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COVID-19 and Working From Home: An Unprecedented Research Opportunity

6 minute read
Laurence Lock Lee avatar
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to study, at scale, how the human race learns how to collaborate using digital tools alone.

Have you ever wanted to better understand how productive you, your team and your organization really are when it comes to collaboration? If ever there was a time to research the effectiveness of how an organization is collaborating, it’s now. For those of you who have undertaken any experimental research, you will appreciate how hard it is to undertake a large-scale controlled experiment.

My recent search through academic literature looking for comparisons between face-to-face and online communications could only find small-scale studies, and then mostly constrained to education and selected health-related contexts. To do such a study justice, we need a situation where a large number of subjects are asked to work physically isolated from each other, only connected via digital means. Guess what? Here we are! Working from home (WFH).

Like everyone, I am hoping the current restrictions will be short-lived. But from my "glass half-full" perspective, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to study, at scale, how the human race learns how to collaborate using digital tools alone.

What Part Can You Play?

All you need to do is follow the rules: don’t sneak out to meet work colleagues face to face, don’t become a hermit and hide from the digital tools available, learn and embrace them, try to connect and work in the same way as you would in the office. If we all do this, we can more rapidly approach a working “norm” in this new environment — something that needs to happen if you are to achieve your pre-COVID-19 levels of performance.

Related Article: The Remote Working Pendulum Swings Again: 9 Lessons Learned

Computational Social Science

Think back to your last formal performance assessment. No doubt there was one criteria assessing how well you collaborate with others. How did you feel about how the assessment was made? If you were the one doing the assessing, how confident were you in making that judgment? In a world where much of our interactions are conducted face to face, assessing its effectiveness, both individually and collectively, is a measurement challenge and therefore usually performed poorly.

Unlike your face-to-face office interactions, digital tool usage can provide a wealth of data and information about how we really interact at work. Through analyzing what is being called the “digital exhausts,” analysts are able identify unique insights into how humans can best interact to achieve. The field even has a name now: “Computational Social Science”: a research community dedicated to ethical computational approaches to social science.

social science

Computational science techniques underpinned our recent benchmarking of Microsoft Teams usage. This study, however, was conducted in times when participants still had the option to work from an office. While we could study, in some detail, how staff were interacting online; we had no real way of assessing how much staff were interacting face to face at the same time. In reality, most of us interact with a mix of face to face and digital, with the balance often dictated by both job roles and personal preference. While we have conducted one small-scale study on how the different modes of collaboration are used in a single organization, extending this study at scale has not been possible. At least for the foreseeable future we will now be able to largely factor out the face-to-face effect.

Related Article: Working Remotely: A Manager's Perspective

How Can Computational Social Science Help in Your New WFH Climate?

Even though we are still early into our WFH journey, the vendors of the popular digital collaboration platforms are reporting, as expected, unprecedented growth. At SWOOP we have seen interactions growth levels over the past month of, on average, 75% and 30% increased participation for enterprise social networking (ESN) for Yammer and Workplace from Facebook. For teaming software (Microsoft Teams), a whopping 210% growth in shared interactions and 62% growth in participation. Increased usage of digital tools is now a given, but what about how effectively these tools are actually being used?

Learning Opportunities

We see two dominant use cases emerging in the current WFH context:

1. The Need to Keep Staff Informed

As we indicated above, ESN channels are being exercised at unprecedented levels. Senior executives can no longer rely on face-to-face word of mouth to ensure staff remain fully informed. In this COVID-19 environment, leaders want to know how their staff are faring, physically and mentally. Read receipts are not enough. Leaders need to provoke discussion to gain this sort of feedback. They need to ask open questions and tag other key players to participate. They need to monitor just how many staff are engaged in these online discussions, if only to assess their overall mindsets, when no physical presence is available. They need to be able to monitor shifts in the sentiment of these responses and discussions.

As a staff member, you want to know how your organization and its leaders are responding to the crisis. In the absence of the watercooler or lunchroom sessions, the only way for you to be informed now is to become active online. Ask your own questions of your colleagues. Respond to their questions. Participate in the ESN discussion threads like you never have before. You no longer have those physical meetings to run off to for an excuse now. There is no excuse. Review your online activity at the end of each day. Have you been doing enough?

Related Article: Techies, Fuzzies and the All-Remote Workplace

2. The Need to Get Your Team Working and Productive Again

With few exceptions, your work team is now starting again as a WFH team. Make no mistake, this is not business as usual. The way you interacted as a colocated face-to-face team will feel different. Perhaps your in control team leader in the office can no longer exert the same influence online. Your morning check-in may now be a Zoom or Teams video catch up, rather than the informal gathering around the team meeting table. The level of collaboration you took for granted as a colocated team now requires work to achieve.

You will need to progress through the same “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing” sequence as a digital team, as newly formed teams experience:

swoop teams

Look at your online team conversations. Are all team members engaged in two-way interactions? How quickly is the team moving through the digital gestation period to effective levels of interactions? Are you using chat to keep ALL members connected? Are you using threaded discussions to ensure your work is effectively shared and secured for future use?

It is normal for us to feel anxious in these times of chaotic disruption. But let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity. Once and for all, we can understand just what does make us collaboratively productive individually, in our teams, and across the whole enterprise.

About the author

Laurence Lock Lee

Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.

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