Collaboration is word that is getting thrown around a lot these day.

It is also a word that is often misused. It’s much more than simple cooperation. It is so much more than simply working together.

To be effective and successful at remote collaboration requires a strong understanding of what collaboration is and of the unique challenges that need to be addressed with being remote.

The New Normal is Remote Collaboration

Remote collaboration is a challenge of a different scale. We are not programmed for effective and successful remote collaboration. From the day we are born, we are groomed to collaborate and work “in-person”. As we move through school we collaborate on projects in class, have meetings, present our work, network, and participate in formal and structured in-person settings. This continues into our jobs, where we become acquainted with office dynamics, water coolers, and learn to interpret all forms of in-person cues. We likely get hired because we fit into a culture – because we’d work effectively within a particular collaborative structure and style.

Today we are working and collaborating remotely way more than before, and it’s been a rushed process. There is an evolving normal to how we communicate, the tools we use, and retraining of habits. Facilitating and enabling effective remote collaboration is a whole new skillset and requirement for project managers (and everyone else for that matter).

There’s an inevitable adjustment period. And the hardest part is that being a great collaborator in-real-life does not need to translate into remote success. The hand-shaking and cocktail-drinking salesperson who was everyone’s friend can easily struggle to be collaborative in a virtual remote environment.

What is Collaboration Anyway?

To begin a conversation on successful remote collaboration, a good place to start is coming up with a good definition: what is collaboration?

Simply defined it is the process of people or teams working together to complete or achieve a goal. That can also be the definition of cooperation. Yet, when was the last time you used a cooperation tool? Search for “cooperation tools” and nearly all the results point to collaboration tools. Assuming there aren’t any cooperation tools, what is the difference between cooperation and collaboration?

Four Critical Elements to Successful Collaboration

There are many factors that go into successful collaboration, but four pillars stand out.

Leadership

There is management, who see collaboration gaps, establish responsibilities, coordinate smooth communications, and activate users. They are enablers, creating a collaborative environment, and ensuring inclusiveness (and exclusiveness) as is necessary, to maintain productive workgroups.

Communication

The communication element in a collaborative structure is perhaps most important but also a byproduct of all other organizational factors, such as good hiring policies, organizational openness, and strong leadership. Tools are an essential part of the communication process. From Slack to email, project management tools to archiving, reporting tools to online proofing software, how you share feedback, conversations, and access, shapes a collaborative environment.

Cooperation

Cooperation encompasses how you share knowledge, how open you are with it and how decisions are made. It involves shared outcomes. Without transparency, openness, and inclusivity, your outcomes are not shared.

Individuality

There is an “i” in collaboration. Individual ideas are essential to the creative process and to keeping collaboration moving forward. Individuals need support to develop soft skills such as communication and tool expertise. If collaboration is suffering, it requires a focus on both the collaborative unit but just as importantly individual introspection.

When Collaboration Happens

Building on those four key pillars, successful collaboration happens both synchronously and asynchronously.

Synchronous Collaboration

This is what we think of most often when we think about collaboration, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Synchronous communication can be a meeting, a brainstorm session, a coffee, creative review, online chatting or a phone call.

Asynchronous Collaboration

To go out on a limb – more time is spent on asynchronous collaboration. Emails, documenting, feedback rounds, research and all other sorts of groundwork are key to successful collaboration. Meeting prep has a tremendous impact on collaboration. Strong documentation habits boost individual readiness and contributions.

How to Be Effective at Collaborating Remotely?

Within this framework, remote collaboration is not necessarily all that new or groundbreaking. Most asynchronous collaboration is already done remotely, save for the occasional print and markup (if you aren’t using online proofing?).

Getting in Sync

Meetings, sessions, standups, design scrums – in-person meetings have always been so essential to delivering shared outcomes. The tools you use for remote collaboration are necessary for properly syncing up. The collaborative tools you need vary depending on the needs and outcomes of your communications, but there are some pretty standard tools that generally cover your needs – from a technological standpoint.

Getting Through the Non-Verbal Communication

Tools alone can’t create successful remote collaboration. Effective communication is even more important and challenging. The verbal becomes more important, while the non-verbal becomes even more difficult.

Some body language translates into Zoom. Most doesn’t. You can’t see the fidgeting hands or the tapping foot. For the introverted, speaking up might be even more challenging. For the extroverted there’s a whole new set of challenges (and fewer non-verbal cues).

Writing becomes so much more essential. With diverse teams from different backgrounds (culturally and geographically) it’s to be expected that writing capabilities will vary. Before, a quick chat on the elevator or coming out of a meeting could easily fix misunderstandings. Now, everyone has to rely on writing.

“…Right now [is that] who you are in the written word, how people see you show up in your writing, is increasingly who you are to your company.” – Ali Rayl (VP of CX at Slack).

That can put many at a disadvantage. Training and support can be a new and required part of onboarding for remote collaboration.

The Environment of Collaboration

In an office you share a space. It is built for that and creates a fairly egalitarian space (aside from that corner office). Specifically, when you get into a meeting, you are all in the same room, with the same chairs, light, audio, noise and (non-functioning) video conferencing technology.

In a remote meeting, one caller might be a bachelor living in a one-bedroom in Uptown Manhattan, the other lives on a farm in Montana with their four kids, while the other lives in an architectural masterpiece in Atlantic Canada. One suffers from a lack of sunlight and a decent chair, the other constant interruptions and the other is very zen. This adds another level on the requirement for empathy in the remote collaboration workflow.

Collaboration (Remote or Not) is Culture

The leadership role is a strong indicator of whether remote collaboration could be successful. With access to much less qualitative data (seeing how people are working in the office environment) building cooperation, communication and empowering individuals will require retraining from the top down and bottom up. Collaboration has to change to reflect your teams and teams will change to reflect new methods of collaboration.

Remote Enablement

A few areas an enabler and leadership needs to focus on:
Motivation – Challenging and inspiring individuals in a customized manner.
Participation and engagement – Ensuring the appropriate people are included and involved.
Mediation – Identifying and fixing problem areas proactively.
Reflection – Nurturing and building on successes and wins.

The Benefits of Effective Remote Collaboration

If you are building a company culture with effective remote collaboration, it will lead to very positive results;

  • Better problem solving
  • Strengthen relationships in an organization, which leads to higher retention, happiness, and morale
  • Enhance organizational learning
  • Reduce communication friction
  • Develop a more efficient workforce
  • Achieve better results
  • If that isn’t enough…better people lead to stronger communities.

Remote Collaboration: In It Together

There’s an classic expression that goes

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

As teams continue to experiment with remote working and developing collaborative models, there may be an instinct to just get the work done. Ultimately, expediting a project by going at it on your own can lead to a short term win, but long term, a strong collaborative environment is how to achieve the real visionary results.

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