conductor leading an orchestra
PHOTO: Wan San Yip

The last few months have made it clear what the big challenge with working remotely is: communication. Too often, we finish a particular task and think it would have been easier, and less confusing, pre-COVID-19.

The obvious reason is our collaboration tools are not up to the task. But why are our tools still so limited? A recent tweet from Scott Berkun sheds a little light here:

When building collaboration tools, too often the goal appears to be to improve upon existing software. Instead we need to use the real-life interactions that make in-person collaboration work so well as our starting point.

We Need Meaningful Interactions

I miss whiteboards. And post-its. And wildly waving my hands around, pointing at things and people to make a point. None of this works  online. Online design or brainstorming sessions often devolve into one or two people dominating the discussion. And good luck extracting feedback from everyone who has points to make but can't be heard.

Some meeting tools have whiteboarding capabilities and annotations. While a good idea, they can turn from lack of participation to massive, chaotic mess in no time.

Some events have done a good job encouraging, and then handling, a large volume of interactivity. Then again, those were professionals asking participants to perform a very basic task. They were not trying to find the best way to digitize an existing process.

Related Article: Boost Team Performance by Matching Collaboration Tools to Workflows

Video Calls Only Go So Far

Video calls provide better in-depth communication than simple voice calls. However, fatigue sets in when we're always on camera. Additionally, sitting in front of the computer all day is less than ideal. Using a phone for video provides mobility, but positioning the phone can become a struggle and a source of arm fatigue.

And then there is the bandwidth challenge. Not everyone has high-speed internet and not all bandwidth is created the same. My ability to hold a video conference with 12 people decreases as other people in my household try and do the same thing. And the more people on each call, the more bandwidth we are each using.

These are all obvious concerns which don't account for the complexity of managing a large meeting.

As in-person meetings increase in size, the dynamics automatically shift. Some of this is driven by the seating arrangements. Other shifts are driven by visual cues from leaning in, raising hands, and where people are sitting. We lose all of that in a video call.

As the number of participants grow, identifying who is speaking and who should speak next, requires a firm hand from the leader. The level of control has to increase for a meeting to be effective. The systems we use need a way to better manage larger groups.

You can see this in social events as well. Early on, everyone would join large Zoom meetings to chat and catch up. Now, the groups are much smaller. It is much easier, and less tiring, to have a meaningful meeting among a small group. Unfortunately, at work, you can't always keep the meetings small. 

Related Article: 8 Ways to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging

Online Collaboration: Where's the Balance Between Interaction and Control?

This is the crux of the matter: The more people, the harder it is to manage. On the one hand, you want everyone to participate. On the other, you don’t want total chaos. Once it's more than four or five people, you need a way to both encourage participation and keep the order.

Realistically, the most likely short-term solution is dedicated facilitators. Behind the scenes of every professional webinar are facilitators. Their main job is to track time and effectively manage questions. We need that same role, and the software to support that role, in our live collaboration tools.

Using a form of managed queues, they can keep people engaged while preventing the situation from getting overwhelming. We need to give facilitators the necessary tools to support that level of control and to do so with only one or two screens.

Related Article: Productivity Potholes: Bad Behavior Is Crushing Collaboration's Potential

What Can We Do to Improve Communications Right Now?

No technical solution will help us tackle these challenges, at least not today. Seamless workflows remain a pipe dream. As time moves on, fewer and fewer teams will be able to rely on previous dynamics to carry them through. The launch of new projects and staffing changes to existing projects will make that impossible.

Until the tools and best practices to use them evolve, it is up to leaders to step in when a communication challenge rears its head:

  • See a never-ending discussion thread? Suggest a call.
  • People can’t understand a concept? Suggest a video call with a tool that allows drawing.
  • Frustration running high? Suggest a vacation.

The last one isn’t a joke. A lot of people are overdue for some time off. Having a staycation may not be perfect, but it can ease frayed nerves. In the same way, the existing tools are not perfect, but they can work better with the right approach. They just need observation, moderation and understanding of when to escalate or step away.