Working from home may have certain efficiency and cost-reduction benefits for employees and employers, but it comes with risks for team collaboration. As Angus Loten writes in the Wall Street Journal, “remote workers can feel excluded from team and office-level events, have unclear work expectations, and lack visibility into workflows.”
Companies are turning to virtual meetings as an alternative to the in-person interactions of the pre-COVID past in an attempt to bridge communication gaps between project team members at all levels.
There are multiple benefits to video conferencing and virtual meetings, says international consultancy firm McKinsey Global. In their report Advanced social technologies and the future of collaboration, they say that, “companies that use more advanced social tools, such as online videoconferencing and collaborative document editing, workers report spending less time on the phone and responding to email when compared with their peers. What’s more, respondents at companies using message-based platforms also say they communicate differently within their teams — and across levels, roles, and the entire organization.”
Virtual meetings should be seen as a tool for improving project collaboration. Bringing various layers of project management together, no matter where they are located physically, is a valuable opportunity that should be exploited. Impromptu meetings in hallways or around the lunch table can’t compare in potential quality. However, just as with in-person meetings of the past, value must be created.
“The purpose behind team collaboration isn’t for you to always be available,” writes Elizabeth Grace Saunders in Harvard Business Review. “Instead, it’s to make sure that you and your team are aligned on your goals and most effectively moving ahead in accomplishing them.
“Done right (collaboration) is a powerful force to align a group of individuals to accomplish a common goal in the most effective way possible,” writes Saunders. “Done wrong, collaborative projects can feel like a waste of time where individuals spend more time talking about doing things than actually getting things done.”
In other words, you must be “intentional.”
Cassie Bustos, product marketing manager at Autodesk Construction Solutions, agrees.
“For team collaboration to work remotely, you and your teammates must be clear and strategic about how you will collaborate,” she says.
Just like previous in-person meetings, “make sure expectations are established and communicated for the new virtual meeting format. If attendees understand the expectations and process for the new meeting style, they’ll be more inclined to engage and adapt to it.”
Selection of the right virtual meeting format from the wide variety of available technologies must be determined by the task at hand, says McKinsey.
“Any improvement via social tools must begin with people changing the way they work first, then using the tool that fits best.”
Screen sharing, the integration of documents, drawings, whiteboards and, of course, the ability for attendees to post annotations or mark-ups and to ask questions in an orderly manner, are features to consider, all based on specific organizational requirements. Security and attendee authorizations also need to be reviewed by the IT department.
Saunders recommends virtual meetings be scheduled in a strategic manner rather than randomly and on short notice.
“People’s time is valuable. Set up standing meetings instead of constantly scheduling new meetings.”
And while the formality of sending out agendas in advance means improved meeting productivity, Bustos suggests keeping the tone of the meeting conversational.
“While the conversation is flowing, it is critical for someone to take detailed minutes to capture decisions and track accountability for attendees to reference, as well as for audit purposes.”
Saunders expands the video conferencing concept further, promoting the idea of working with a colleague simultaneously on camera.
Calling this “virtual side-by-side work” she says, “this way, you can easily stop and ask them a question or ask for feedback whenever you get stuck. Since the person is already ‘there’ and working on something similar, the collaboration can move forward more smoothly.”
Although the rewards of in-person collaboration are not always easily captured through video, there are advantages to be discovered.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.