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How to improve virtual collaboration in the enterprise

In the ideal team collaboration environment, technology enables a nuanced work experience while fading into the background. Realizing that ideal requires a strategic approach.

When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered an abrupt exodus from the office in early 2020, insurance giant Liberty Mutual faced a technological challenge. With more than 45,000 newly remote workers, CIO James McGlennon needed virtual collaboration technology that could mirror the in-person collaboration experience his users knew best. "It was important we had the ability to support the personal connections our employees had built with their teammates and managers," he said.

Liberty Mutual decided to deploy a centralized team collaboration platform where the bulk of company communication, documentation and workflows now live. McGlennon said the move has greatly encouraged remote productivity and engagement. Virtual, organization-wide town hall meetings feel "like one-on-one interactions, even though there are thousands of employees tuning in," he said, adding that the technology enables participants to easily interact, ask questions and provide real-time reactions from all over the world.

Team collaboration technology adoption has surged since the beginning of the pandemic, with at least 47% of organizations currently using it and an additional 21% planning to do so by the end of 2021, according to recent research from Metrigy. But some deployments are more effective than others. Metrigy also found that organizations' virtual collaboration strategies -- not just whether they use platforms such as Cisco Webex, Google Chat, Microsoft Teams and Slack, but how they use them -- significantly influence ROI.

Here are five tips on how to improve virtual collaboration and get the most out of the technology.

1. Treat your virtual collaboration platform as a work hub

Organizations that view their collaboration platforms as full-fledged work hubs rather than standalone messaging apps are more likely to see measurable business benefits, such as productivity gains, cost savings and revenue increases, according to Metrigy's research. To accomplish these wins, organizations must take advantage of a platform's full feature set and integrate third-party applications, such as CRM and project management software, to provide more cohesive, efficient UX.

For example, CRM software provider Freshworks, based in San Mateo, Calif., has integrated its service desk with its preferred team collaboration platform so employees can more easily report technical issues. CIO and CISO Prasad Ramakrishnan said the company also deploys bots to walk team members through common tasks, such as requesting virtual credit cards, without requiring them to navigate myriad complex business applications. "We are focused on removing friction for our users," Ramakrishnan said.

Sean McGannSean McGann

Single-vendor strategies and application integrations that merge two or more collaboration tools, such as Zoom and Slack, into a single work hub enable centralized administration and minimize the burden on users to keep up with features and updates across a plethora of similar platforms. "In many organizations, collaboration ecosystems have gotten out of control," said Sean T. McGann, professor and collaboration technology expert at the University of Washington's Information School, adding that many employees have to constantly hop from app to app throughout their workdays. "That's not an efficient or effective use of folks' time."

On the other hand, some companies deliberately opt for a relatively decentralized approach, encouraging employees to explore new tools and use the ones they find work best. "Our only collaboration tool that is companywide is Slack," said Borya Shakhnovich, CEO and co-founder of airSlate, a Boston-based workflow automation SaaS provider. As a company that built its growth strategy around user-driven adoption, he said, airSlate needs to give its internal users a high degree of technological autonomy.

Chart comparing Microsoft Teams and Slack features
Enterprises have a number of team collaboration platform options, including Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Slack.

2. Promote widespread platform adoption

Metrigy's survey data suggested an organization seeing significant ROI from its team collaboration software has likely deployed the technology widely, from the C-suite to the call center and everywhere in between. "Get it in everybody's hands," advised Irwin Lazar, president and principal analyst at Metrigy.

Getting employees to buy into new collaboration technology is the next hurdle. When DeVry University, a private, for-profit university based in Naperville, Ill., with campuses throughout the U.S., rolled out Microsoft Teams, CIO and Vice President of IT Chris Campbell focused on finding a use case that would catalyze fast, universal adoption. His team zeroed in on the university's project management office (PMO) because of its logistical and cultural influence within the wider organization.

I try to provide room for innovation out in the wild, without IT involvement. Listen to the users because they will come up with their own use cases.
Chris CampbellCIO, DeVry University

"Most of our colleagues work with them in some capacity, day in and day out," Campbell said. "So, we worked really hard with the PMO on using Teams to support their primary collaboration use cases." Once the office started requiring co-workers from other departments to log project updates via Teams rather than email, other groups quickly embraced the platform for their own collaboration requirements. Users then discovered new features, such as the ability to forward an email to a Teams channel for documentation purposes and drove adoption at the grassroots level.

"I try to provide room for innovation out in the wild, without IT involvement," Campbell said. "Listen to the users because they will come up with their own use cases."

When DeVry's technology team actively promotes new Teams features, some, such as a Power BI dashboard integration, are hits. Others, like Wiki tabs, win over some departments but fall flat elsewhere. And then there are the inevitable internal flops, such as Microsoft's native list management feature. "We thought that was going to be a strong opportunity, but as it turns out, our colleagues [prefer] Excel," Campbell said, adding that his office hasn't pressed the issue.

DeVry's technology team also regularly scans the network for shadow IT, taking note of opportunities to move those workflows to Teams. "If [project management software] Asana suddenly crops up and we've got 100 people out there using it, that's interesting. Let's go talk to them," Campbell said. After interviewing users, he might weigh a university-wide Asana integration and rollout, suggest the users try a similar, existing feature in Teams or sign off on the status quo. "We just want to understand what people are using and why," he added. Campbell sets strict guardrails only around workflows involving financial data and personally identifiable information.

3. Use the right collaboration feature for each task

Since remote work became the new normal in early 2020, enterprises have over-relied on video meetings for collaborative work, according to Alex Victoria, CTO at ZenBusiness, which is based in Austin, Texas, and helps budding entrepreneurs start and run their own companies. Arguing that video calls clog calendars, exhaust participants and are often plagued with technical problems, he encourages his users to limit Zoom use.

"For the past five years, I don't think I've ever seen a board or executive meeting where video conferencing just worked," Victoria said. At least one participant always has connectivity or application issues, and everyone gets distracted by the steady stream of notifications on screen. He therefore prefers the bulk of ZenBusiness' collaborative work take place asynchronously and less formally via other tools and features.

"Write things down in Jira, Confluence and Google Docs. Have lots of short, ad hoc conversations. Update documents. Review asynchronously. Repeat," Victoria said. He also reminds employees not to underestimate the power of a simple one-to-one voice call, which is efficient and has the added benefit of untethering participants from their screens.

Drew Falkman, director of strategy at Modus Create, a global digital consulting firm based in Reston, Va., also sees overuse of video conferencing in the workplace. "We do our best, but I still find myself in at least one meeting a day that would have been better handled through another [collaboration] medium," he said. If an employee has the capacity to focus intensely for four hours a day but has six hours of video meetings, Falkman added, productivity inevitably takes a hit.

The Information School's McGann agreed too many video calls cause meeting fatigue and employee burnout, adding that users should follow a "hierarchy of collaboration" in which scheduling a meeting is always a last resort:

  1. asynchronous communication (shared documents, project management channels, etc.);
  2. synchronous communication (direct messaging, team chat, one-to-one voice calling, etc.);
  3. small meetings; and
  4. large meetings.

Unavoidable meetings should last just 15 to 30 minutes at the most, according to McGann. Include as few participants as possible, and don't invite "optional" attendees, he added, as they will likely feel an obligation to attend even if doing so is not a good use of their time.

But, if enterprise users generally over-rely on video conferencing, other invaluable collaboration features see relatively little use, according to some technology executives. Marc Linster, CTO at EDB, a PostgreSQL software provider based in Bedford, Mass., argued the virtual whiteboard is often underrated. "[It] creates a 2D workspace that everyone can work in, leave and jump back into later, regardless of whether they're remote or in the office," he said, adding that this helps level the playing field in a hybrid work environment. Then, there's the ability to record a screenshare with audio and timestamped transcriptions, on which Mediafly, a Chicago-based sales enablement SaaS firm, relies heavily. The company uses the feature for everything from general management updates to bug reproduction walk-throughs, according to CTO Jason Shah.

"The recipient can read the transcript, tap on a specific section of the transcript to jump to that spot in the recording and play the video back at faster-than-real-time speed. It's an amazing productivity win for everyone involved," Shah said. Another powerful but underused collaboration capability, in his opinion, is the ability to take control of another user's screen during a video call. But Shah also noted that some bells and whistles, such as animated backgrounds, add little value and distract participants.

4. Foster a virtual collaboration culture

Any team collaboration tool works only if employees use it, so it's important to encourage engagement. Michael Klett, co-founder and CTO at online billing platform Chargify, based in San Antonio, said starting to improve virtual collaboration culture could be as simple as holding regular stand-up meetings over Zoom or encouraging employees to update their Slack statuses throughout the day.

Other tips for how to improve virtual collaboration culture include the following.

Establish video norms

Cultural norms in video conferencing vary from organization to organization. The key, according to DeVry University's Campbell, is to make a conscious decision at the leadership level and clearly communicate expectations. "If I'm on the call, everybody turns their video on because they know I won't start the meeting otherwise," he said. "I want to see you, and I think we make a better connection that way."

Sometimes, norms evolve organically. Based on staff feedback, for example, DeVry's leadership decided passive participants in large meetings don't need to use their cameras, "but if you're engaging in the conversation, your video's on," Campbell said.

James McGlennonJames McGlennon

Similarly, Liberty Mutual's McGlennon said he always turns on his camera to create more personal interactions, as leaders must consistently model the digital behavior they want to see from their employees. "I think it's important for us to lead by example," he said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests many users don't mind seeing their colleagues but dislike viewing themselves on screen. "Imagine if there was always a mirror in front of you whenever you were in a meeting," said Modus Create's Falkman, adding that Zoom participants can use the "hide self" feature to minimize those distracting "I look tired today" moments.

For some organizations, making video optional better aligns with their corporate culture. "We tell our employees that, if they don't feel comfortable being on camera sometimes, don't be," said EDB CTO Linster. "We're conscious that people are working full time out of their homes, and we want to respect their privacy."

Another consideration: to mute or not to mute? "Encourage people to stay unmuted as that tends to be a good indication of overall engagement," suggested Matthew Feeley, director of modern applications and data intelligence at Netrix, an IT services provider based in Chicago. Participants might initially worry about background noise, he added, but technology leaders should reassure them that noise suppression features on major platforms, like Teams and Zoom, almost always suffice.

Work out loud

Encouraging employees to "work out loud" also helps organizations get the most out of their team collaboration tech, according to Campbell. Sharing questions, successes and struggles "broadly and often" on group collaboration channels can break down siloes, build engagement, increase transparency and create persistent, contextual treasure troves of organizational knowledge for future shared reference.

"Culturally, that's something we continue to work on, although we're getting better," Campbell said, pointing out that DeVry's technology team has started moving standard Scrum meetings to a dedicated Teams channel. Eventually, he'd like to see all university employees posting relatively unfiltered status updates to project or even department channels. Working out loud helps teams feel more connected and enables leaders to see at a glance the areas that require their involvement.

"As much as possible, we take [conversations] away from email and direct messages and put them in public channels and shared workspaces, where other people can actually view them," airSlate's Shakhnovich agreed. In this way, virtual collaboration technology helps veteran employees stay on the same page and new team members get up to speed, he added.

Work side by side

Today's team collaboration tools have come a long way but still largely fail to facilitate the kinds of unscheduled conversations that readily take place in a physical office, where colleagues can informally chat about shared projects in person. "There really needs to be a better method of creating that virtual hallway where off-the-cuff conversations can take place as they would in a normal office setting," EDB's Linster said.

"That's the biggest battle to fight," Victoria agreed, adding he encourages his team to occasionally have open, agenda-free video sessions to recreate the experience of working together in person. "I've seen some teams just set up a Google Meet session and let it run all day with people dropping in and out as needed."

Falkman said his team hosts similar co-working sessions, a tradition that began by accident one day when a weekly meeting petered out and the participants found themselves working on different projects while still on a shared Zoom. "This was probably the closest experience I have had to working in an office since the pandemic began," he added. "We were just casually talking about nothing, in the Seinfeld sense. We all laughed when we realized we were all just working -- together."

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