It’s no secret that many project teams today are geographically dispersed, even inside relatively small companies. In our “flat” world, nearly everyone relies on distributed resources. Social research from as far back as 40 years ago demonstrates there is a positive correlation between physical proximity and the probability of communication. Individuals whose desks are more than 100 feet apart will likely only communicate with one another other electronically.
For teams who are spread across the country, across the globe, or even just across metropolitan areas, most collaboration takes place in email, instant messages, or in various online tools used to manage work and projects. The conversations over these channels lack the nuances of face-to-face communication (including facial expressions, stance, and tone), personal knowledge of the communicator, and a rapid real-time feedback loop. The resulting fragmentation can leave team members without a sense of cohesion, struggling to piece together the information they need to do their jobs.
By viewing collaboration software through a different lens, rather than as just a traditional business tool, managers can give their teams an opportunity for self-expression, spontaneous contribution, as well as a way to build credibility and rapport with their colleagues. Think of collaboration software as a multi-player business gaming environment, where the overall user experience makes “getting things done” more productive and more rewarding.
Here are four ways to use collaboration software to make your distributed team happier, more productive and more cohesive.
1. Don’t buy “collaboration,” buy “solutions” with collaboration features.
This sounds simple, but it’s very important. Look for something that will get the job done in your business environment. Is your group a sales organization? Is the business driven by work tickets? Do you have a project-based organization? Do you have a strict development methodology to follow?
The mission of the business makes a difference, because every tool has it strengths and weaknesses and most are optimized toward different kinds of teams. Beware of tools that claim to work best for every business. For example, if you’re in a large organization that just wants a corporate version of Facebook to stay connected in that “Facebook way,” then you’ll want something like Yammer’s robust social commenting. If you have a sizable development organization you may want to consider a full-featured bug tracker like Jira. Support organizations that live and breathe tickets and email would be well advised to start the search with Zendesk. If the work is project-based, making scheduling and time-tracking essential, then LiquidPlanner is a good place to start. The one thing all of these tools have in common is that communication is in their DNA.
2. Does your collaboration solution create a virtual workspace?
Discussing and documenting the work you do for the group is one of the most important things collaboration tools do. Toolmakers are constantly trying to apply the best ideas in web design and social design to make their as apps easy to use and rewarding as possible. The goal is to replicate the feeling of an awesome meeting where work actually gets done, despite the limitations of time differences and physical proximity for distributed teams.
The need for openness and transparency is more pronounced when your team communicates primarily online. People should be recognized for thoughtful posts, messages, or content that makes it easier for others to move the ball forward. Does everyone know who to contact for the answers when they need to get work done? Managers should facilitate this type of resourcefulness from within the tools, the same way they would in a physical office by walking new employees around and introducing them to key team members.
3. How will team members interact within the workspace (and outside of it)?
In a balanced system, people will consume at least as much as they produce. Hopefully everyone will feel they get more than their fair share of rich content in return for things they put out to the group.
A few finer points to consider when it comes to online conversations:
- Structured or ad hoc : Does your work need structure or organization to it? Do you need projects, folders, tags or search or some other organizing principle? Think about what your workspace will look like at various scales of usage and plan accordingly. Nobody likes a messy shared living space.
- Push or pull: Do you get notified of changes, or do you find yourself spending time going back to look and search for new and relevant stuff? Do you have sufficient control over how the system notifies you?
- Keep vs. toss: Some social systems are more forgetful than others. In a private collaboration system hosted in the cloud there is really no practical need to toss nuggets of wisdom. This tribal knowledge certainly can be valuable to new team members joining the party. Some systems focus way more on organizing and preserving content than others.
- Private vs. public: Who gets to see what? The “friend” model doesn’t always work well in a corporate setting. Solutions take different approaches to sharing, with some offering the ability to extend access to customers and clients who are not part of the core collaboration team.
4. Is the trust and appreciation really there?
If your collaboration tool can’t satisfy the question “What’s in it for me?,” then it’s going to be a one-way ride to nowhere. It’s important to understand the needs of the different constituencies that use collaboration tools. All the participants—from the executive to the front line contributor—must trust the system and believe in its intrinsic fairness and ability to help them do their jobs better. The best software designers understand this and are working to evolve their platforms with a balanced sense of collaboration in mind. If designers do their jobs right, collaboration software will feel natural and fun for every team member who’s using it. This is especially critical when members of your team don’t get the opportunity to make face-to-face connections every day.
Most managers will find that building and maintaining relationships between members of distributed teams continues to get easier, as online social networking becomes second nature to more and more team members. The challenge, really, is to provide a forum for conversation and information exchange that enhances productivity and accountability at the same time. You can increase your chances of success by consciously hiring people who see the value in these tools and are eager, not reticent, to jump in with both feet.
What are your best tips for using collaboration software?
(This article was originally featured on ProjectsAtWork)