woman working from home, on her bed on a laptop
PHOTO: Andrew Neel

Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 changed how we live our lives, including how we work. While some people have been working from home for years, many more traveled daily to a central office. Now the information workforce is being asked to work remotely 100% of the time.

This is likely the first true test of your organization's collaboration tools. Before, your tools were merely augmenting collaboration. You still had random conversations, in-person meetings around a whiteboard, and other highly interactive discussions. Those options, and many others, are now gone.

More importantly, you can no longer decide to address the topic tomorrow when everyone is in the office. The tools that used to augment your collaboration are now your collaboration backbone. Will your tools maintain your productivity and handle the load? Do you need to start looking elsewhere?

Finding the Right Collaboration Medium

Many organizations use asynchronous tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. They work well, but after a few exchanged messages, a phone call becomes necessary to cut to the chase. Of course, when the phone call fails to add clarity, eventually you have a meeting using Zoom or WebEx to allow for more complex sharing of information.

Still, there are limits. Having multiple people collaborate on a design or any creative task is challenging. Having several people contribute to a discussion is difficult. When the screen switches to a virtual whiteboard or other content, visual cues from your colleagues disappear and now network latency starts to become a real factor.

Everyone in your organization needs to know which tools are available and which ones work best for different types of meetings. Instead of getting frustrated by a lack of clarity, move the conversation to a more interactive medium. A conversation that starts on Slack may need to finish on a phone call or a quick, ad-hoc meeting. This isn’t much different than ad-hoc gatherings around someone’s desk to figure something out.

Related Article: A New Generation of Collaboration Tools: Is it Really Different This Time?

How Much Can Your Network Handle?

Does your VPN scale? If everyone has to VPN into your network to access resources, all of those video calls and screen shares are passing through your network. I’ve heard of some organizations having to ban video calls in order to preserve bandwidth for customer-facing systems. Of course, if you don’t have a VPN challenge, the more pressing question is: does your solution scale?

If you are using an established cloud vendor, the answer is maybe. Cloud providers haven’t faced this level of usage before and are working to ensure they can handle the scale. Webex has already had issues on five days in March (and counting), after none in January and February. Zoom is facing a similar uptick in problems, usually starting after 10 am on the US east coast.

Of course, scale goes beyond the tech. Large meetings begin to fall apart online. It works fine when you have only a handful of speakers. However, when everyone participates as you work to solve a problem, it is very hard for multiple people to discuss things. Forget breaking out into groups and being able to bring people back together.

You will have to experiment on how to conduct those meetings. New techniques, not necessarily new technology, will be needed. More importantly, it is important to ask: could this be handled in email or Slack thread?

Related Article: Telecommuting Basics for the Newly Remote Workforce

Now Is the Time to Experiment and Learn

Different types of work require different types of collaboration. Work with your teams to find the right tools. What worked occasionally might not work to solve the more complex interaction requirements.

Experiment. Don’t rule things out. See what works and what doesn’t. Let productivity determine the right solution. Then scale and share what worked with other teams.

It may be a chaotic transition, but organizations need to work through this if they are going to survive. We don’t know how long this situation will last. Even once COVID-19 passes, we can’t be sure something similar won’t pop up again in a few years.

There is a lot we don’t know — but now is the time to learn what we can. Not just for this time, but for the future. Now is the time to become experts in remote collaboration and using the right tools, not just the tools IT departments want you to use.