Until relatively recently, the word “teamwork” for most people would have conjured up an image of a group of people physically assembled working together towards a common goal. Like it or not, the world has changed dramatically over the past 12 months, forcing shifts in how we live, exercise, socialise and work.
When it comes to the latter, the multitude of logistical challenges thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic for many businesses has given way to rapid innovation. Teams that had previously relied on physical spaces to bring together the skills and knowledge of their members suddenly found themselves thrust into a new normal, where Zoom calls and instant messenger services have become conduits for almost every type of work interaction.
For better or worse, we’ve had to adapt and a return to the past in terms of office-based work seems inconceivable at this point, as more and more businesses weigh up the cost-savings that can be made if they deprioritise the need for physical office space.
As lockdown restrictions begin to ease in the UK, it is therefore a prescient time to consider what aspects of digital collaboration that have been developed over the past year are worth holding on to and which we’re happy to leave behind. Which new skills have been highlighted as necessary to surviving in such an environment? What new technologies are proving most useful? And what will this all mean for the future of work more generally?
“COVID-19 has undoubtedly accelerated processes of how teams now collaborate and many businesses have been reviewing and upgrading their communications systems and processes,” says Nicole Alvino, co-founder and chief strategy officer at SocialChorus, a collaboration platform.
“The successful implementation of this often depends on harmony between the tech expertise of chief information officers and their IT teams, and the human input of human resources and internal communications departments.”
This experience certainly rings true for the software company Dropbox. “At the start of the pandemic, we moved quickly to mandatory work from home,” says Andy Wilson, director of new product initiatives. “We needed to ensure we had the right tools to enable our employees to collaborate as effectively as normal.”
What tools are needed for the future of work?
Having the right tools of course makes a huge difference. Whether that’s project management tools, such as Asana or Basecamp, instant messaging via Slack or a company Zoom account, access to a diverse set of software makes a huge difference. And new tools are being developed all the time, as more problems crop up that kickstart innovative solutions-focused missions.
According to Alvino, having an open mind to new technological developments, as well as an open ear to what staff say works best, is critical.
Recent research by SocialChorus supports this notion, with more than four in ten respondents worrying that “centralising employee engagement through a single platform, rather than using a blend of technologies their workers prefer, will needlessly complicate matters”.
For Dropbox, beyond the adoption of new tools, harmonisation of widespread remote-working practices necessitated some out-of-the-box thinking. “We believe that this level of collaboration goes beyond just the use of video calls,” says Wilson.
In Dropbox’s case, they were able to use their own products to give them a head start on collaborating effectively from home. The shift has not been without its challenges, but Wilson credits a strong culture of communication with enabling the business to continue to thrive in such an uncertain operating environment. “Giving employees the right space and time to communicate and be creative with their colleagues is essential,” he says.
Aside from the more logistical side of adjusting to collaborating remotely, and the tools required to do this effectively, the shift to working from home has had an impact on the behavioural habits of businesses. For many people, particularly parents, working in solid blocks from 9am to 5pm every day has been incompatible with other responsibilities.
Enhancing team collaboration
According to Jess Baker, business psychologist and women’s leadership coach, it is the “climate” of an organisation that tends to determine how successfully they have adjusted. “Businesses with employees who feel trusted and respected are more likely to cope better than organisations whose employees feel undervalued and micro-managed,” she says.
“The ones who are doing best at the moment are those with elements of the teal organisational structure – think concentric circles instead of a layered pyramid that you’d find in a traditional structure – which allows for self-management, a fluid approach to workload and faster, leaner decision-making.”
There are a number of ways to enhance the ability of a team to collaborate. At Dropbox, they introduced “core collaboration hours”, when employees from across the world are all online at the same time, to ensure teams can communicate regularly. Wilson says the successful implementation of this has gone hand in hand with an acceptance of what he calls “non-linear working days”, when work is measured by tasks completed rather than hours sitting at the desk.
For Baker, these changes have had an impact on the types of skills a manager will need to exhibit to make the most of the opportunities presented by an increase in remote working. “The compassionate leader who builds trust, respect and takes a personal authentic interest in an employee’s wellbeing is going to have a more productive and engaged workforce than the task-focused manager whose sole interest is in the output,” she explains.
Self-awareness will also become a critical skill, Baker believes. “Managers have to look after themselves and seek support when they need it,” she says. The good news is Baker believes these skills are learnt rather than innate.
“Every individual has the capacity to develop the four components of the compassionate leader,” she says. “They are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. As a leader they help you to better influence others, manage conflict, improve your team-working skills and enable you to be a more engaging and motivational leader.”
When it comes to more practical advice, Baker suggests using communication platforms that enable real-time chat and project-focused channels so colleagues can check in and update each other as often as they need to. She also recommends “ditching lengthy ‘information-dump’ meetings”. When you do meet, she says, “only include the people who need to know or are responsible for taking action”.
Alongside this focus on developing new skills, many companies are focusing on innovative ways to approach a return to in-person work. At Dropbox, this means introducing studios specifically designed for in-person collaboration, such as team meetings or large events, which aren’t intended for everyday use or solo work.
“There will be no individual desks in our studios,” says Wilson. “We believe that balancing flexibility and freedom, while maintaining one-to-one working, offers the best of both worlds.”
Other firms are looking at ways to make remote working feel more personal. Nigel Cannings, chief technology officer at Intelligent Voice, an artificial intelligence company, hopes to do this via the development of augmented reality (AR), and eventually virtual reality (VR), meeting software.
“You just don’t build the same rapport over Zoom as you do in person. The way we work post-lockdown will change fundamentally,” he says, “and most people won’t have a choice in what their new work set-up looks like, with many companies deciding against returning to an office-based structure.”
This is where technology can help, Cannings believes, although he is quick to clarify that much of this software development hinges on AR and VR hardware being more affordable and readily available in the near future.
The concept of planning ahead may seem futile after a year in which the only constant has been change. What is clear, though, is those companies that establish cultures fostering clear and open communications, while listening to the needs of employees, will be best placed to seize opportunities in a post-pandemic business environment.