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Collaboration in the digital era is essential for companies looking to boost employee productivity — but it comes with a few barriers. Given that the workforce today encompasses workers who started with Lotus Notes in the late '80s and workers who have grown up on Skype and Facebook, the technologies currently used in the enterprise span over three decades of development.

Collaboration tools allow for on-demand sharing, communicating and teaching, so workers, regardless of age or location, can benefit from the group mindshare. It is essential for collaboration tools to work for each and every member in a distributed team.

Disparities in Collaboration Support 

According to Fuze’s recent Workforce Futures study, 53 percent of workers come into the office to collaborate face-to-face on specific projects — but sometimes this isn't possible for fully remote workers or teams in different time zones. 

“Empowering teams to do their best work involves determining the optimal way to unite distributed teams whether that is through a video brainstorm, ongoing group chat, or both throughout the day,” Jed Brown, director of product at Fuze Simple stated. The June Fuze report was based on a global survey of 6,600 employees working in enterprises with more than 500 people.

The report revealed some important trends. Flexibility, in terms of hours and location, was key for 87 percent of those surveyed. In addition, 84 percent believed they could work productively outside of the office if given the right technology. As it stands, 44 percent believed this type of working environment is not championed by executives and 38 percent said they were not equipped with the technology necessary to work effectively outside the office.

Related Article: Bringing Your Remote Workforce Into the Fold

Obstacles to Effective Distributed Teams

This feeds into the wider trend of enabling distributed and remote teams. The research showed that while enterprise managers are, in many cases, willing to allow people to work remotely, their companies are not offering them all the tools they need to do so. “As digital workplaces become increasingly more common, the concern of how to maintain effective collaboration when staff members are thousands of miles apart is a topic that must be addressed,” Josh Ross, CEO and co-founder of Indianapolis-based communications workflow company Kerauno said.

He said that to maintain effective collaboration, it is vital that businesses do not become too attached to their current processes. Forcing remote and distributed employees to stick to a process that is outdated can result in a work environment that does not value collaboration. Businesses must be able to adapt to ongoing changes, as complacency can easily lead to negative outcomes for your business. To boost collaboration, businesses need to use processes that are employee-friendly, as this will lead to increased efficiency at each stage of the business.

“A failure or alteration in an existing process can quickly lead to trouble, especially when your processes become outdated. This is why your business needs to always look toward the future and understand how current processes can integrate with emerging digital tools that will lead to effective collaboration,” he said.

Related Article: Managing Real-Time Collaboration Across Distributed Offices

Collaboration Isn't Easy

However, collaboration isn't as simple as buying a collaboration tool, or even a platform, explained Rafael Solis, COO and co-founder of San Francisco-based learning collaboration platform provider Braidio. "Collaboration is a such broad category that an argument could be made for most things to fall under that umbrella category," he said.

Enterprises need to be aware of a number of potential problems before developing distributed or remote teams working from a collaboration platform. These include:

Most of the good tools are specialized, or siloed

Many collaboration tools are available that enhance productivity, Solis said. However, because most of the good ones are very narrow in scope (i.e., specialized) the experience is siloed from the rest of the organization.

Those who work in organization support need to step out of their silo to access and interact with others. Their interaction and collaboration with other departments and employees will often reside across many different tools and experiences.

Limited tools that provide cross platform collaboration

There are limited tools available to drive collaboration across platforms. Most of the information and knowledge that employees use often resides in multiple services and platforms. These silos curtail productivity potential.

Related Article: How to Escape the Productivity Paradox

Overcoming Distributed Work Problems

Overcoming these and other problems is a matter of developing the right strategy, Solis added. “Organizations need to take a hard look at how they value collaboration's role in improving productivity. If it is a core tenet they believe in, then they need to explore how they can create more transparency and break down data, knowledge and information silos across their organization,” he said.

It needs to be championed from the top with input and feedback from all levels of the organization. With the right tools in place and input from those who will actually use the tools, adoption can be swift and productivity optimized.

The decision to move to distributed, or remote, teams also poses challenges to the prevailing way of working. The CEO and founder of San Diego-based brand communication agency Jacob Tyler, Les Kollegian, said the prevailing attitude thinks it's important to have everyone in-house so they can collaborate and be managed internally.

While this once may have been the case, as technology improves and bandwidth speed increases, it is getting much easier to operate a remote or distance office. The key is ensuring the team member has the right direction, drive and experience to get the job done on their own time.

“Challenges are overcome in a management capacity by setting specific review times and going over projects via screen share. I believe in the next five years, most small businesses (under 30 employees) will spend over 80 percent of their time working remotely and the norms of the 9 to 5 office day will slowly phase out,” Tyler said.

Related Article: Identifying the Missing Link in Remote Working Strategies

How to Encourage Collaboration

So what can you do to motivate people — both remote and in house — to collaborate? At a macro level, how employees are rewarded is the most significant motivator of behavior — the compensation plan needs to be specifically aligned with the vision of the company to ensure cross-department collaboration, Michael Graham, CEO, of Ambler, Pa.-based Epilogue Systems. The KPIs, scorecards or other performance alignment methods must also encourage collaboration in pursuit of a shared vision.

At a micro level, we are seeing technology holding teams back. "In fortune 500 companies there are too many systems. They don’t talk to each other and there are critical blocks to the flow of proprietary knowledge from team leaders to teams,” Graham said.

In some cases, the systems are so complicated that users do not even know where to begin. Organizations need to gain insight and remove blocks to knowledge transfer by allowing enterprise subject matter experts and IT professionals to easily transfer critical knowledge.

Collaboration is a key component to enterprise success. As employees continue to embrace the borderless office, businesses will need to invest in tools that foster an interpersonal connection. Advances in artificial intelligence could help here, by enabling workers to communicate via voice, hand gestures and avatars in a virtual environment. At some point, this could mean co-workers in different hemispheres could see a 3-D image of the same product and work on it collectively, all from the comfort of their home.

Removing the Barriers to Better Work

Office walls are falling, cubicle screens are disappearing and meeting room doors are being unhinged. In their place, informal collaborative work areas, open individual work areas, quiet zones and shared multipurpose resources are being installed — a process often referred to as office hoteling.

As the business world moves faster and becomes more global, more mobile and more digitized, employees want to be able to quickly and easily share knowledge through efficient collaboration and immediate access to the resources they require. With the digital office of the future being driven by a new generation of tech-savvy employees, this should not be a problem for enterprise leaders who have prepared for this challenge.