Silhouetted people in an office meeting

When many enterprises responded to the current health crisis by sending workers back to home offices, there were many issues that still had to be addressed, many of which are only really becoming apparent now. Technology, we have seen, presented a challenge albeit one that many organizations were able to rise to rapidly. However, as days have now turned to weeks, the same problems that have plagued organizations since the very first enterprise content management systems merged in the late 90s have manifested themselves again.   

It is arguable, in fact, that this crisis has brought to the fore many of the problems that have been identified, discussed and debate over the past 20 years. In this case the problem is business planning, strategy and how to manage a workforce that may or may not be engaged with the enterprise.  

The Role Of Meetings  

If collaboration is at the heart of the digital workplace, enabling that through the use of technologies has been possible although not without problems. What has been less easy to identify and manage is the problems created by the "human" element of the digital workplace. The key to solving this problem is developing workplace strategy and workplace management. Cynthia Spraggs is president and CEO of Canada-based Virtira Consulting. She believes that teams meetings are key to developing a workplace strategy.  

Collaboration through meetings, she said, means sharing ideas, but more than that it means having a purposeful, on-point meeting that sets a plan of action so that everyone knows exactly what they need to do by when. The experience most people have with meetings is everyone dials in every week, they re-hash all the stuff they talked about last week, someone takes notes and sends them out. Then the next week and the week after everyone shows up again and it is the same thing over and over.  

With COVID-19, and hundreds of millions of people working differently than they did a month ago, this experience has been amplified. Citing a study on virtual team performance across nine countries Spraggs said 75% of virtual team members are more likely to get distracted during virtual meetings, and 34% find that remote team members are often loafing, or not doing their share. This study was done years ago but it is truer today than ever, as people struggle to work efficiently with new home office models.  

Although there are many aspects to collaboration, the core skill our COVID-19 world needs are better skills facilitating and following up virtual meetings. Have a clear agenda, state the purpose of the call and follow an organized line-up to ensure each person has a chance to respond and contribute. You need to reduce the chaos by introducing standards for meeting minutes, status reports, cloud repositories. “You need to remove as much uncertainty as possible,” she said.

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Creating Boundaries And Culture 

One of the issues that this highlights is the problems created by working and living in the same place, Andrey Khusid, CEO of San Francisco-based Miro said. When there is no physical separation between work and home, some employees have a hard time setting boundaries. Many feel obligated to be visibly online and constantly available. Instant messaging and collaboration tools amplify the problem.  

This is a challenge that can be managed by creating a culture where boundary settings are respected. If managers set an example, prioritize meaningful work, and back up their teams when boundaries are violated, it helps employees feel safe to set boundaries themselves. Setting working hours and work statuses on calendars and Slack make it easier to communicate boundaries.  

“The rituals and processes of a distributed team are different than a collocated or hybrid team, and losing those familiar routines can be disorienting,” Khusid said.“Even if a team has worked together for years, if you are new to remote working, this is time to rethink. Commit to a team re-launch where you design and agree on new group behaviors.”  He too stresses the importance of meetings. First and foremost, he said, it is an important to rally the team. “It¹s important to set up recurring team meetings to keep everyone aligned on focus areas and what needs to be done next. Agile rituals can provide rapid focus including regular sprint planning, backlog grooming, and retrospectives for projects,” he added.  

Meetings also manage one of the other major obstacles that, if not dealt with, can hinder the development of a remote working strategy, Seth Elliott, chief marketing officer at UK-based gtmhub, said.“The biggest obstacle we observed impacting remote workforces and successful collaboration,” he told us, “is that employees don't feel motivated or connected to the organization's strategic priorities and lack of transparency and visibility across the organization.”

These are common obstacles for teams meeting for face-to-face as well, and ones that go together when inhibiting teams from being productive and collaborating properly. “Due to big changes in context that come with remote work it makes it even more difficult for remote teams to tackle them but luckily, tech companies and management software vendors have stepped up to the plate to help address the issues that companies are facing as they turn remote,” he added.

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Meet To Collaborate

Keep in mind that the main purpose of meetings is to enable collaboration, Karen Oakey, director of human resources for Alachua, Fla.-based e-commerce company Fractureme, pointed out that collaboration occurs at many different levels within an organization including between the team and members and the management, cross-departmental collaboration, and amongst the individuals themselves. “The ways in which collaboration inspires your team are just as diverse as how the collaboration occurs in the first place. One common denominator is that direct human interaction allows the energy for ideation and innovation to occur where it might otherwise be stifled by the constraints of video and chat technologies,” she said.  

She advises organization and department leaders to think about the challenges they might face when reading an email and trying to decipher the writer's tone, inflection, and energy. This disconnect could be the most difficult communication obstacle organizations are facing today.   

What can be done? Organizations should really deep dive into understanding the level of creative collaboration needed by each of their departments (and on a more granular level, the individuals within each department), she said.  

Some teams might not require any in-person engagement while others depend upon it to deliver in their roles. Management should be proactive in engaging their teams to keep the creative energy flowing during unfamiliar times like most companies are experiencing today.   

Resistance to Change

However, all this assumes that everyone is ready to live and work in the digital workplace. Unfortunately, Sumit De, head of UK Consultancy at TOPdesk, said this is not necessarily the case as many organizations and workers have been forced to work remotely with little or no preparation.

There are still many businesses that have not fully adopted digital transformation due to the time, effort, and resources it takes to carefully plan what makes sense for their unique organizations. Throwing your business, and employees, into a completely digital environment, almost overnight, is bound to be ridden with challenges.  

Employees are inherently resistant to change. Being thrown into completely digital operation can throw many people into a frenzy, adding stress to their days and reducing productivity. Employees with limited experience in collaborating digitally must first accept the new ways of the world, adjusting their mindset.   

Once they've done that, they need to become familiar with the tools available to them for collaboration, if there are any standardized tools in place. This requires a learning curve — most collaboration tools like video conferencing platforms, are not difficult to use, but there is still time involved to get up to speed. With this often comes a flood of tickets and inquiries into the IT help desk, taking precious time away from the IT teams who also need to address company bandwidth issues and more.