Creating something new is called generative collaboration and requires specific types of remote collaboration behaviors and activities to be successful.

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remote collaboration

As organizations around the world face seemingly insurmountable challenges—not least, remote collaboration–the ability to innovate is crucial to how well they weather the storm.

Creating something new is called generative collaboration, and it requires specific types of remote collaboration behaviors and activities to be successful. “The key to successful generative collaboration is for team members to be on the same page, not only when they’re working together as a team in synchronized activities, but also when they break away and [work alone],” says Steelcase Principal Researcher Patricia Kammer.

But how can teams doing generative collaboration stay on the same page when they’re working remotely? According to Kammer, the first thing they should do is find digital ways to replicate the analog processes (such as whiteboards and sticky notes) they use when they’re working side-by-side. “When it comes to generative work, teams need a digital platform where they can co-create content,” explains Kammer. “By leveraging tools like Mural, Google Drive and Microsoft Teams, teams are able to orchestrate their work across the platform and develop a shared mind, a shared historical reference of where they are and where they’re going.”

John Hamilton, Coalesse design director, understands this is not easy. He has spent most of his career designing new products in collaboration with teammates around the world and exploring how to make diverse locations and time zones into a strength to be leveraged rather than a challenge to overcome. Since 2017, John has been based at Steelcase’s Learning and Innovation Center (LINC) in Munich, where he has built a global research and development design team that has introduced innovative products.

Find Common Language

According to Hamilton, teams need to leverage common tools to make the process more transparent and fluid. The problem, he says, is that individuals are often using a lot of different tools to do their individual work. His advice: “You have to find a common language. If we all use the same tools, then we can access them in equal ways and the content becomes egalitarian. And the more egalitarian it becomes, the more we all feel like we can go in and own it and edit it in the same way. It’s not leader-led. It’s not individually owned. Everyone feels like they can contribute.”

Peter Boeckel, manager of the Steelcase Asia Pacific regional design team in Hong Kong, knows first-hand how important this is. For the past six months his team has been forced to work remotely, first when the Hong Kong protests broke out and then again with the Covid-19 crisis. “Our team works in the abstract and with a lot of assumptions,” says Boeckel. “Now that we’re working remotely, we have to put a lot of effort into how we document the work, how we share and gather input, and how we keep fragile and abstract ideas floating. There are a lot of technology tools that can help us. But none of them are perfect, and you need to experiment with what combination of tools work best for your team.”

The more teams can become fluent in using shared digital tools to capture and create a visual representation of their thinking, and then manipulate it, the less physical distance will be a barrier to collaboration. But this is not something that comes naturally since people are more accustomed to doing this when sitting next to one another. “Distributed teams will need to get better at digitally capturing their content throughout the process to make it visible to everyone,” says Hamilton. “Without doing this, it makes it more difficult for me as a leader to get your mind to a place where I need you to be. When we have something we can reference during our conversation — you can see it, I can see it, we’re seeing the same thing and then we talk about it — it makes it more fluid and more natural. This will make the creative process much easier. ”

Living on Video

Video is another important tool that can help improve generative collaboration. Today, most web video platforms allow people to see one another as well as share content. When people can see each other, they’re able to interpret body language, gestures, expressions and other cues that help you “read the room.” They’re also less likely to interrupt or speak over one another or multi-task. But it’s not without some limitations.

“When you’re using these collaborative tools, people are often looking at the content, so it’s harder to interpret nonverbal cues, which can lead to confusion,” says Kammer. “Teams need to learn to enable equal participation, especially of those who are less talkative during the meeting. You need to stop and say, ‘Jim, did you want to say something?’ because Jim may not know when he can jump in.” Kammer suggests using features like the chat function to help make sure everyone can participate fully.

A Lesson from Agile

Kammer also recommends remote teams identify someone who can orchestrate and manage all the different work streams. Many co-located teams do not have this type of role today. Like a scrum master on an agile team, remote teams need someone to keep track of the larger goals to ensure transparency and alignment. “This person will be responsible for knowing what everyone is doing and making sure everyone is working on the right things,” she says. “Clearly understanding how my work fits into a larger stream of activities is especially important when people aren’t physically connected anymore. Remote work requires a lot more formalization of what would be more informal in the office.”

Find Your Community

Work is an incredibly social activity. But working remotely can lead to isolation and the feeling of being disconnected, which can hurt collaboration. “The energy and dynamic nature when people are next to each other can really be contagious and make a generative session really powerful when people are physically connected,” says Hamilton. “Now, we have to find that while we’re distributed.” Some ideas for staying connected: Schedule “social hours” when you don’t discuss work, log into video to have a consistent ‘wormhole’ of connecting with each other even if everyone is doing individual work, do a pulse check at the beginning of your daily standup for a few minutes to see how people are feeling. Increase rituals that would be almost common in the office and then duplicate them virtually.

“Find your community, your tribe, your people, and make sure you stay connected,” says Hamilton. “Share as much as you can so you can also receive as much as you want. The more you give, the more you get.”

What does the post-COVID workplace look like? Working with our network of leading organizations and experts, we are sharing what we’re learning about the return to the workplace across time horizons of now, near and far. Download our new guide from Steelcase 360 where we will be sharing strategies for retrofitting, reconfiguring and reinventing the workplace to help you bring people back to the office safely.

Steelcase helps leading organizations – in business, healthcare and education – create the places that can unlock the promise of their people.

This guest blog is part of a Channel Futures sponsorship.

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