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Tips for Collaborating Remotely


88% of organizations have encouraged or required their employees to work from home.

COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the way that we work, with reports that 88% of organizations have implemented work-from-home policies during the epidemic.


Even now, while many businesses are opening back up, it doesn't seem likely that we can expect to flip a switch and go back to business as normal. Employees who have gotten a taste of working remotely seem to be liking it, and organizations are also beginning to commit to remote work as the new normal. In fact, 74% of businesses anticipate moving to more remote work long term.


74% of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work post COVID.

For better or worse (in many ways worse), this has made the likes of Zoom our new conference rooms and Slack messages the new desk-side chats. So what does that mean for collaboration? In Design circles it is well established that putting people in a room together to hash things out tends to bring about faster, more creative results. In fact, face-to-face collaboration is a cornerstone of highly popular methodologies such as Design Thinking, Design Sprints, and Agile. We may not be able to fully replicate the value of face-to-face collaboration just yet, but until we get there here are some tips from a long-time remote collaborator:


Make a solid plan

Taking the time to devise a solid plan is advice that I frequently give whether I'm talking about remote or in-person collaboration. Doing your due-diligence in thinking through your session is by far the most overlooked activity necessary to ensure an effective collaboration. If you walk into a meeting without a solid agenda you're likely to meander and get off target--in sessions aimed at drawing out creative ideas and coalescing them into a clear vision, you're far more likely to feel that effect without a solid plan.


Goals & Outcomes

Think of any collaboration as a story arc. A good collaboration nearly always has some sort of opening, a rising action culminating in a climax, and a falling action that leads to your resolution. In Design Thinking terms this closely parallels the concepts of divergent and convergent thinking.

In the diagram above you can see the rising and falling aspects of your collaboration story arc. Divergent thinking, your rising action, is all about understanding problem spaces and creating options to solve them. The convergent thinking, or falling action, is about aligning around the areas of greatest value and activating against them.


The only way that you can create this story arc is to have a solid understanding of your opening, as well as what your resolution should look like. Your opening should elucidate your goals, but your resolution is really where you need to start. A good collaboration session shouldn't force any solution, but should have an idea of what the "end in mind" is. What do you want to get out of your collaboration session? What action will that outcome enable you to do next? As rudimentary as these concepts may seem I unfortunately see collaborations fail all of the time because of a lack of goals and outcomes.


"End in mind" is a term popularized by Stephen R. Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

Use the right tools

In-person collaboration has an advantage over remote in that we are all human beings with the ability to adapt to our physical surroundings. When it comes to remote collaboration, we don't all know how to pick up the marker, so to speak. We're stumbling around on new legs that will never be as innate to us as our own. It will be more awkward than you wish it was, but if you recognize that fact, and do your best to plan around it, you'll be much better off. Otherwise what happens in these collaborations is that we use the only tool that we know best, our voices, and talking at one another isn't likely to achieve your end-in-mind.


Tools

Stop reinventing the wheel. Google it. There are plenty of tools out there to help you achieve your goals. Familiarize yourself with the options available to you and I guarantee you will find your online collaborations more fruitful. Here are a few of my favorite tools for online collaboration so that you have a start:


Miro - Virtual Whiteboard

Formerly known as Realtimeboard, Miro is the best virtual whiteboard that I have found. Mural, and Stormboard are other options that are worth exploring. In this open virtual whiteboard I have quite a bit of control. I can not only utilize a variety of templates and spread out my thoughts in any particular way I choose, but I can also operate in the real world, with my own sticky notes, and scan them into my Miro board. Miro has been a great tool for me, and whether you choose Miro, Mural, Stormboard, or another tool, a virtual whiteboard is an essential remote collaboration tool.


Sococo - Teleconference Rooms

Where most teleconferencing software like Zoom and Webex focus on people and a single screen, Sococo centers on a virtual work environment. What I value Sococo for is that mapping of the virtual world to real world spaces. You have an overhead view of everyone in your work environment, rooms to collaborate in, screens to click on and "project." Sococo uses great physical metaphors to make online collaboration feel nearly as natural as in-person collaborations.


Google Drive - Digital Sharing

So imagine you have an idea, but the online tooling doesn't support your need to get it out of your head. What do you do? It's likely you turn to a piece of paper and scribble it out, or if you have a nice home setup, a whiteboard of your own. Because you are working remote these natural tools aren't easily shareable, but if you try and use a tool that you aren't comfortable with you'll likely find it frustrating.


This is where I often use Google Drive to allow participants to upload an image of a sketch through tools they're familiar with: their hands, pens / markers, and their cellphone camera. Just make it easy to share to your Drive folder and then when you enter a shared screen of other's ideas they actually have a better chance of seeing what your idea is than having them stand up in front of a room with a sheet of paper (one time that remote can work better).


As an added benefit, everything is saved in a folder that everyone from the session has access to, so no idea is lost when someone accidentally wipes down the whiteboard.


Google Draw - Backup Plan

The key strength is the ability to collaborate live with total flexibility, the primary flaw is that it's not particularly amazing at anything, so it's up to you to create your own templates. When the perfect tool isn't available, Google Draw frequently becomes my backup option.



Interpersonal tips

Don't be afraid to set some ground rules for how the group should behave. Here are just a few tips for both participants and facilitators to consider when collaborating remotely.


Encourage active empathy

When we work remote it creates a barrier to empathy. If you don't believe me think about your morning commute, and how many times you've reacted in a way that you likely would not have if you were standing face-to-face with them. In the same way, online comments sections are the worst example of all of us, because there isn't a need to empathize with the person you are confronting when you have the anonymity of the Internet. In remote collaborations you should be aware that everyone has a harder time empathizing. Turn on your webcam

This is really a follow-up point to the previous one, but it's a heck of a lot easier to empathize with someone when you can see and react to their faces. That's the learned human behavior in us that it's hard for online platforms to replicate. Think of all of the times that you've been talked over in a teleconference, that happens because of the all-important visual queues that we lose online. It's understandable that working from home you don't always want to show your cluttered room, or your morning hair, but more than any other meeting it's essential to be visible in a collaboration session.


Break into small groups

Another frequent issue I see with online collaborations is that the entire group, no matter how large, is almost always stuck in the same room the entire time. Rarely in an in-person collaboration session do I keep a large group pinned up in one spot the entire time. Break people out into separate rooms where appropriate. That is a large part of why I like Sococo as a collaboration space, you can literally see large community areas and smaller breakout rooms. Regardless of whether you're using Sococo or Zoom, plan for when breaking into smaller groups makes sense and find a sensible way to make it easy to break up and then rejoin at the appropriate time.


Be generous with people's time

With in-person collaborations it's a best practice to take a break roughly every 90 minutes. That can be helpful for a couple of reasons: One is that you generally don't want people distracted on their cellphones or laptops during collaboration. Giving breaks allows people to take a moment to catch up on emails, take a quick call, or simply use the restroom. Another reason, however, is that with so much input and social stressors, collaboration is quite fatiguing.


Now, take away the natural mechanisms that we are all comfortable with and force us to operate through online tools. Obviously the fatigue is going to be even higher. So take breaks frequently and consider splitting what might have been an all day session into multiple events. Also never, ever, fill air -- if you planned on a four hour collab and it ran three hours, don't try to find something else to fill that time, you reached your end-in-mind.


Conclusion

At the end of the day there are hundreds of great tips for facilitating collaboration, both offline and on. Hopefully the ones presented here provide some actionable opportunities to improve your sessions. If you feel that collaboration has stagnated at your business amidst the COVID 19 pandemic, or after, please feel free to reach out to us at Shift, we have many years of experience in facilitating both online and offline collaboration sessions.

Interested in learning more? Reach out to Shift to schedule a conversation, we’re always happy to chat.

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