Productive Workplace: Virtual Collaboration Spaces

Virtual collaboration – ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team

Over the last week I have spent 24 hours on teleconferences as a member of a virtual team, this has been a quiet week for teleconferences.

I have also responded to many emails and instant messages.

Between those activities I have also contributed to collaborative spaces where the team members are spread across the globe.

Of the 20 or so people sat in the same office as myself today I won’t work with any of them and there are far more desks than people.

I could, and sometimes do, do this job in a local coffee shop, at home, in the garden there are only a few restrictions stopping me working up a mountain or at the beach.

What I do isn’t unusual, it’s quite normal for many people, particularly those in large global organisations, but it wasn’t always like that.

A bit of historical perspective.

What we regard as the standard place of work, the office, has probably only existed since the 1730’s so it’s less than 300 years old. We needed these places of work because we were bound by two things primarily.

The first constraint was the machine; we needed to go into the factory because that was where the machine was that we were operating. This is still mostly the case, but the number of people needed to look after the machines is radically reducing as automation takes over.

The second constraint that meant people went into places of work was communication. In order to process an order, as an example, the piece of paper needed to be walked around an organisation. If you wanted to get a set of people to work on something you needed to have a face-to-face meeting and a common place of work so that you could work together. That communication restriction no longer exists, we all have a myriad of communication mechanisms – video-conference, audio-conferences, web-conferences, instant messaging, email, collaborative workplaces, on-line forums, social media, the list goes on.

People are now in a position to choose where they work and many choose to work from home unless there is a specific reason for them to be in an office. This is killing off the traditional office as a standard workplace.

If we’ve all gone virtual already, why does virtual collaboration appear in a list of key skills for 2020?

There is a dichotomy and that is this:

We have a lot of virtual collaboration tools available to us, but we are still very poor at virtual collaboration.

Some of the reasons that we are poor at virtual collaboration is down to the current tools available. I’ve just listened to a colleague spend 15 minutes getting everyone together into a virtual meeting between two organisations. The delay was down to a couple of technical issues for a couple of the key attendees at the meeting. Anyone who has been involved in any virtual meeting will recognise this experience. I wonder how many minutes of hold music are played internationally every day?

My view, though, is that the biggest issue that we have with virtual collaboration is ourselves.

One of the big selling point for virtual meetings is the reduction in travel costs. Back in 2008 Verizon estimated this as between 5 and 35 times cheaper. I argued at the time:

When it comes to virtual meetings I have to admit to being something of a cynic. My issue isn’t with the cost savings of moving meetings virtual – my issue is with the diminished value of these meetings.

I don’t think that anyone would argue with me that any virtual platform – video or audio – detracts from the value of the meeting. This results in meetings that are protracted in length and tend to communicate at a very high level. Any discussion that has required a deep understanding or close collaboration has been, in my experience, a failure.

With all of these limitations I wonder whether the value of many virtual meetings is so low as to make them more expensive than face-to-face meetings.

This is still, to a large extent, my viewpoint.

What has changed in that intervening period has been an explosion in the belief that meetings produce work, and because virtual meetings are free then we can get lots of work done by having lots of virtual meetings.

In a quote from Leadership Freak:

Remember, you don’t get anything done in a meeting. Things get done after meetings.

The time to value ratio of meetings continues to degrade at a pace, which is a shame, because meetings have always been a fundamental part of commerce, they are deeply engrained in all societies. In the words of Tom Peters:

Every meeting that does not stir the imagination and curiosity of attendees and increase bonding and co-operation and engagement and sense of worth and motivate rapid action and enhance enthusiasm is a permanently lost opportunity.

Getting to the purpose of this post in this series on the productive workplace; virtual collaboration is massively impacted by the locations we choose.

As video becomes more prevalent this is going to become a greater issue, there are plenty of people who will have to start smartening up to go to work, but it’s more than that, lighting has a big impact on video quality. Even for conference calls, external noise is an issue. One of my best friends is the mute-all key-combination, anyone dialled in from Starbucks generally needs to be catapulted from the call.

People talk about having IT systems that are as reliable as the dial-tone, if only mobile calls were as reliable as that.

Distraction is another huge issue for virtual collaboration. How many times have you heard someone say “Sorry I missed that, can you say it again.” While this might seem like it’s productive for the person being distracted it’s a huge productivity pull on the people who they are collaborating with.

Many people choose to participate in virtual collaboration from home precisely because this the place with the best lighting and sound; not everyone is in this privileged position though.

Some interesting videos, though this subject doesn’t seem to be one that people produce interesting videos for:




Wild Orchids

People and Relationships are the only Differentiation

One of the things that I get involved in are discussions on differentiation.

How can we make ourselves stand out from the crowd?

As someone in a technology organisation people constantly want to talk about functionality and widgets.

(I tend to use widgets as a generic term for all sorts of technical stuff)

There’s lots of angst in these discussion about price and getting the balance right between high quality high cost widgets and lower cost widgets.

Many of these conversations are driven by bids where we are being scored on functions and pricing that we offer.  I’ve been convinced for some time that these things are now baseline issues. The price has to be about right, the functions have to be about right, but the reality is that these things rarely set anyone apart from the crowd.

What does differentiate are the people that the customer gets to see and the level of relationship that they manage to build.

This following video sums it up really well:

Rydal Summer Evening - Just Before a Dip

Productive Workplace: Cognitive Load Management Spaces

Cognitive load management: ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques.

You have access to more information than any other person in history, you’ll have access to even more information tomorrow. It would take you more than a lifetime to consume the information that will get uploaded produced in the next minute. There are over 600,000 files uploaded to Dropbox in a minute, there are nearly 1,500,000 videos uploaded to YouTube every 30 seconds and that’s just two of the popular internet services.

One Second on the Internet is a great visualisation of the pace of change.

You cannot possibly hope to keep-up; you live in a world where there are vastly more things that you don’t know that you don’t known than things to know.

One of the most popular posts on this site is one titled: “There’s no such thing as information overload only failure to filter“. At the simplest level I agree with the statement but I think that it’s such a massive simplification that it’s not really very useful. One of the problems with it is the assumption that the necessary tools for filtering exist and exist in such a way as to be useful.

I think it’s a bit more like this cartoon:

We haven’t quite figured out filtering yet

The reality is, though, that this is the world we are all working in, a world that can easily and quickly overload our mental abilities, a world screaming out for attention. I use the word attention because it’s the scarce resource.

There has already been significant evolution in the tools that we have available to us for filtering and visualisation and there’s plenty more to come, but I’ve talked about their impact on the workplace already in the posts on Computational Thinking  and Sense Making. I haven’t yet talked much about attention though and we all live in the middle of an attention economy that is competing for our precious cognitive capabilities.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”

Herbert A. Simon

There is a whole army of people and associated technology seeking to manipulate our attention for their purposes. The Google results that you see are not the results that I see because Google is trying to give me results that keep my attention. The attention that I give them has a direct link to their revenue after all. They’re filtering my results for their purposes. Google aren’t the only ones doing this, it’s now normal practice for many of the sites that we visit every day. While this might give us the information and services that we think we need the challenge this creates is one of filter bubbles where we only see what the algorithms decide to show us. Breaking out of the bubble can be a problem; I’ve been very conscious of my filter bubble while researching this blog.

The impact of all of this data, and the attention engineering we are subjected to, is that we are steadily conditioning ourselves to live in a world driven by distraction turning us into people in constant need of stimulus. I’ve written over 50 posts in the category my brain and over 30 in the category information addiction (there is some overlap between these two numbers) many of these focus on the impact that the new world is having on our mental abilities. Steve recently highlighted an experiment where people would rather suffer the pain of an electric shock than be in a place with no stimulus.

We try to multi-task between activities, sometimes with fatal consequences:

What we need are workplaces that facilitate us giving the correct amount of attention to the right thing in the right way with the minimal amount of needless distraction, whilst also protecting us from being completely embedded into a filter bubble.

We all know about spam email, but how many of us also have spam people in our workplace (physical and virtual)?

Are there places that you go to where the impact of spam people is made worse by the acoustics and the room layout?

Can you think of a time when that spam person has highlighted something important to you that you wouldn’t have found out through your normal filters?

The primary distractions that people talk about are acoustics and devices.

Noise has a massive impact on our ability to concentrate and give attention to something. We would want people dispensing drugs in a hospital to be giving full attention to that task, but noise in hospitals has become such an issue that the number of mistakes is increasing. Personally I’ve sat in many offices where the background noise levels affected my ability to focus and now regard a set of earphones as essential.

The issue of acoustics applies to all types of workplaces and we need to do a better job of getting it right.

The other major factor impacting attention is devices. Many of us have been in a conversation where it became clear that the person we were talking to was no longer giving us their attention because they had been distracted by a device. The attention economy techniques reach right into every workplace. I make it a rule that I will just stop talking when someone is distracted by a device. On one occasion I sat for over 5 minutes waiting for someone to come back from their device, they didn’t even notice that I had stopped talking.

I’m not suggesting that we should banish devices from the workplace, but we do need to create ways of muting their impact even if that’s through training and policy.

Some videos you may find interesting:

Windermere Evening

Top 10 for Q2 2014

These are the top 10 posts in each of my normal categories for the second quarter of 2014.

First up the normal posts:

  1. A Lack Of Planning On Your Part Does Not Constitute An Emergency On Mine
  2. BYOD and Productivity Statistics
  3. Axiom: People join companies, but leave managers
  4. Office Speak and Buzzword Density
  5. The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS)
  6. Productive Workplace: The Trans-disciplinary Space
  7. The Productive Workplace: The Space for Computational Thinking
  8. Because it’s Friday: Giant Popping Bubbles – The Slow Mo Guys
  9. xkcd: Turbine
  10. Slow Logon v Slow Applications

Next are the quotations:

  1. “You will never change your life until you change something you do…
  2. “Only three things happen naturally in organisations…
  3. “This happens to companies all too often. Unless the company…
  4. “They’re not employees, they’re…
  5. “After all, you only find out who is swimming naked when…
  6. “The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake…
  7. “Real communication happens when…
  8. “If you start today to do the right thing, you are already…
  9. “The bitterness of poor quality is remembered long after…
  10. “A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to…

And finally all of those Because it’s Friday posts:

  1. Because it’s Friday: I dare you to watch this entire video
  2. Because it’s Friday: Emotionally Intelligent Flight Safety Briefings
  3. Because it’s Friday: Massive Game of Jenga
  4. Because it’s Friday: Not Available on the App Store
  5. Because it’s Friday: Fun with Office Supplies
  6. Because it’s Friday: More from the Action Movie Kid
  7. Because it’s Friday: Flying Robot Rockstars
  8. Because it’s Friday: The ancient hand whistle
  9. Because it’s Friday: Huge Puddle Splash by the Slow Mo Guys
  10. Because it’s Friday: Q2 Spaces – Interviews with artists in their spaces