is needed to do this kind of creative work in a remote or hybrid setting. A 2021 paper from Microsoft suggests that employees could be “collaboratively isolated” during periods of working from home, with mixed results for creative work. Indeed, building things requires focused work time, as well as effective communication tools and effective collaboration.

In order to empower employees to be more collaborative, leaders need to think differently. In short, hybrid environments need visual solutions that make it easier to work side-by-side, not just face-to-face.

Creativity and collaboration are possible with a hybrid workforce, as long as managers are able to build a culture that supports and prioritizes these values, not just productivity. Work practices and visual technologies can give people a voice and spur creativity wherever they are – remotely or in the office.

For example, BambooHR entered a three-year strategy refresh process right after the pandemic hit in 2020. Normally, this is the kind of process that would take days or even weeks of intensive collaborative work in a conference room, with lots of scribbles on whiteboards. and flipcharts, and stick up sticky notes full of ideas. Instead, BambooHR handled everything virtually using a virtual whiteboard.

Employees said they found the ability to add sticky notes and ideas on a virtual whiteboard as they went much more engaging than sitting in front of a PowerPoint presentation. The whiteboard’s infinite canvas meant that when a section was full, people simply moved to a new, blank area. There was no need to pause, take a picture and start again. The virtual canvas also allowed everyone to see all the ideas on their screen and discuss them in real time and then quickly set priorities and next steps.

It’s time to reinvent collaboration

By putting everyone in a shared virtual space, you can break down old barriers and constraints. By collaborating on an infinite canvas instead of a 4’x6′ whiteboard, people’s ideas can literally “expand” and go beyond the frames that normally constrain their thinking.

Besides brainstorming and planning, other areas where visual and collaborative technologies could use a more hybrid approach include process mapping, system diagramming, and product development.

As staff members become familiar with these tools and processes, virtual workplaces will quickly become spaces where the most effective collaboration can occur. They will end up being the workspaces that best promote and enable innovation, creative thinking, and new ideas to drive businesses forward.

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