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:




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