How to Improve Your Organization’s Virtual Collaboration

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

What Is Virtual Collaboration and Why Is It Important?

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.

The Shortcomings of a Focus on Tools for Virtual Collaboration

Approach Virtual Collaboration With a Focus on Both Tasks & Relationships

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 work across time zones. That dependence only compounded as employees began to work from home and used that, along with other real-time chat tools, to replace face-to-face 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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Improving Virtual Collaboration to Get Work Done

6 Tips for Leaders to Try 

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 6 ways you can enhance virtual collaboration at your organization:

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 and body language gives you the benefit of nonverbal cues, and it makes it harder for participants to multitask. Consider setting expectations with your team ahead of time 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 a video conference.

3. Strengthen teamwork and collaboration skills.

Drive success and strong performance online by upskilling your people with research-backed development to enhance collaboration skills. By leveraging our content, teams can reduce conflict and build trust, make higher-quality decisions, and increase productive capacity, even when they’re working remotely.

4. Take advantage of project management software and tools.

For years, tools like Google Docs have facilitated real-time virtual collaboration among multiple teammates across geographies and time zones. 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 deadline and keep your virtual collaboration on track.

5. Consider outside commitments.

Make sure every team member is fully engaged by checking that they’re not stretched too thin. One of the best practices for managing virtual teams and meetings is to ensure that teams are an optimal size, and that high performers aren’t on too many project teams — especially teams that are working simultaneously. Not surprisingly, the more teams someone is on, the fewer high-value contributions they’re able to make, and the less effective they are overall.

6. 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.

Recreating In-Person Synergy With 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 meeting, presenting an underlying advantage of virtual collaboration.

Build Relationships & Strengthen Conversational Skills 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 candor, 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 suite of conversational skills solutions gives you a scalable path to an enhanced organizational culture of psychological safety and effective virtual collaboration.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Virtual Collaboration

Virtual collaboration is the term used to describe how a team or organization functions together in an online environment when its members are not physically co-located. Whether teams are working across global time zones, or from within the same geographic area, perhaps with some in an office while others are working from home, it’s important that every organization equips its people with both the technology tools and interpersonal skills needed to engage in virtual collaboration effectively.

A good example of an organization or team that’s engaging in effective virtual collaboration would be one that converses with candor and trust, and thoughtfully takes advantage of technological tools like project management software, instant messaging, and video conference calls to facilitate optimal group communication among team members who are not co-located. Establishing respectful group norms and clearly setting expectations ahead of time can also help colleagues avoid fatigue in back-to-back video meetings, while still maintaining the benefits of nonverbal cues and communication. 

To collaborate virtually most effectively, your team should first create an agreement to align on what tools and channels should be used for specific projects and tasks. For example, you may opt to reserve video conferencing for important team updates, while you choose to use instant messaging tools for quick questions and team banter. Next, virtual teams should take advantage of project management software that facilitates real-time collaboration among team members, regardless of time zone. Finally, consider upskilling your team’s conversational skills so that their communications are more effective and better able  to recreate in-person synergy, even when collaborating virtually.

Finding ways to effectively collaborate in a virtual setting is important because teams need to be able to communicate effectively across boundaries to innovate and get work done. Also, according to many surveys, nearly half of all employees say they would likely leave their jobs after the pandemic if their employers don’t offer a hybrid workplace model that allows them to work from home for at least part of the time — so enhancing virtual collaboration at your organization means retaining talent, too. 

The key to successful virtual collaboration is strong interpersonal communication skills that can be leveraged in the online context, when team members are not in the same physical location. Clearly setting expectations among team members in advance, leveraging just-in-time communication channels and project management software, following best practices for managing virtual teams and meetings, and optimizing the use of video conferencing technology all help, too. 

More questions? Our experts are here to help. Let’s have a conversation!

August 15, 2022
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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