With a very large proportion of work today being done remotely, the question of how to effectively collaborate in a virtual environment is a pressing one. Even after months of working from home, many people have yet to become completely comfortable with online collaboration. Part of the problem is, of course, the simultaneous impersonality and intrusive nature of these interactions; then there is the lack of platforms that can duplicate actual physical collaboration.
One sector that has explored virtual collaboration since before COVID-19 is the tech sector, where developers and engineers might work remotely for much of their time on a team and communicate only online. Here are some lessons on effective virtual collaboration that can be drawn from the industry.
Communication must be deliberately structured to be useful
"Bad communication increases cognitive overload," said Herve Roussel, the CEO and co-founder of software engineering assistant platform Quod AI. Much of virtual collaboration within engineering and development teams, he explained, is asynchronous—team members work at different times, communicating mainly through clear written documentation supported by short clarifications as needed.
With this form of collaboration, Roussel said, four key requirements must be met for communication to be effective and useful:
The problem must be clearly defined
The context must be explained
The information must be presented in a way that allows the recipient to recognize and integrate it into their own worldview
The communication must be free of distractions, which is to say extraneous and irrelevant information that adds to the recipient's cognitive load
Inter-functional transparency must be created and maintained
Nicolas Embleton, SVP of Engineering for ScratchPay, observed that there is a need to build bridges between different functions. Speaking at a SGInnovate panel discussion on virtual collaboration, he pointed out that technology is not built for the sake of technology: it is built to solve problems, and it is built for stakeholders from all backgrounds and with all levels of knowledge or priorities.
One way of creating transparency for these stakeholders is to set up workgroups to involve all the functions who have a stake in the product. Even if a workgroup is mission-driven and associated with one specific function, it should still remain open to anyone who wants to get a better understanding of what is being done.
"With workgroups, people see what's happening and get a sense that they actually know what's going on," Embleton said. "It reduces distance between people because they can see what's happening and what it means when someone else is working on the project."
An at-need approach should be encouraged towards meetings
A common complaint about remote working is that people find themselves drawn into more meetings simply to keep in touch with their colleagues, which takes up time and affects their productivity. Renu Yadav, Engineering Manager at Grab, observed that as a result, people have become more skeptical about the use of meetings: they are increasingly inclined to ask if a meeting is necessary, if their presence is necessary, or if the information can be passed around without the meeting at all. And this questioning approach is encouraged.
"It promotes a culture where they don't have to feel obliged to attend meetings," she said, pointing out that people are giving greater importance to time and making better use of it: they ask more questions and demand more excellence from such interactions, and this leads to more productive and effective meetings overall.
Context must be provided alongside information
Ishan Agrawal, the CTO of P2P lending platform Funding Societies, pointed out that on many online communication platforms, especially when people default to short messages, the context of the information is lost. "There's no idea whether it is urgent, whether it requires a reply or is just for your information, or when action should be taken," he said, speaking on the same panel as Embleton and Yadav.
The solution, he suggested, is for people to consciously make the effort to incorporate that context and metadata into their communications. It might make communications longer and more involved compared to the ease of firing off a short WhatsApp-type message, but it will relieve recipients of much of the stress of uncertainty.
For the same reason, chats need to be moderated for structure so that users can find the information they need again, and information should always be shared in group chats rather than in private chats so that everyone has access to the context.
Create a culture of sharing, transparency, and broadcasting
All these things—clearly structuring communication, providing adequate context, extending information and access to everyone who is involved in a given project or process—can only really have their full effect in a culture of sharing and transparency where people focus on building bridges rather than on doing their individual thing.
"You may have the best tools and a horrible culture and will have the worst results", said ScratchPay's Embleton. "In contrast, bad tools in a good culture will still produce good results."
Fortunately, many of the practices suggested above can be built into habits that will eventually form the basis of such a culture—it is a virtuous cycle where the desired behaviors encourage reciprocation. And just as many people have become used to remote work over the last few months, so they may also become used to a culture that supports and empowers virtual collaboration.
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