Everyone wants to know how to collaborate more effectively. Hardcore agile practitioners would argue for everyone to sit together in the same room. However, as you move away from the world of corporate programming, the chances of that being possible drops. The best people are often geographically dispersed, and you don’t want your team to suffer when someone has to work remotely while waiting on an insurance adjuster.

Which begs the questions, what tools do you use?

It doesn’t matter. Let me explain: it does matter, but I can’t tell you what tools to use. Only the tools that match how your team works are a good fit. I know this seems like I'm dodging the issue, but it is a true statement. However, one piece of universal advice will make a difference: collaboration tools are meant to facilitate transparency and communication and for that to happen, there needs to be trust.

Transparency Greases the Wheels of Progress

When collaborating in any environment, transparency is important. People need to know what other people are doing that impacts them or the organization. Yes, some things need to be kept secret for a reason, but aside from those exceptions, openness serves all. Even the perception of people hiding things hurts the collaborative process.

This goes beyond a reporting construct to include what other teams are working on at any given moment as well as what is happening within your own team. What is everyone trying to complete? How far along are they? Future tasks depend on the completion of current tasks. Knowing the progress allows for proper planning and preparation.

The work isn't over when the task is completed. Sharing what's been accomplished is key. Every task has an output. Access to these outputs is critical. If a developer is building a development server, documenting it in either a public place or a team workspace, how can you access this documentation? Email and task notes are great until someone wants to access them three weeks later and they have to search for them.

Related Article: Managing Real-Time Collaboration Across Distributed Offices

Establish Trust in the Workplace

Creating places to record information and chat online is great. It's how you build better communication, which leads to greater transparency. The trick is getting people to use the tools. This goes beyond finding the “right” tool for the job. It falls squarely into the world of trust.

Trust is a tricky thing in the business world. You don’t always have full control over the people you work with. Even if your team is perfect, you will work with other teams you may not know as well. This leads to people using the provided tools only if putting information into the tool will not harm them in the future. If people worry that the information will be misused, they won’t use the tool.

Related Article: 3 Collaboration Skills You Need for Today and Tomorrow

The Value of In-Person Meetings

The only way to build the kind of trust that leads to better communications and transparency is for people to get to know each other. That means getting together in person. For teams, that means group lunches, dinners or other events. The same goes for dispersed teams. Bring everyone together for a week to work and do other group activities.

Learning Opportunities

The goal is for team members to establish familiarity. It isn’t just a one-time activity either. Regular meetings are required to give team members who may not have interacted much over the previous months an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of trust.

When dealing with other teams, regular meetings aren't always an option. So find reasons to meet. Consider an in person kick-off meeting. Make the extra effort to meet in person on a periodic basis.

People tout the value of video meetings. While they help, video works better as a reinforcement of existing ties than the creation of new ones. Video usage also often falls off over time, so using it as the foundation of trust is unreliable.

Related Article: Translating Corporate Culture Across Distributed Teams

Collaboration Comes Down to the People

You may have noticed that it isn’t the tool, but the people that matters with collaboration. Trust is a very subjective goal to achieve and requires all the contextual clues you can bring to the table. Voice is better than text. Video is better than voice. In-person is better than video. You have to build that trusted, working relationship first. Then use the technology that best fits your process to do the work and maintain that trust over time.

Never take that trust for granted. Constant little miscommunications happen that, in and of themselves, are no big deal. However, those little things add up. You need to reaffirm people’s good intentions and fortify the level of trust before it significantly deteriorates.

Once the rhythm is set, maintaining trust is easy. Adding people is easy as they absorb the existing culture. Building that initial trust and getting to the point that people look forward to the next in-person team building event is the real work.

Put in the time. If you do it right, your biggest issue will be getting people to settle on just one tool to use for collaboration.

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