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How to Improve Your Organization’s Virtual Collaboration

image of people standing on painted venn diagram representing concept of virtual collaboration

Virtual collaboration is the way we get work done when we’re not co-located. It can mean working together to solve small problems, or partnering to brainstorm innovative and creative solutions.

Well over a year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear that remote work – and the need for virtual collaboration – is here to stay, at least in some form. According to a survey from The Conference Board, respondents expect 40% or more of employees in their organizations to continue working primarily remotely one year after COVID-19 subsides.

And employees want their organizations to embrace flexibility in the workplace and allow for the option to work virtually; nearly half (47%) of the employees surveyed in Envoy’s Return to the Workplace Report said they would likely leave their jobs after the pandemic if their employers don’t offer a hybrid work model that combines work-from-home and in-office options.

Organizations who are succeeding in the new virtual world recognize there’s no easy way to replace face-to-face collaboration. Increased reliance on traditional virtual collaboration tools alone can’t be the solution; there has to be a multi-pronged approach that combines technological solutions with interpersonal skill development.

Shortcomings of Email & Other Traditional Virtual Collaboration Tools

For many people who start each morning by refreshing their email inbox and viewing their notifications, the “unread” number is a reality they’d rather not face. Some see the growing number as a reminder of unfulfilled obligations; others see it as a signal that work is stacking up faster than they can complete it.

Before the pandemic, most organizations relied on email as a primary means of communication with geographically dispersed teams. That dependence only compounded as employees began to work from home and used that, along with other real-time chat tools, to replace in-person meetings, quick office check-ins, and morning huddles. Unread emails and notification “pings” rapidly grew from the dozens to the hundreds.

The problem? When it’s used as our primary form of communication, email is just not that effective, and can be a challenging virtual collaboration tool because it’s uni-directional. It’s tough to make decisions or get alignment on action items, especially if you’re at the beginning stages of a project, and it can be hard to brainstorm via this tool because email is asynchronous.

Email has been a part of our communications strategy for so long that it’s the first thing many of us think about when considering virtual collaborations tools. But virtual collaboration goes far beyond the technological tools we use to get our jobs done. For remote and hybrid teams to be effective in the new world of work, organizations have to tackle virtual collaboration from a task perspective and a relationship perspective (a key polarity that leaders must balance).

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4 Tips for Using Technology to Get Work Done

The average person’s job can’t be performed in a vacuum. Organizations work on complicated problems, which involve interdependencies between colleagues, teams, and functional areas.
Here are 4 ways you can leverage technology to enhance virtual collaboration:

  1. When possible, turn on the camera. Anybody who’s worked remotely since early 2020 can relate to “Zoom fatigue.” Still, there’s value in having video meetings. Being able to see someone’s face gives you the benefit of nonverbal cues, and it makes it harder for participants to multitask. Consider setting expectations with your team about which meetings would benefit most from on-camera interaction, and which meetings they can feel free to join audio only. Learn how to craft your persona for effective virtual communication to make the most of screen time with your colleagues.
  2. Use just-in-time communications. If you disagree with something in a colleague’s email, it can take days to resolve your differences. Instant messaging services with chat functionality  enable you to hash it out quickly and efficiently in real time, without having to jump on camera.
  3. Take advantage of project management software. For years, tools like Google Docs have facilitated real-time virtual collaboration among multiple teammates across geographies. But be sure your organization is using a tool that allows teams to manage various projects at once and clarify roles and responsibilities. There are dozens of software programs that allow you to group tasks by project and keep your virtual collaboration on track.
  4. Create a team agreement. Virtual collaboration will take place most efficiently when everyone on your team is aligned on what channels to use for specific projects or tasks. You won’t know what works until you try it, so test things out, get feedback from your team, formalize your collaboration processes, and agree upon team norms so everyone is on the same page.

How to Recreate In-Person Synergy Using Virtual Collaboration

Think about what aspects of in-person collaboration you want to recreate in a virtual environment. Imagine the energy in a conference room where a group of people are in a rapid brainstorming session — whiteboards and post-it notes scribbled with thoughts, one idea leading to another. Ideas begin to flow more freely because of the collaboration that’s occurring in the room.

In order to recreate that synergy in a virtual collaboration scenario, you must be intentional about harnessing people’s enthusiasm. For example, it can be helpful to take a group of 9 people and split the group into 3-person breakout rooms. With smaller groups, you can start to replicate the same sort of energy that lends itself to brainstorming.

Utilizing the chat feature in virtual meeting tools is another helpful strategy for getting all members of your team to engage. Introverted team members or those of historically underrepresented demographic groups may actually feel more comfortable contributing ideas via chat than they would in a face-to-face setting, presenting an underlying advantage of virtual collaboration.

Build Relationships & Strengthen Conversations to Foster Better Virtual Collaboration

When we consider the natural cycle of teamwork — forming team norms, wrestling through roles and responsibilities, and creating small- or large-scale innovation — it’s clear that we need technological solutions to help us collaborate in a virtual environment.

But in order to give feedback, engage in coaching, and resolve conflicts, virtual collaboration also has to enable team members to create connections, build trust and psychological safety, and maintain healthy relationships.

As organizations prioritize productivity, the interpersonal side of virtual collaboration is often overlooked. Maybe that’s because it’s easier to leverage technology than it is to change the way we communicate. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get work done when professional relationships aren’t working.

The good news for leaders is that your team’s most essential virtual collaboration tool is something anybody can develop: strong conversational skills.

Whether you’re working in-person, collaborating virtually, or combining both methods in a hybrid workforce situation, strong conversational skills form the basis of your culture, and act as your organization’s operating system.

By equipping your employees with research-based behaviors that improve the way they communicate on a day-to-day basis, you can remove unnecessary friction, improve in-the-moment coaching and feedback, and encourage growth and innovation.  

Based on our research, the 4 core behaviors for better conversations and coaching form the acronym LACE:

  • Listening to Understand
  • Asking Powerful Questions
  • Challenging & Supporting
  • Establishing Next Steps & Accountability

Read more about these 4 core skills for coaching your people and having better conversations.

By combining innovative technological tools with strong conversational skills, you can make the most of virtual collaboration and ensure that your workforce stays productive, engaged, and aligned towards your organization’s mission and business goals.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Productive virtual collaboration requires strong conversation skills and an open culture of coaching and feedback. Our Better Conversations Every Day™ suite of solutions equips your people with the 4 core conversation skills our research has shown is needed for effective communication – giving you a scalable path to an enhanced organizational culture.

September 10, 2021
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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