I’m writing this from my dining room table. Like thousands of office workers across the country, I’m laboring away at home due to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. When not thinking about the health of family, friends and the economy, I wonder how this unexpected remote work situation will, well, work out.
Thanks to technology, the question is not so much how those of us so-called knowledge workers will accomplish our daily tasks or even collaborate from a distance. Rather, it’s how do we work as effectively as possible as part of a remote team? Pandemic notwithstanding, work-from-home numbers are up by 173% since 2005, with roughly 4.7 million people doing their jobs remotely at least half the time, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
All manner of cloud-based tools exist for keeping in touch, planning projects, sharing files and collaborating on documents — whether we’re working down the hall from our colleagues, in another neighborhood or halfway around the world.
But it’s one thing to have a digital collaboration tool just a keystroke away. It’s another to use it effectively. We checked in (remotely, of course) with Mendoza College of Business professor Nicholas Berente, who studies digital innovation, including best practices for virtual collaboration among far-flung science research teams. He co-authored a chapter, “Strategies for Success in Virtual Collaboration: Structures and Norms for Meetings, Workflow, and technological Platforms,” which was published in 2019 in the book, “Strategies for Team Science Success.”
“Despite marketing hype, platforms by themselves don’t do anything: what matters is the ways in which they are used,” say Berente, the Viola D. Hank Associate Professor in Mendoza’s Department of IT, Analytics, and Operations, and his co-author James Howison of the University of Texas at Austin.
They note that newcomers to virtual collaboration rely almost exclusively on discussion to coordinate their efforts, including conference calls, virtual meetings
and “emails that can involve long, unstructured and meandering conversational streams.” While discussion is critical, they say, these methods for coordinating team collaboration also result in lost efficiency, especially when dealing with well-defined work.
Here are several research-based suggestions for how teams can better structure their remote workplace collaboration and maximize those virtual conference calls and emails.
BREAK IT DOWN
Articulate your goals and subgoals so you can align your remote tasks and collaboration accordingly. In other words, apply your project management skills and scheduling to the tasks at hand and hold a kickoff meeting so everyone is on the same page. Sometimes, this type of advanced planning is not easily done due to the nature of the project. In that case, the researchers say, identify key
In the case of scientific research, this might mean identifying a type of analysis as the deliverable and then what lab reports or data crunching would be needed. They also note that “working to accomplish simple tasks in a way that is visible to others in the initial stages of a collaboration can provide trust and knowledge of each other’s skills that can enable the group to adjust their work over time.”
ESTABLISH PLATFORM NORMS
It’s easy to sign up for a flashy new collaborative platform for communication, project management or document sharing that promises its bells and whistles will make your team happier and more productive. But ultimately, it’s how your team consistently uses the platform over time that determines its effectiveness.
Jumping around to different platforms is problematic, the researchers note, and can result in records and documents being stored on multiple platforms and prevents team usage norms and conventions from becoming established.
The attitude of team leaders toward the platform is key to successful implementation, they add, noting that “visible and enthusiastic use of a platform by the leaders of a virtual collaboration sends a powerful message and shapes the use of the platform throughout the team.”
FOCUS YOUR MEET-UPS
When you do set up real-time conferencing, remember to keep the meeting focused on your deliverables and goals and the responsibilities related to those. A shared agenda is useful to keep things on task.
Berente and his co-author also advise leaders to be mindful of inadvertently undermining members’ sense of team inclusivity during synchronous meetings. If meeting with members in different time zones, a “good morning” might give those in another time zone a sense of being peripheral to the team. Also, consider rotating meeting times so that one time zone doesn’t always have the most convenient meeting time.
Illustration by Shaw Nielsen
Establish a shared agenda (perhaps through a shared document) and stick to it. A virtual environment can make it more challenging to remain focused on the meeting objectives.
Designate a notetaker who keeps track of action items assigned to different team members.
Before the end of the meeting, review priorities, assign tasks and confirm the next meeting date.
After the meeting, send out a summary of the discussion and action items and upcoming dates.
Ask for feedback about the meeting in order to improve future sessions.
Nicholas Berente, the Viola D. Hank Associate Professor of IT, Analytics, and Operations, studies how digital innovation drives large-scale change in organizations and institutions and is the principal investigator for a number of U.S. National Science Foundation projects.