close up of an alligator's eye
PHOTO: Samuel Scrimshaw

Over the last decade, remote work has grown on average 11% to 13% year over year. This means that over 120% more people were working from home at the beginning of 2020 than were a decade ago.

When the COVID-19 shelter in place orders spanned the country, the numbers increased exponentially, making the drawbacks of distance meetings, cc:emails and deluge of notifications felt by even more people.

One bright spot: the number of spam calls and texts coming in to my phone has dropped dramatically of late. But on the down side, I am doing more remote meetings with people who are unfamiliar with the technology, so I can count on the first 10 minutes of any remote meeting being wasted time. So what can be done to mitigate the potential negative effects of some of our most frequently used collaboration approaches?

How to Keep All Meetings (Remote or In Person) Productive

To keep meetings efficient and productive, I recommend using asynchronous means to provide status updates, instead of requiring attendance at a meeting to learn the same. Below are a few rules I use to keep meetings on track:

  1. Avoid all status meetings. Update status in project management or workflow tools.
  2. Meetings should focus on issues or dealing with challenges, and should be highly interactive, rather than one-to-many presentations (which can be recorded and viewed before the meeting), meetings should be discussions.
  3. Make sure the results of these meetings are recorded, or captured as tasks and assigned (or volunteered for) to a person or team for completion. Indicate when that task will be reviewed again, and where progress can be followed online.
  4. Don’t have more than eight people in an online meeting, and make sure most of them are on mute, except for the one or two people who are discussing the topic at hand.
  5. Always make sure meetings have an agenda, and that you are able to see it well in advance.
  6. Make sure someone is running the meeting, has the ability to mute or un-mute people, close or open “chat,” can post or show common documents or PowerPoints, etc.
  7. Have a clear time frame for your meeting — anything more than 30 to 45 minutes and you'll lose people’s attention. If it's a long interaction, break it up into several smaller ones. Or build in exercises and breaks into your meeting, so people don’t get bored and tune out.

Related Article: Are You Sure Want to Schedule Another Meeting?

Dealing With Email

COVID-19 hasn't in any way impacted the number of emails I get on a daily basis. This leads me to believe that most of the emails I get are either unsolicited, from a newsletter list or similar, or are generated by bots or other automated email sources (note to self: get off all automated email and newsletter lists). Trying to clean out my inbox is a Sisyphean task: the more mails I clean out, the more  flood in.

If you are in a large organization, beware the “cc:” email. These should be used very sparingly, otherwise you are just spamming your co-workers, and in appreciation, they will “cc:” spam you back, eventually gumming up the whole works.

Businesses now have access to a plethora of messaging alternatives. Slack (and other tools like it) is one that comes to mind. Slack allows you to create channels, where you have to be invited to be part of the discussion. Sometimes discussions within a channel can be more like a chat than a threaded discussion (the difference being time to respond, with chat it is usually only a few seconds, in a threaded discussion a response could take hours or days). Slack includes the option for phone or video calls if a faster and more immediate response is needed, as do solutions like Microsoft Teams, where you can easily escalate the discussion with a Skype call.

Related Article: Why Are We Still Emailing if We're Using Microsoft Teams?

Just Say No to Notifications

As the default messaging platform, much of email comes down to notifications. So and so just updated Task #3, or John is out of the office for lunch, etc. Some notifications can be helpful, and some can be critical (e.g., if you are waiting for Task #3 to be completed before you can start on Task #4). To tackle this problem, look at how you set up your common (virtual) workspace. Most collaboration tools allow you to adjust notifications in a variety of ways. 

The biggest flood of notifications are often spurred on when a change takes place, particularly changes in project and task management tools. Milestones are another frequent notification trigger, such as when all the tasks in a specific project have been completed, or 20% of the tasks in your project are now overdue. Notifications for events like these can be a helpful way to get people to focus on overdue tasks, but one or two notifications suffice. Getting alerts every hour or every day not only fills inboxes, but quickly annoys recipients.

So make sure you talk with your team first, and ask them about the frequency or urgency of notifications from the team workspace. Be sure to find that line between just enough and too many.

Related Article: Taming Notifications Before They Run Rampant

How to Make Collaboration Work

Collaboration is really about interactions and relationships. The tools which support collaboration can either help or hinder these interactions. Here are a few rules to help guide your use of collaboration tools:

  1. If a collaboration tool gets in the way of an interaction or conversation, don’t use it. You are trying to decrease friction in communicating, not increase it. It doesn't matter how new and fancy the tool is, or how much IT wants you to use it, if it is making things worse, don’t use it. Another tool will probably work better, with less overhead for what you want to do. Maybe your IT person can make some suggestions here. But it's more important for you to be clear on what type and frequency of interactions you want, and understand your needs before using some random collaboration technology.
  2. KISS: Keep it Simple Stupid. Try to pick the simplest tool, with the lowest amount of training required. If chat works for what you need to do, great! But most people need both synchronous and asynchronous communication channels, so find a tool that has both. You probably don’t need all the bells and whistles when you are starting out. Then as you come to understand the natural rhythm and flow of your teams’ communications, you can slowly add more features and see how they are adopted by your team, group or department.
  3. Collaboration for its own sake has no value. But collaboration within the context of a project or process can provide great value. Furthermore, that value can be quantified and in some cases attributed to the bottom line. Some areas of the company that have critical collaborative processes include sales and marketing, R&D, and training and support. Finance, operations and manufacturing have some collaboration required in the beginning (e.g., budgeting, setting up a manufacturing process, or dealing with an operational crisis), then don’t require as much after initiation, and only requiring notification for exception handling.
  4. I describe corporate culture as “that intangible that holds a company together, and makes it a unique identity.” It is made up of unwritten rules and codes of conduct, but essentially it is about how your employees communicate. When you change the way people communicate, you start to change the corporate culture. Most IT people don’t understand this. It isn't the same as creating access to a new database. In many cases IT needs to work with HR to make collaboration tool adoption succeed.