Last week, a new hire on my team watched me struggle to draw the organizational structure over our onboarding call. What used to take me a few minutes with a marker and the whiteboard took many minutes as I dragged, dropped boxes, and scribbled into them. As I finally managed to close my explanation, I recalled a conversation with a business leader a few weeks ago. He’d said that of all the things he missed about work, he missed the debates and conversations around the whiteboards the most. Not to forget the fact that most work often got done over tea breaks, offline conversations, and when you walked over to someone’s desk vs emails and calls. At the same time, I recalled yet another conversation where a manager talked about how virtual calls felt exactly like sitting around a conference table with everyone yelling and cutting everyone else off. The common thread to the many conversations was that irrespective for better or worse, communication and collaboration were witnessing a change across organizations around the globe and in India.
A few years ago, office spaces were being designed to encourage employees to come together. Workplace collisions that led to an increase in the exchange of ideas and innovation, were the very reasons that gave birth to the concepts of open offices and increased common spaces. Now workspaces are being redesigned to do the exact opposite; to encourage employees to keep the distance.
From March’20 to now, all forms of communication, engagement, and collaboration went virtual for most Indian organizations and it will continue to be virtual for at least the rest of the year. As work merges into every waking hour, people are actively trying to reduce the number of calls in a day (headphone fatigue) and manage emails better. Meetings are kept as short as possible and employees are adopting ‘laptop detoxes’. While all these measures are an absolute necessity to regain balance, it is also leading to fragmented collaboration. One no longer has calls equivalent to tea or smoke breaks. In the quest for the perfect meetings, the time spent in pleasantries and pointless rambling has been cut short to sticking to important aspects. Meetings are turning into everything we wanted them to be except that when one isn’t meeting colleagues in person, it is easy to be torn between yearning for informal conversations and being protective of your time.
When calls are considered overhead, employees clamor for fewer meetings (informal or otherwise) and virtual whiteboards let you down, how does one ensure that communication and collaboration thrive? Here are a few things one can try.
2020 has seen tremendous growth in the utilization of online collaboration tools. Companies are releasing new features and upgrades to keep up with demand. Explore incorporating some of these into work. Asana, Trello, Slack, Quip, CodingTeam are just some of the tools that ease communication, collaboration, and project management. Pay attention to which of these tools allow you to solve multiple problems at once, are easy to use, have strong privacy controls, and are compatible with the systems you already have in place. These tools can also act as a replacement for the physical spaces you created to encourage employees to come together. Consider them your virtual collision spaces. Leverage team and interest chat rooms. Just ensure that these groups are large enough to be inclusive but small enough to feel intimate.
Hit pause on your goals and reassess the ones that have suddenly become more critical. One need that has repeatedly emerged on top for both managers and employees is how to work remotely. Managers have endless questions on how they can manage remote employees better and likewise, employees have expressed the need for help in understanding how to stay connected to the team. Tips on effective meetings, the importance of not canceling any 1:1s and team meetings or saving time for pointless banter are not actions that come naturally to all. Yet, how to stay effective while virtual has made it to the top on the list of things that will make one successful. It is important to design learning that will help managers and employees how to stay connected and collaborate.
People who are working from home need to be skillful communicators on what they're doing, how are they supposed to work? When the entire team is working from home, the question of trust building also becomes important. When working remotely, it is easy to lose out on contextual clues that help us in person. When in doubt, over-communicate. No matter how small a decision or short a conversation, try to summarize important project updates or meeting notes and share them with the rest of the team — even at the risk of redundancy. It is best to do this in writing. A lot of meetings take place with the minutes never being recorded. That needs to change. After any meetings or team discussions, encourage the meeting leader to write down meeting minutes and send any decisions made to the team as soon as possible. This will help teammates stay aligned and serve as the plan of record going forward.
Back in the office, it wasn’t rare to have someone call or walk up to your desk if they didn’t receive a response within the hour. That behavior needs to change. People are increasingly juggling a lot more tasks at the same time and will likely not be in front of their laptop when you message or email them. Build in a response time. Set yourself up mentally to understand that you don’t need responses immediately. People are not responding because they are ignoring you. They are likely busy or taking a break. Accommodate asynchronous communication and if it is urgent, mention it in your subject line and chat. Also, avoid sending messages that are simply “Hello” to engage. A lot of times I do not respond to a “Hello” because it gives me zero context on the ask. Instead, include enough information to allow people to respond when they can.
Staying effective while working virtually is a muscle that gets stronger with training. Yes, in-person interactions provide a depth that the virtual can never hope to imitate. Yet, as collaboration adopts new forms, it is important to change with the times. What changes are you making to adapt?
This piece is the second in a four-part series discussing how existing practices may or may not need to change to translate into the new world. Read the first here.
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