GUEST OPINION: When the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to allow employees to work from home, the biggest initial challenge was finding ways to communicate effectively. Many turned to services like Zoom and Teams to enable group conversations, while cell phones became the preferred one-to-one channel. Within a few months, most employees got used to these ways of staying in touch while working remotely. Now that hybrid work practices are likely to be a feature of doing business for some time, many organizations are realizing there is another challenge that needs to be resolved. In addition to enabling hybrid communication, there is also a need for hybrid collaboration functions.
Meeting this challenge could be more difficult for leaders to manage, even compared to the rapid shift to remote working in early 2020. This new, blended approach to work, while challenging, can also be a huge opportunity for growth and a chance to foster more engagement and innovation .
The same old (ancient) ways of working together
This challenge is why Facebook’s launch of a virtual reality workspace, Horizon Workrooms, is so interesting. Maybe we don’t need all the Oculus headsets and VR avatars to recreate that sense of teamwork. But Facebook is on the right track: It’s looking for ways to help people connect and collaborate in virtual workspaces, not just communicate.
To ensure this shift to the next normal has positive impact, leaders and organizations need to adopt a whole new way of thinking about collaboration. Research commissioned by Lucid last year showed that while managers have concerns about how remote work affects productivity, employees are more concerned about how it affects their ability to collaborate.
This is not surprising. Collaborative tools have long been obsolete. While the emergence of Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams has moved businesses away from email alone, at their core they remain communication platforms, not collaboration solutions.
The office suites we use today are broadly similar to the ones we used 30 years ago. We’re still working on 8.5 x 11 virtual documents, virtual spreadsheets, and virtual slide shows. Even in Facebook’s workrooms, the whiteboard is just a 4ft by 6ft rectangle floating in front of you. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t go to work passing memos around anymore. Why do we limit our work together to what fits on a virtual piece of paper or in an imaginary conference room?
Collaboration must be visual
We go to work to build things, be it a company, a product or a market. And as mentioned above, good communication tools are only part of what it takes to do this type of creative work in a remote or hybrid environment. A 2021 paper from Microsoft suggests employees could become “collaboratively isolated” while working from home, with mixed results for creative work. That’s because building things requires focused work time, along with effective communication tools and effective collaboration.
In order to empower employees to collaborate more, leaders need to rethink. In short, hybrid environments must visually 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 those values, not just productivity. Work practices and visual technologies can give people a voice and inspire creativity, regardless of their location—remote or in the office.
For example, BambooHR entered a three-year strategy update process shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. Usually, this is the kind of process that would take days or even weeks of intense collaboration in a conference room with lots of scribbling on whiteboards and flip charts and sticky notes full of ideas. Instead, BambooHR did everything virtually using a virtual whiteboard.
Employees reported that they found the ability to add sticky notes and ideas on a virtual whiteboard much more engaging than working through a PowerPoint presentation. The whiteboard’s infinite canvas meant that when a section was full, people would simply swipe to a new, blank area. There was no need to stop, take a picture and start over. The virtual screen also allowed everyone to see all the ideas on their screens and discuss them in real time, and then quickly set priorities and next steps.
It’s time to rethink collaboration
By bringing everyone into a common, virtual space, you can break down old barriers and limitations. By collaborating on an infinite canvas instead of a 4″ x 6″ whiteboard, people’s ideas can literally “expand” and go beyond the frames that normally constrain their thinking.
Aside from brainstorming and planning, other areas where visual, collaborative technologies could use a more hybrid-friendly approach include process mapping, systems diagrams, and product development.
As employees become familiar with these tools and processes, virtual workspaces quickly become places where the most effective collaboration can take place. They will ultimately be the workspaces that best encourage and enable innovation, creative thinking and new ideas to drive businesses forward.