Coping with quarantine: pandemics & reconfiguring the collaborative workspace

Just before Christmas last year, my colleague Victoria Ward and I published the report Reconfiguring the Collaborative Workspace: Making the most of Time, Space and Attitude.  One of our core arguments is that collaborative technologies such as videoconferencing and real-time shared document editing are no longer particularly novel technologies, but their increasing ubiquity and reliability are changing the physical environments in which we work. 

In particular, large organizations – typically slow to adjust to novelty and adapt to changing conditions – are becoming increasingly comfortable with rolling these tools out as standard parts of their collaborative toolkits.  As a result, it’s easier than ever for big sections of the population to work more flexibly than ever before. 

Fast forward a few months, and we find ourselves in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.  For the first time, organizations’ crisis management can include precautionary measures like closing offices or encouraging working from home even for employees not (yet) directly affected by the virus, with minimal disruption to the flow of information across the organization.  Some will be better equipped to handle this than others, of course: groups that are already at least partially familiar with the challenges and rewards of remote working will adjust more easily, while others may struggle with the behavioural and cultural changes necessary to support effective working at a distance. 

Creating the Conditions for Success

In our research, remote working advocates told us time and again that the biggest challenge is being the first remote hire in a team where everyone else works in the office.  The tacit knowledge and micro-moments of connection that happen in person occur very differently in a virtual setting, so if there’s only one person who isn’t physically there, it’s very easy for them to get left out of decision-making and knowledge sharing.  These findings are echoed by the recent joint Buffer and AngelList survey, The 2020 State of Remote Work: while a striking 97% of survey respondents who currently work remotely would recommend it to others, of the 3% that would not, most work remotely themselves but are on a blended team with others who are co-located in an office.  That survey also reveals that the same top three struggles for remote workers have been consistent over the past three years: communication, collaboration, and loneliness.  From our own research, we know that these challenges are exacerbated in blended teams that are partly remote and party co-located. 

Fortunately, there are some simple techniques that organizations can use to help their teams set up for remote success.  First and perhaps most important is to find ways to replicate the ‘coffee conversation’.  This might seem frivolous, but it’s in these micro-interactions that we build the trust with one another in small ways that we later rely on in big ways when something tough comes up.  A few techniques we saw from our research included explicitly setting aside time at the beginning or end of a meeting for ‘warm-up’ or ‘cool down’ chat outside of the formal business; arranging virtual coffee times during the week for everyone to dial in or for a one-on-one informal time together; and introducing games, quizzes, team awards and so forth to build a sense of shared team camaraderie.

Defaulting to the needs of the most-remote person is another way to mitigate some of the communication inequalities that happen in blended teams.  This strategy is often recommended by accessibility inclusion advocates also, and is known as the curb cut effect: optimizing for your most vulnerable user (or in this case team member) ends up benefiting everyone.  This can mean introducing practices such as that if one person is dialling into a meeting, everyone dials in, so nobody has the advantage of physical proximity for seeing a screen or taking the next turn speaking. 

Another common anxiety about remote working that we saw in our research is digital presenteeism.  Some teams are more accustomed to ‘presence management’ than ‘performance management’ – they think “The boss (and everyone else) knows I’m working because they can see that I’m doing Work Things”.  For these groups, moving to a more digitized working environment can mean that because they are no longer sure how to demonstrate value, they start doing things like sending flurries of reply-all emails to show that they’re working, or responding to every single message in the company chat system so everyone else knows they’ve seen it.  Presenteeism (essentially anxiety about how your value is perceived) can become so extreme that looking like you’re working can become more important than the real outputs you’ve been asked to achieve. 

While this kind of behaviour isn’t unique to digitized work (far from it!) the shift to a more digital paradigm can be a time for this anti-pattern to flourish unless clear expectations and behavioural norms are agreed team-wide.  Our recommendations here might seem contradictory but it’s about finding a happy medium.  First, teams need to learn to let go and trust that peers (and employees) are doing what they need to do to move the ship in the right direction even if you can’t monitor them every second of the day.  This is where the trust-building mentioned earlier comes into play.  Second, everyone needs to do more ‘working out loud’: your remote teammates aren’t mind readers – they don’t know what you’re stuck on, what you need help with, what your big wins are, or anything else unless you tell them.  Finding an appropriate cadence for sharing news and changes that move the entire group forward is critical here.  Agile practices like daily standup meetings, while popular among engineering teams, have been slower to take hold in other organizational roles.  Increased remote working might spark a rethink of these communication patterns and others copied from teams where this is being done effectively.

Finally, one of our key recommendations to all organizations is that quality kit creates trust.  In one of our case studies, a team of people split across offices and working remotely between two countries (and languages) were finding it difficult to communicate effectively in meetings because the sound quality of their equipment was poor.  The interesting thing was that one language group wasn’t complaining on their own behalf, but that of their suffering colleagues at a distance.  By showing that they wanted to improve communication and participation for everyone, they were able to convince the leadership team to invest in better headsets and meeting room microphones. 

The Big Picture: Shifting Expectations & Responsibilities

The issue of providing the right working environment outside the office is a broader concern for organizations considering the switch to more remote working.  Who is responsible for paying for high-quality internet for employees not based in an office?  To mitigate loneliness, do you give your employees a coffee budget or subsidize access to a co-working facility?  Your health and safety team may provide guidance about creating an ergonomically friendly workstation at home, but do you also provide budget for employees’ home working setups?  While our findings didn’t delve into the impact of inequality on workers’ ability to create effective remote working environments, this was definitely a question on my mind when we initiated the project and I’m glad to see these questions being given more attention now.  The technology might be ready to make working out of the office easier, but caring responsibilities at home, precarious working schedules, front-line work that requires being in a particular place, or simply the high cost of living and crowded housing in many urban environments, mean that some simply can’t benefit from the same kinds of flexibility as others.  At least one company (Microsoft) has considered the impact of work-from-home policies on hardship for its hourly-paid employees and has committed to paying contract workers even if the need for their services is reduced. 

Innovation Needed: Opportunities for Improving Remote Experiences

The next few months will probably be the greatest natural experiment for increased flexible working since the technology infrastructure has been strong enough to support such a cultural shift.  Despite the possible bumps in the road, given the technology we have now, there are resources for teams to make an effective transition to being productive and happy remote workers.  But there are still a few areas where there is room for improvement, and I’ll be very interested to see how the pressures of this period spur innovation in these spaces:

  • Design thinking & co-creation sessions. At the moment, the most popular way to run these is still in big rooms with sticky notes and whiteboard walls and everyone talking over each other in a flurry of collaborative creativity.  This is still really difficult to achieve remotely, though it does have the advantage that it’s easier to record and playback outcomes.  While there are some tools emerging in this space, and some facilitator groups getting really good at handling these kinds of sessions remotely, I think there’s still no coalescence around a lead set of practices or features that enable this to happen seamlessly.  Watch this space.
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that the ‘hallway track’ is always the most important part of a conference.  Broadcast content like talks can be relatively easily recorded or live-streamed.  The live, spontaneous interaction part – the very same thing that makes co-location in an office appealing – is the bit that’s really difficult to replicate.  A few new tools are emerging here too, and well-established players like G Suite are making it easier for some customers (such as education users) to access enterprise features to facilitate communication between larger groups.  I’ll be interested to see whether and how Zoom, Skype and Slack respond.
  • Triangulating around an object of focus (e.g. a whiteboard). One of our research recommendations was to build beacons that gather people for areas of focused collaboration or idea exchange.  In-person, this is relatively easy.  A key example at one of our case studies was whiteboards: they were so important to the company culture that losing the magnetic idea-sharing power of the whiteboard was one of its core reluctances to going remote.  As another friend and habitual remote worker described when he started a new company where they decided not to work remotely, there’s very limited technical tooling to facilitate ways to work next to each other: your laptop camera is pointing at  Even though you can screen share, you can’t have a triangle of ‘us + the thing we’re focusing on’ as easily in remote work as when you are physically together.  Again, there are some tools out there, but nothing that’s really captured the public imagination.  I think we’re some way yet from real innovations here, but I'm closely watching the AR/VR innovations for this.
  • Support for partially remote teams. The 2020 State of Remote Work report points out, most tools for remote workers assume the default that everyone is working equally remotely, while in reality, that’s very rarely the case.  Tools that would smooth the path for hybrid teams, working to enhance the experience of remote and co-located workers alike, are still a rarity. 

Over to you...

What policy or practice changes are you seeing in response to the current pandemic?  How is this impacting your teams’ communication?  What about broader effects like overall satisfaction in role? How are you handling the challenges of multi-person remote meetings?  What’s the one tool you wish existed right now to support your team to work more effectively?  

Get in touch and let us know your thoughts on the increasingly digitized working environment. 


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