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How to achieve effective collaboration in a distributed working environment

By Chris Ellis | |6 minute read
How To Achieve Effective Collaboration In A Distributed Working Environment

With remote and hybrid working practices now the norm for many organisations, increasing attention is being given to its effect on staff collaboration.

When in-person meetings are replaced by online gatherings, and casual conversations over a coffee become a rare event, it changes the nature of interactions – and not necessarily for the better.

A recent report from the Tanner Institute examining company culture found a third of employees “do not consider their workplace a community”, while a quarter actually feel like “outsiders”. This is concerning and can have a significant impact on how organisations function.


Changed communication channels

One of the reasons for these feelings, which has been caused by the shift to remote working, is that people can be unsure about who they should speak with within their organisation. There can be a lack of clarity on who to ask for specific domain expertise or to seek internal permissions or approvals.

This is because, in distributed workplaces, people may have rarely or never worked together in person. Internal silos have also often become established, making it difficult for new recruits to become ‘part of the team’.

Remote working has also had an impact on workflows and processes. While increasing numbers are being digitised, there remain large numbers of manual, paper-based processes in most organisations.

While it’s easy to walk a form down the hall to seek an approval signature in an office, this can’t happen when working remotely. For this reason, many organisations are scrambling to digitise these processes as quickly as possible.

Improving collaboration

While feelings of “community” in many organisations may have unfortunately faded, rebuilding and thereby improving collaboration in a distributed workplace is still possible. The key ways in which this can be achieved include:

  • Establishing clear lines of communication:

One of the most important elements that needs to be established is a network of clear lines of communication. All staff need to know who they should interact with as part of their daily activity.

Often, this can be achieved by using rule- and role-based tooling and processes that map out who is responsible for particular tasks or actions. These should be readily accessible to everyone in the organisation.

These tools are particularly useful as a central collaboration and feedback mechanism. Feedback is an important element in the creation of a feeling of community as it allows people to be transparent and honest with each other and to ask questions or seek advice when needed.

Also, when roles and responsibilities are mapped to the correct internal process owners and experts, it’s clear where feedback should be directed and how to provide that feedback. This “visualisation” of how internal functions work also provides a sense of assumed community because you can see people’s names, roles, and clear lines of communication.

  • Increasing the amount of communication:

Experience shows that a fundamental characteristic of top-performing distributed workplaces is that staff communicate early and often. Even if some think they’re communicating enough, that won’t be the case for everyone.

Unfortunately, when a workplace is distributed, there will be pockets of employees who feel very left out and that there is insufficient interaction. The solution is to vary the types of communication methods used.

Options include anything from open forum discussions and regular informal online chat sessions to email updates and regular updates from senior managers. The most collaborative workplaces are communicating constantly because they understand how critical this is to maintaining a sense of community.

  • Monitoring how people are dealing with change:

When staff are not gathered in a central location, it can be difficult for managers to determine how individuals are coping with change. Some may be embracing it with open arms, while others are finding things daunting and confusing.

Essentially, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can deal with this situation. Rather, it’s important to understand what’s needed by individuals. Do they want more regular catch-ups, or are they happy to work autonomously? Do they want to be part of a team? If so, in which area of work?

Naturally, this will create a greater workload for managers, but it will pay off in more satisfied staff who will be more productive and likely to retain their position with the organisation. This is certainly preferable to having people remain silent with objections.

By focusing on these areas, senior managers can significantly increase the level of effective collaboration across a distributed workforce. The result will be happier staff, increased levels of productivity, and a healthier bottom line.

By Chris Ellis, director of pre-sales, Nintex