2021: Are you already collaborating, or do you still communicate?

How has your way to work changed with the COVID-19 pandemic? The question does not only comprise the physical aspect – where do you work? Also the notion of how people collaborate and organize their work has come under review and discussion. No matter what the approach will be, the future will be different from today. In this blog post, we dare to look at the future and argue why we need a new understanding of modern collaboration. We put an emphasis on challenges and opportunities, outlining how modern collaboration could look like and what potential it might hold.

This is just the gist of a more detailed Whitepaper Zeppelin colleagues Hannes Schweizer und Michael Topp have crafted – please find the German original version for download at the end of this page.

Hannes Schweizer & Michael Topp, 2021 © Zeppelin Group

What is our context today?

After having struggled for some years with remote working and how to implement it in our organization, it became “normal” just all of a sudden. Nowadays the challenges of this transformation even exceed the classical work from home and we now focus on remote collaboration.

Before we experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working was still mainly seen as a benefit to underline an employer’s attractiveness. The pandemic, however, made it a prerequisite.

However, the technical possibilities we have are mainly used for communication and synchronization of teams. The focus is not on creative collaboration with innovative solutions as an outcome, but on up-to-date information and decisions to be made. Creative ideas are still seen as the primary outcome of personal physical presence, while remote contact plays a secondary role, at best.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be an important accelerator of change – both in terms of technology but also in terms of corporate culture.  

How do we define modern collaboration?

COVID-19 has shown that it’s not only “IT nerds” who can share their workload, independently from where they are based. Thanks to so-called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and cloud solutions, anyone can access data and services from anywhere. But how do individual needs influence our understanding of collaboration? Here is one example: Outside it’s 30 degrees Celsius, the sun is shining. You would like to enjoy yourselves outdoors, by the pool, wouldn’t you? Instead, almost all of us head to the office, sweating, and accept these unfavorable conditions to perform. From a physical perspective, we could possibly work and concentrate better, if we just stuck to the cooler times of the day. Our energy could be used for ideas and creativity instead of endurance and sweat.

This doesn’t mean that every employee in the organization always put their needs first and act independently. The art is to find a common solution that takes into account different needs in an organization. After all, individual freedom in organizations must also be subject to certain constraints and rules if collaboration in such a complex constellation is meant to be successful.  

Based on these assumptions we would like to redefine modern collaboration: instead of just communicating and sharing information, which usually leads to “classic types of outcome”, we should rather work on more complex issues that require creative solutions.

Modern collaboration means being able to answer complex questions and work on complex issues that require creative solutions – remotely.

We are still not using this potential. As far as we can see, many organizations lack investment in training of the required skills, an appropriate tool landscape and mindset.

What challenges do we still encounter?

One of the most common obstacles to modern collaboration today is the lack of feedback. This is true not only for body language (thus non-verbal interaction), but also for missing emotions of the participants, which leads to a limited perception of the situation. Even live cameras do not reveal a complete picture of communication since non-verbal aspects are missing. Movements and facial expressions of the different participants can only be perceived to a limited extent. For moderators or facilitators, it becomes even more difficult when they want to grasp the group dynamics in order to react to them.

The same applies to building relationships among colleagues. Remote work requires more attention and energy both from managers and colleagues, compared to working in an environment with physical presence. Personal meetings from time to time can be a good foundation for a trusting relationship between physically separated colleagues.

In general, most of the people are skilled to use conference tools. In order to make true remote collaboration and co-creation possible, new skills to apply appropriate tools (e.g. digital Whiteboards such as Miro) are required. In addition, organizers of remote events must be aware how and when to use these tools in an adequate manner. If they do not take this into account, a workshop that was previously held as a face-to-face event and is now done remotely will not lead to comparable outcomes: “A fool with a tool is still a fool!”

Our experience during the COVID-19 crisis has shown that the meeting and event culture must be adapted to remote collaboration. Working remotely requires a different quality of concentration and focus and thus makes more frequent breaks necessary.

Another major obstacle are hybrid forms of collaboration; that is, a number of people working together simultaneously in the office and as well as a number working remotely. Outcomes are not immediately and synchronously available to all participants. In the worst case, information has to be migrated between diverse tools, leading to incomplete or even incorrect documentation. Today’s office environments and designs strongly support collaboration on-site, but not hybrid or completely remote forms of work.  

To counter this and create a space for this kind of collaboration, a collective rethinking of the prevailing mindset is necessary: Are face-to-face meetings a precondition for positive outcomes and ideas?

What would be possible if we overcome these challenges?

Both employers and employees could benefit extensively from modern collaboration. Offering modern collaboration can increase an employer’s attractiveness and employees can be recruited worldwide. Costs that are currently spent on maintaining and managing huge office complexes can be saved and invested in modern collaboration tools. Organizations’ flexibility to react to changing conditions (e.g. lockdown during COVID-19) would increase significantly.

On the other hand, employees’ needs can be put much more into focus. The options for decision making both in professional and personal contexts become larger, including environments to work in (big city vs. country), time schedules (morning vs. evening) and the pursuit of personal life goals (starting a family and building a house).

Further information:

Whitepaper: Kollaborierst du schon oder kommunizierst du noch? (German language only)

3 Gründe, warum Home Office zum Standard werden sollte – Article in Gründerszene (German language only)  

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