Searching for information in an email thread can take ages, trying to interpret nuances over the phone is no replacement for being able to see team members, and sitting on your own for days on end is isolating. Can teams really work effectively from afar, asks Heather Greig-Smith
An employee arrives at work a little bleary-eyed in the morning, gets a coffee and chats to co-workers about the weekend, sharing some perspectives on a new project and asking for their input. It’s a great start to the day. But the characters in this scenario are not necessarily in an office together. One could be in a coffee shop near her home, two of her colleagues 300 miles away in a co-working space, and another could be in San Francisco and about to go to bed. Idealism or reality? It depends who you ask.
The options for businesses to communicate are expanding. From audio conferencing to video versions, chat, file sharing, collaboration tools and enterprise social networking, it can be hard to untangle the benefits and work out which to use and when. But we need to. Donald McLaughlin, director of collaboration sales for the UK & Ireland at technology multinational Cisco, says that by next year the number of mobile workers is expected to reach 1bn across the globe – nearly 40% of the workforce. He adds that getting collaboration right is key to competitiveness. “If people feel they can work in their own way, you get a much higher level of performance and productivity out of them.”
Disparate teams are not just about remote workers either. Jon Mell, social business leader for the UK & Ireland at tech giant IBM, points out that working in the same place as your whole team is becoming rarer. “Even if you’re in the office, in some ways you are working remotely,” he says. “It’s not just a working from home thing – it’s a global trend in terms of not being physically located together.”
David Dunbar, head of Advise Anywhere, BT Advise UK, agrees, noting that individuals who are working as a single unit in a large office often feel more left out. “What we have to try and do with a disparate team is nail down those coffee machine moments and spontaneity.”
Research by Gartner also highlights that mobile options are increasing inside the workplace, with some retailers replacing tills with roaming floor clerks holding tablets, and workers using tablet technology on the factory floor.
Embracing technologies that enable disparate teams to communicate effectively is not only about replicating or replacing face-to-face, nine-to-five activity: organisations that truly understand and deploy tools to connect the workforce are also taking steps into a different way of working.
“It’s not that we’re taking old ways of working and replicating them,” confirms Mell. “We’re actually re-thinking how work gets done.”
IBM’s ‘Smarter Workforce’ approach includes an active and powerful enterprise social network that connects 430,000 geographically diverse employees, allowing them to share content and experiences. “The key is that it is not a file share, it’s a social platform organised around a person. All you have to remember is the person who gave a presentation and it is easy to find,” he says.
Mell’s experience of using social tools to work is that it drastically expands reach. A colleague in one of the smallest IBM communities, Puerto Rico, has presentations that have been downloaded over 2,500 times and is often called on to fly to high level customer meetings as a result. IBM also has a social community for new hires that cut attrition rates in the first 90 days from mid-teens to single digits, realising tremendous cost savings.
Few companies are approaching this level of sophistication and comfort with collaborative tools. Bernardo de Albergaria is vice-president and general manager of the collaboration product group at Atlassian, which includes Confluence and Hipchat – two collaborative tools for teams that offer a combination of audio, video, screen sharing and group chat. Projects are trackable and all information is stored in one place rather than “being lost in a sea of emails”. He says most firms still operate desktop file sharing and email conversation, which is “fragmented and not easily searchable and accessible”.
Inevitably, technology teams are the ones taking a lead in finding alternatives. “Tech teams and software teams are usually at the forefront not only of adopting new tools and solutions but also new ways of collaborating,” says de Albergaria. He says non-technical teams are starting to use such tools, but the scope for expansion is enormous. “We’re just scratching the surface. We are seeing a much higher rate of adoption by non-technical teams but the vast majority are still using email as their only way of collaborating and communicating.”
De Albergaria points to the collaboration boost created by the proliferation of consumer tools. “Many of the new wave of products are by-products of ways for consumers to connect with each other,” he says. This includes social networking and chat tools such as WhatsApp, which are increasingly finding their counterparts in enterprise. “In the business world we’re seeing more and more solutions that take advantage of consumer adoption and comfort with new ways of connecting.” Business tools, he says, need to focus on the user experience rather than the corporate buyer. “If the end user doesn’t adopt the tool, there is no return on investment.”
Dunbar agrees. “It’s about understanding the ways that people are working and equipping them for that way of working instead of a vague high standard. A lot of organisations are investing in collaboration technologies but if everyone still works in a traditional way, then that investment doesn’t have a return.”
Head into the cloud
The proliferation of collaboration and communication tools is made possible by cloud technology. Many providers offer their basic plans for free. Andrew Millard is marketing director of Citrix, which offers collaboration products such as GoToMeeting, ShareFile and Podio. He says: “Things became far simpler to use and employees are a bit more demanding about using software that works for them. They are starting to make their own decisions.”
Millard adds that users may start with free consumer tools such as Skype or Google Hangouts and look for bespoke business products when they come to rely on them.
Dunbar, however, is sceptical about free tools being the answer, arguing that they differ from paid tools in terms of quality, predictability and evolutionary power. “Nothing is for nothing: there will be a cost at some point, such as advertising,” he says. “As a professional company, do you really want to ask your customers to come to a site that is advertising something?”
Video is a tool many are now deploying to engage with their disparate teams. Cisco chief executive Phil Smith says the technology is reducing travel and changing the way work is done. “In the past if we wanted a substantive meeting we needed to have people in the room, but the sort of technology available now really changes things.”
Cisco, whose products include Jabber and WebEx, banned travel for internal meetings and saved $500m (£310m) in airfares in the first year. “It changed my life,” adds Smith. “I used to go to the US 10 or 12 times a year – I go maybe once a year now.”
As well as improving quality of life, a by-product of using video for meetings instead of travel is that teams get in touch more frequently, not waiting for face-to-face contact. “We have changed the way we do meetings; rather than having a big summit you have shorter, more frequent updates,” says Smith. IBM’s Mell adds that clients have cut the time it takes to get a product to market by a third, saving time by not flying people around to have conversations.
Not everyone is convinced video is the answer. Greg Wright, managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for project management tool provider At Task, likens it to “patting your head and rubbing your belly” – not yet a natural way to work because the technology is not advanced enough. “It might change in 5-10 years but we’re not there yet,” he says. Dunbar adds that audio is more popular in the teams he works with because it can be deployed so easily and workers can be anywhere.
Andy Nolan, sales director at video conferencing provider Lifesize, says it is often culture rather than technology holding organisations back and connections are more meaningful when they are visual. “It’s clearly impractical to travel all the time and as communication is predominately visual, a verbal conversation does not create any intimacy or build personal relationships,” he says.
Millard also believes video is more effective in linking teams than solely using audio. “We need to build up that trust and confidence in each other,” he says. “We need to have face to face. Not every day, but you need to ensure that’s part of your mix.”
Firms that want to embed technology and collaborative tools need to ensure they have the right culture to adapt to them. “The biggest problem is that most companies manage remote workers in the same way they manage people who come into the office every day,” says Wright. “They are hiring the wrong people. They don’t understand what the employee really does and what makes them tick.
“We are in a much better place to be able to collaborate remotely than we have ever been. The most successful businesses that use our solution are ones that have a very high level of executive sponsorship – if you don’t have that, it’s tough.”
McLaughlin agrees that technology can embed flexibility in organisations as long as they first address culture change. He says: “The technology won’t change working if you don’t want it to change. People tend to take to this much more readily early in their careers because they are using it in their personal lives. Organisations that have that demographic move forward much more quickly.”
‘Millennial’ workers coming into the workforce are far more comfortable with technology, mobile, chat and video than their predecessors. They expect to work in a mobile way and if they are not provided with the right tools they’ll go out and find them.
“The Millennials come into work seeing email as something their parents did and they’re tech savvy,” says Mell. “FaceTime (video) is the norm – these people are going to find that a much more natural way of working. They may actually find the traditional way of working a bit weird. They will have the skills to sign up for a cloud service themselves if IT doesn’t provide it.” Nolan agrees but says older workers tend to become comfortable with technology once they have used it a few times: “It is important that the technology is very user friendly as bad experiences turn people away.”
The potential for collaborative tools to change the working landscape is huge. De Albergaria predicts the tools will evolve further. “There is going to be much better specialisation of this based on your industry,” he says. That means collaboration tools for particular verticals and tools that adapt to use – either by manual intervention or by morphing as they are used.
Accessible and affordable services have democratised the process and converts believe it will be pervasive.
“You can have collaboration for everyone instead of being limited to a telepresence suite,” says McLaughlin. “It’s much more affordable and the user experience is much more enjoyable. I suspect there are organisations out there that don’t understand this at all, but they are probably losing out in terms of productivity and efficiency.”
TOP TIPS FOR SUCCESS
“Some collaboration tools are more like a game of chess than a team sport,” says Dunbar. So how to navigate the minefield?
1) Start small: De Albergaria advises companies not to try and do too much at once. “When you try and do too many things with one tool you’re probably not doing all the things very well and it complicates the experience. Start with a tool that’s very simple and does the main thing you want to solve really well. That ensures adoption and when the team is comfortable you can look into tools that are more full-featured and integrate with other things.” Wright agrees: “You don’t need to convert 35,000 employees to a tool overnight. Start small, get the win and when people start hearing about that it starts to spread. We call it ‘land and expand’.”
2) Find advocates: Millard says it is important to lead people into using the tools. “We often have advocates in a team, rather than expecting everyone to learn how to use it. You have someone to lead the way and decide how far to take hold of a certain tool.”
3) Communicate: McLaughlin advises managers to focus on forging connections. “Plan on over-communicating rather than under-communicating in the early days. When you have disparate teams, people can feel remote and left out. There is an onus on the manager to deliberately bring people together, through video or other ways, so that people feel included and involved.” Team events also take on much greater significance as they are a chance to meet in person and forge connections that will be continued virtually.
4) Measure: Mell says it is vital to measure engagement – something companies tend to do haphazardly. He gives the example of construction machinery manufacturer Caterpillar, where high levels of engagement have been linked to a third fewer accidents in plants. Other examples include 20% higher revenue in stores where the manager is highly engaged.
5) Think mobile: Make sure tools are mobile-based and integrate into the work you do. “More and more, it’s the ability to be able to access any files, comment and look up an expert on the go that are important,” says Mell. “If you’re a sales person in the field, the ability to look things up on your phone is invaluable.”
De Albergaria agrees that the mobile component is going to continue to grow in importance. “The constraints placed on users and developers by the small screen forces you to get to the essence of what a tool should do. The drive for simplicity forced by mobile is altering how we design.”
Jack Santos, research vice-president at IT research and advisory firm Gartner, says IT departments have had endless debates on whether smartphones and tablets would replace desktops and laptops. “Those debates are over. The market is speaking, and it is clear that most organisations will have to support a mix of all of the above, but the mobile-only user will predominate.”
6) Be strategic: McLaughlin advises a considered approach. “There’s lots of options out there in the market. We would encourage companies to take an architectural approach to this, building some functions first and then deciding what they want to achieve. When you grab things from here, there and everywhere it becomes difficult to join things up. Take a more considered approach.”
Danny Golding, director of consultancy Work Out Loud, says it is important to start with how you want to work effectively as a business, instead of with the technology. “What happens too often is that someone sees a whizzy bit of software and goes out and gets it, but they don’t really know what they need it for.”
7) Don’t panic: “There’s all sorts of wonderful stuff out there and some of it will evolve into useful things,” says Dunbar. “But sharing voice, desktop, files and being able to reach out to a wider audience are still the basic things. Ideally you need a spectrum of tools that merge into each other.”
8) Set behaviour expectations: Santos says managers must be aware of conversations and disagreements that become unhealthy and cannot be remedied by walking into a next door office to talk it through. He advises clear goal setting, regular one-on-one online meetings, and an awareness of the etiquette of different modes of communication, for example distractions on audio calls and video conferencing.
“Mobility carries with it increased responsibility and awareness for self-management, especially in areas of time management and workload,” he says. “Mobile and remote work, once feared to be a slippery slope to less work, can be a slippery slope to overwork and burnout. Prioritising, time management and discussions with peers are a significant part of the work-life balance equation that becomes the core of a mobile regime.”
9) Take everyone with you: Golding says people who struggle to get to grips with a tool may stay silent if they feel everyone else is moving on. “They may need coaching and support.” He adds that, equally, there are some who will struggle to share information. “In the old days they would have had things locked away in a filing cabinet. Now they have them locked away on their hard drive or squirrelled away in their inbox. “If you’re going to use a tool to share information, you have to make sure the information goes on that tool.”
10) Plan conference calls: It is vital that all parties stick to an agenda, says Robert Gorby, marketing director for conference call specialist Powwownow.co.uk. “Too many calls lack focus and lead to the key topics not being covered. This agenda should allow time for each member of the meeting to succinctly say their piece, without wasting the group’s time.” He adds that punctuality is crucial to avoid the frustration of multiple greetings. “Although it’s tempting to just ‘jump’ on a call, adequate planning and organisation is key to ensuring that a meeting’s objectives are met and people don’t wake or stay up in all corners of the globe for no benefit.”
Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcela-palma/