A virtual collaboration crash course in the age of pandemics

The physical world was — and continues to be — the touch stone for most of the global workforce. While some people are used to working from home for short periods of time, such as sick days or even part-time as a regular routine, most anticipate tangibly engaging with their organizational workspace at some point.

But pandemics don’t care about our systems or plans. They storm populations and pounce with jarring and unpleasant consequences.. Currently, COVID-19 is disrupting what we have previously considered “the workplace” to be by embroiling the entire world in restrictive home quarantines. The abrupt and dizzying tilt to a huge proportion of the workforce working at home full-time with little or no preparation was unimaginable

António Guterres stated,“COVID-19 is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations.” The New York Times reported that “As many as 25 million jobs could simply disappear and the world could lose some $3.4 trillion in labor income.” This is a macroeconomic existential crisis that will bring on unknown transformations in how we live and work at the microeconomic level.

Few people enjoy abrupt change and this pandemic is causing tremendous stress and strain. Many employees now feel disembodied from their usual daily routines. The good news for some employed in non-healthcare and service industries is that they are able to work at home using digital platforms. However, to cope with this unanticipated load to their systems, organizations that only use one online platform, such as Box, are now scrambling to sign up for free versions of Slack, Mural and other platforms for storage and communication.

The rush to move operations online has put a harsh spotlight on how unprepared organizations are for all their employees to use these platforms simultaneously offsite. It also highlights the gap between management and employees to self-regulate in order to meet daily and weekly organizational goals. I have been hearing from friends and acquaintances about the following problems:

  • Having no dedicated workspace at home to work eight hours at a stretch
  • Being unable to filter out non-work interruptions
  • Not knowing how to organize their day effectively
  • Suffering from mental fatigue due to to persistent digital tasks and video meetings
  • Not knowing what a VPN is and how to connect to a network
  • Either being unable to access or not know knowing how to operate Google Suite or Microsoft Teams

A workforce betwixt and between

Much of the American workforce still traditionally commutes to work. Only 5.2% or 8 million employees in the US work from home at least half-time. Up to 56% of employees have a job where some of what they do could be done remotely, and 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time. 30% of workers would even take a small pay cut in order to work from home.The primary reasons are enhanced flexibility and reduced commuting time. Organizations have been trying to reduce their real-estate costs and are packing more people per square foot in open-offices and in some cases more than one person is assigned to a desk.

The majority of on-site employees are not set up to work from home for extended periods of time, nor are most home environments conducive to concentrated work. The mindset of working alone and structuring one’s workday is not natural for many employees. Finally, many employees cannot maximize use of the individual digital platforms to communicate and collaborate in a seamless way with their co-workers, who find themselves in the same sorry boat.

Compounding this challenge is that many employees are conditioned for physical face-to-face communication and interactions supported by digital platforms. When working from home, all the physical cues become abstracted into digital interactions, which can be disorienting and unfamiliar. This causes mental stress and strains as groups try to interact through digital platforms.

The move to digital platforms with no organized training

The adoption of online platforms by organizations and individuals has been on-going for more than a decade. Organizations have exchanged traditional software and on-premise infrastructure for cloud-based, off-premise services. This decision made sense in regards to finances and productivity. Organizations no longer need to invest in expensive up-front capital costs of physical hardware and software.

The expansion of faster networks for mobile and desktop computers has created an explosion of online platforms for storage (like Box), communication (like Slack), and collaboration (like Mural) through manageable monthly operational subscription costs. These platforms can scale up and down depending on the needs of an organization and are available 24/7 using single-sign on credentials.

However, most workers do not get to vote on which digital platforms they will be asked to use. Instead, the platforms are mandated and workers are usually given little or no training, which means that employees tend to only use a fraction of a platform’s capabilities. During a recent online meeting I listened in on, someone asked “Can you see my screen?” but did not realize they were in the wrong application. Others asked questions about how to operate the platform and spent time helping one another figure out specific features and functions. What should have been a ten minute meeting became a half-hour of troubleshooting.

Management needs to take responsibility for this. Online platforms are often hobbled together in a piecemeal way, or on an “as-needed” basis. There is little thought given to how employees will collaborate, virtually and holistically. In addition, a different mindset is required to work remotely with little or no direct managerial oversight. Another stumbling block is that while management often claims to want employees who work “independently,” the traditional reliance on assigned work and approval processes creates an enforced dependency.

The reality is that many employees passively wait to be assigned work and do not communicate when they have capacity for more projects or tasks. Individual work items are also hidden from others and few know the status and details of specific tasks. Consequently, there is a fire-drill to get work done to share with other employees, managers or executives to meet a deadline. The result is a highly fractured workforce who have uneven ways of working and collaborating, which becomes greatly exacerbated when people are no longer co-located.

In an attempt to unify remote work practices, larger organizations may adopt Google Suite or Microsoft Teams. These platforms essentially aggregate email, calendar, telepresence, chat and document storage. While there have been recent improvements to these suites, such as the integration of single-sign on and access to virtual private networks (VPN) for secure connections, training is needed to understand how to use them and how different tools function together.

However, growing reliance on these platforms has been passive and incomplete, hence leading to employees being under prepared to use them to their potential. For example, many employees do not realize that their digital platforms generate analytics on files, comments and other meta-data (data about data). Some of these analytics are very helpful in monitoring productivity, such as showing how many people viewed a file. Smart platforms help us be better workers and create efficiencies and accelerators to get the job done.

There is also a growing unease about working on these platforms. Some companies are now installing tracking programs like TeamViewer, which monitors everything an employee does on a computer.TeamViewer founder Liam Martin stated, “Our software focuses on active time tracking rather than something that runs subversively in the background, and all data we collect is given specifically to the employee to improve their productivity.”

In regards to the ethics of tracking software,I/O psychologist Mac Quartarone stated,“If you have a lot of trust [in your organization], then you probably expect that the organization is just trying to do the right thing… If you don’t have a lot of trust, then you’re going to assume that they’re trying to fire you or trying to find people that they need to fire.”

Connecting the physical with the digital world

Wired Magazine recently published a good article titled, “How to Work From Home Without Losing Your Mind.” The article addresses the psychological issues of working “alone” from home in that all the usual social cues and environmental signals vanish and are instead replaced with the feeling that one is improvising on the fly. Common challenges include getting dressed, having a dedicated workspace, setting daily goals, limiting interruptions from children/social media, and taking more frequent breaks.

An employee’s work environment and physical mindset (clothing, etc.)
An individual’s ability to self-regulate their day and activities
Enabling objects that make individual and team performance possible

This means creating a conducive physical work-at-home environment, keeping focus on the work itself, and communicating with others using video and instant messaging. Be prepared that initially working this way will feel unnatural and more mentally taxing. Like any new behavior, it will take time to feel natural. Below are nine changes that individuals and teams can make to improve their protracted work-at-home experience and reduce the physical/digital divide of feeling “alone”:

  1. Have an organized workspace in a separate or semi-private room
    Set up a desk, invest in a good ergonomic chair and incorporate appropriate task lighting with a few additional lights to support video quality. Instituting a formal work space helps to formalize your mindset and becomes a way to virtually “go to work.”
  2. Prepare for your week and set daily goals
    Outline weekly goals and define daily tasks. These should be shared with team members on a daily basis in the form of a “standup” in which employees describe what is being worked on, what the current challenges are, as well as what kind of help is needed from other team members.
  3. Limit formal meetings to the morning or afternoons
    Meeting culture does not go away when working from home. As a matter of fact, the number of meetings tends to increase, as people want to feel more connected. There is often a very low bar to online meetings, and invitees do not know how to prepare. Meetings should be no longer than 30 minutes and have a clear agenda with exit goals. There should also be 15 minute meetings for tactical conversations. If possible, all meetings should be scheduled in a similar time-frame to allow for meaningful concentrated work periods.
  4. Increase informal communications with individuals
    Formal meetings are not the only way to connect with other employees and are sometimes a major time suck for most attendees. Many platforms have built-in chat and video features. Targeted communications with collaborators and more frequent short communications that support task alignment and completion are important. This streamlined method of communication should be prioritized.
  5. Maximize concentrated work time
    Having uninterrupted time to concentrate on specific tasks and to have the mental space to think and reflect is critical to doing good work. Connect daily goals to specific time periods to get them completed.
  6. Agree on how your team will use digital platforms
    The team should understand how shared digital platforms will be used on a daily basis. Not doing so will cause conflict, as individuals will do things that other team members do not understand. Agree on what each tool will be used for and how to integrate them together.
  7. Share work progress with your teams at the end of the week
    All work should be visible to everyone at any point in time. This is hard to do as many people do not want to answer for work that is incomplete. Unfortunately, this mindset is not conducive to communication and collaboration. It is better to get feedback in real time rather than to wait for days, get harsh feedback, and then have to redo the work.
  8. Take a 10 minute break every hour
    Working from home can be mentally and physically taxing and sitting for hours is not healthy. Set up a timer for 50 minutes, then walk around or go outside. Implementing changes in a physical environment is a key way to breaking monotony.
  9. Have a virtual lunch with your team once a week
    There has been a recent shift to hosting social events online. Social media has made digital socializing more acceptable and this trend is migrating to the workplace. Set up a time to have lunch with your co-workers or have a group event to have some fun and increase social dimensions to work.

These nine ideas can create better conditions and mindsets to work virtually and to connect purpose with specific actions and tasks. It takes time to migrate people’s dependence on physical co-location to virtual collaboration where physical and digital work seamlessly together. This balances when all team members need to communicate at the same time (synchronous) and when they can work and communicate at different times (asynchronous). Time therefore can be shifted by individuals and teams to maximize the time to think, focus and act through synchronous/asynchronous interactions.

If teams mature these nine ideas and increase their productivity and outcomes, there will be a move from hours to outcomes, from endless meetings to ongoing conversations that support the work, and from being directed to becoming self-directed. It also will raise conversations by a team of what is availability and the work day, and what are the limits to individual availability.

Will the future of work be the same after this contagion?

When September 11th shut down flights around the world, businesses adapted to a new status-quo. Markets had to pivot to get work done without business travel. In the age of CO-VID19 and increased dependence on digital platforms, the current status quo of employees commuting to work (which is time consuming), working in tighter and tighter workspaces, being told by managers what to work on and moving from hours to weekly goals should now be addressed.

Quartz featured a good article on the trade-offs of a virtualized workforce called “What the workplace stands to gain and lose in a post-coronavirus world.” It reviews the ambiguities we are facing and points out that remote teams with members scattered across countries are often also diverse in race and culture, and representative of geographic regions around the world. In the article it states that leadership “won’t stop at accepting that individuals are behaving like reliable adults in their home offices, but also that employees can be granted more autonomy to manage and strategize without top-down oversight.”

Johnny Clayton Taylor, Jr., the CEO of Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) stated that “Leaders promote the people they see, the ones they chat with in the elevator.” Balancing when to be at a physical office and when to work from home “I think we’re trying to figure out how to walk into this new normal . . . and not potentially lose traction around the things that matter around diversity and pay equity, et cetera.”

If productivity dips and then rises due to workforces adapting to work-at-home after the enforced global shut-down, many assumptions of co-located work environments will be forever changed. Increased understanding and use of digital platforms that modify work behaviors may actually bring teams closer together through new forms of communication and coordination.

The use of digital platforms is skyrocketing. “Microsoft said the number of users on Teams had grown 37 percent in a week to more than 44 million daily users. There have been at least 900 million meeting minutes on Teams every day.” Microsoft just announced that all of its physical events will be digital and stated “ . . . For the remainder of 2020, we are embracing the opportunity to experiment with new platforms to provide our partners, customers, and developers the highest quality, digital-first experiences.”

Digital platforms, coupled with streamlined ways of working, are embracing agile and lean culture and methods to do so. Unfortunately, while many companies claim to be agile, they only emphasize working faster with fewer resources, without the cultural, mindset and tool shifts that need to happen to support actual agility. With agile, there is an emphasis on teams being loosely coupled, but tightly aligned. Loosely coupled in that people should have the room to determine what they want to work on and in what order. Tightly aligned in that individuals are in agreement on the goals of a project and that every task supports it.

If the current virus and subsequent stay-at-home mandates stay in place, much of what has been outlined in this post will begin to gain steam and expand. How can we take our social behaviors on social networks which has been virtual for years and where we have strong emotional connections and a strong sense of community and transfer that to our working environment? Sudden changes that become existestential in nature can drive major transformations. We may be at an inflection point and the orthodoxy that work mainly happens at a specific office location is an illusion that is increasingly empirically wrong. The simple truth is what work is and how it gets done is more important than where it gets done.

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