remote worker hack: slack and video stream on phone
PHOTO: Alper Çuğun

The use of real-time collaboration tools is commonplace in many workplaces. But as much as these tools might help people work together, research highlights how they can also be a source of distraction and frustration.

Think of the time that's wasted due to technical issues encountered while trying to set up up a simple online meeting or conference call. Sometimes poor usability in a specific tool contributes to the problem, but another cause can be poorly integrated solutions that fail to work together as users expect. App sprawl also adds to the mess, by overwhelming users with too many choices.

Even when the technology works, the promise of real-time collaboration can impact individual's ability to work autonomously or cause anxiety about being ignored or left out of the loop. 

The current generation of group chat platforms, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, demand our constant attention and may have many unintended consequences if they're a mandatory part of a team’s workflow.

One glance at the problems and complaints levied against the use real-time collaboration in our workplaces reveals it is actually a combination of technology and human factors that lead to negative experiences.

Equity of Collaboration

In my consulting work, I often focus on the issue of equity of collaboration when reviewing or planning how to better support collaboration between people working in different offices and from home. The aim is to ensure a level of basic collaboration can be achieved, regardless of where someone is working. Unfortunately what happens too often is one group (such as the head office or senior executives) receives an exceptional experience at the expense of other, remote workers. A poor real-time collaboration experience for one user usually impacts the overall quality of the collaboration for everyone.

Equity of collaboration also means the real-time collaboration solutions used should be conscious of the different workstyles, work contexts and preferences of the participants. If someone is already self-conscious about speaking up in a meeting, they might be even more nervous knowing that when they the speak a video camera will focus on them and project their face onto a giant meeting room screen.

Achieving equity of collaboration takes more than simply picking the right software. Sometimes we can use real-time collaboration tools as a fix-all for all distributed collaboration tasks. We also sometimes miss the opportunity to use technology in ways that might deliver a better outcome by simply using them differently.

Related Article: Is the Solution to Information Overload More Technology?

Strategies to Improve Real-Time Collaboration

To better manage how we use real-time collaboration across distributed offices, start by understanding the typical use cases for real-time collaboration, who is likely to be participating, and where they will be while working together virtually. You'll also need a good working knowledge of the different tools those people might expect to use. Be prepared to source alternative solutions when necessary.

The following strategies can support this approach:

Ditch the Status Meeting

Encourage people who regularly work in distributed teams to eliminate the need for update meetings and avoid the misuse of email as a backstop for group collaboration. Instead, use platforms where information can be shared equally and use information radiators to provide constant access to data about project or process progress. Then urge employees to focus on using real-time collaboration for solving problems or making decisions, rather than oversight.

Build Fit-For-Purpose Workspaces, Both Physical and Digital

Invest in fit-for-purpose technology and supporting workspaces for all participants. This might sound obvious, but the quality of the software, hardware and physical space will all impact how effectively people can work together using technology. The most expensive solution may still not be the right tool. Instead, solve by matching what teams need to get done. You can also learn from the hacked together solutions that teams create themselves and offer to turn them into more robust and scalable options.

Related Article: The Collaboration Community's Big Dirty Productivity Secret

Remember, Collaborating Requires Trust 

And finally, people also need social support and opportunities to share knowledge and build trust. A healthy culture of real-time collaboration will use these tools to create opportunities for people to get to know each other. These tools have the potential to be used in creative ways to support onboarding, team building and ambient awareness of what is happening across different locations.

Although these strategies might not completely eliminate all the causes of distraction and frustration, we can work to make real-time collaboration as effective and valuable as possible.