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Collaboration: Near, Far, and Future, Part II

Continuing the conversation about collaboration from earlier this month, let’s narrow in further on remote-focused collaboration technology, which is retaining its importance even as workplaces reopen for their employees. The COVID-19 outbreak has been forcing multiple organizations to review their IT strategies as a top priority. Various organizations have also emphasized the importance of having the right cloud-based collaboration tool that will allow employees to work remotely to limit the impact on productivity.

Many answers have been proposed to make collaboration among onsite and offsite participants more agreeable, more like “the old days of face-to-face communications.” For many employees of 3M around the world, for example, working in an office has become the exception to the rule. While COVID-19 vaccines are readily available in many places and physical distancing protocols remain in place at 3M facilities, the future of work isn’t necessarily a full-time return to the office. 3M’s policy, called Work Your Way, is a trust-based approach that lets employees create a schedule that helps them work when and where they can most effectively. Work Your Way has been a collaborative effort by 3M leadership all over the world.  

One of the world’s most familiar companies, although a recent name change might hide that fact, is Meta—formerly and most often referred to as Facebook—and as a technology company involved in communications, Meta takes a remote work approach as a standard option. For most people who are full-time employees of Meta, as of June 15, 2021, Meta made remote work available to all levels across the company. Anyone whose role can be done remotely can request remote work.

For those who prefer the office environment, Meta’s offices will be made more flexible for those expected to return—guidance for employees is to spend at least half their time in the office—and for those interested in relocating across borders, Meta is expanding remote work across international borders gradually. For all roles and organizations with an aligned location strategy, Meta will support remote work opportunities in the Americas moving from the U.S. to Canada.

And in keeping with the tech adage “Eat your own dogfood,” a company based on supporting collaboration and communications, Dropbox, followed the remote work path.

In 2020, they announced plans to transition to a Virtual First company, as early adopters in the permanent shift to remote work.

As a builder of tools for distributed teams, Dropbox was uniquely positioned to predict where the future of work was heading. And while, like everyone else, they still have some things to figure out, a lot was learned in the first year of Virtual First.

The Dropbox approach leverages both remote and in-person experiences with an emphasis on preserving in-person connections, flexibility, and work-life harmony. But a change of this scale has challenges, as Dropbox admits. It reports:

1. It’s harder to build relationships outside of immediate teams.

While Virtual First is inclusive of some in-person interaction, the last two-plus years of COVID restrictions have eliminated the opportunity for the kind of spontaneous connections that happen in office life. Without the ability to bump into co-workers in the hall or overhear a casual conversation, there’s been less chance for employees to get to know people outside their daily orbit.

These types of connections are key when it comes to building company culture and creating a true sense of belonging. They act as bridges that enable the passage of ideas and information. And they enable a mix of new perspectives to spark ideas.

2. Managers have never been more important.

Virtual First is a behavioral shift that requires undoing a century of established ways of working. To say it’s a big task is an understatement. And it can’t exist without managers leading by example. Especially in a remote environment, managers and immediate teams are often the primary way employees learn how to get things done and experience company culture.

Dropbox prioritized more self-serve resources that equip managers with tangible ways for their teams to be successful in Virtual First. For example, the Virtual First Toolkit is publicly available and includes practical, virtual-friendly exercises to help teams thrive in a distributed work environment.

3. Adopting Virtual First practices has increased productivity and well-being.

Change of this magnitude has required everyone to radically re-think how, when, and why we communicate at work. Dropbox found a few new practices have really helped in that department. To be successful in a Virtual First environment, employees must shift from “all day syncs” to an “async by default” mindset. Doing so brings more flexibility and focus to their day. One way to do this is by encouraging employees to remove all unnecessary meetings from their calendars and to be more intentional about scheduling live conversations. 

And these efforts are working. By Q4 of last year, 63% of respondents agreed they’d adopted an “async by default” mindset. And most (81%) have at least adopted CCH (Core Collaboration Hours), which are set windows of time reserved for realtime collaboration.

Those who have moved to a more async work style say Virtual First has promoted more impactful work:

4. Flexibility is critically important to both current and prospective employees.

More than ever, employees want flexibility in both how and when they work. At Dropbox, the transition to “async by default” and Core Collaboration Hours has given employees the opportunity to say goodbye to traditional 9-5 schedules. Instead, they can now design their own workday to include dedicated focus time and to prioritize their own energy levels.

A survey by Cisco shows people want choice and the hybrid workplace increases employee loyalty64% agree the ability to work remotely instead of coming into an office directly affects whether they stay or leave a job. However, there is also uncertainty whether employers will realize the potential of hybrid work: only 47% believe their company will allow working from anywhere vs. in-office during the next 6-12 months.

Flexibility and wellness are key drivers for hybrid work. An overwhelming majority of respondents agree personal health and wellness, along with flexible work arrangements, are non-negotiables as we move into the future of hybrid work. Unfortunately, meetings abound, but not everyone “participates” the same way.More than 61 million meetings take place globally every month via Cisco Webex, and in any one of them, only 48% of participants are likely to speak. In addition, 98% of meetings have at least one person joining remotely increasing the need for inclusion and engagement of remote participants, so they feel equal to their peers on site.

On the plus side, hybrid work means increased access to diverse talent. The survey says 82% agree access to connectivity is critical to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of ensuring everyone has equal access to jobs, education, and healthcare opportunities. Increased connectivity access will empower people to work for any company in the world and companies to source the best talent regardless of location.

A surprising factor in Cisco’s survey of AI (artificial intelligence) is at the center of the future of workMore than 200% growth in usage of AI capabilities from July through September 2021 points toward people’s desire for improved meeting engagement. This includes meeting features like noise reduction, automatic translation and transcriptions, polling, and gesture recognition—making it easier for people to engage in conversation, whether they’re virtual or in-room.

Because of the remote work “revolution,” home networks are now one of the most critical parts of the enterprise network.But not all networks are equal. From January 2020 to August 2021, cloud provider networks accounted for just 5% of outage incident volume. ISP networks accounted for the remaining 95% of outage incidents.

Teams are successful because they’re more than the sum of their parts—but that’s only true if each part contributes to the whole. As noted by SpaceIQ, if members of a group can’t collaborate properly, they’re limited in the assistance they can provide. If Person A works offsite and can’t access collateral for their portion of the project, they’re unable to work on it, which can stall the greater effort. Likewise, if details X, Y, and Z aren’t told to Person B, they might not do their work appropriately, which adversely affects what Person C does.

Collaborative tools enable full group participation and synergy, so everyone contributes meaningfully. Each person uses their skills and talents to drive the project forward in a show of true collaboration. Collaboration tools leverage the responsibilities and talents of each individual into the greater success of the team.

Any piece of technology that helps one person work with others to contribute to a larger mission is a collaboration tool worth using. But remember, not every group needs the same type of tools for certain tasks, but all groups need diverse ways of functioning together. The easier it is to collaborate, the easier it is to succeed.

A new crop of digital collaboration tools has emerged in response to the needs of companies with remote workforces. Deloitte found vendors launched or enhanced at least 100 digital remote collaboration products in the first eight months of 2020, compared to 24 product introductions in the fourth quarter of 2019. Established collaboration vendors are rapidly rolling out new features in response to user requests, and some have released free versions of products to gain marketshare.

Some of this activity involves familiar categories of collaboration tools such as videoconferencing. Other types of tools—such as digital whiteboards, virtual offices, and immersive environments—may be less familiar, but they can provide crucial support to synchronous, spontaneous, and sensory collaboration activities.

Virtual offices are intended to run continuously in the background, showing in realtime what your colleagues are doing through the medium of digital aerial views of office floor plans, avatars, or even 3D worlds. And they aim to emulate the natural, rapid types of interactions that frequently take place in a physical workplace like tapping someone’s shoulder to ask a question. These platforms display context about colleagues (Are they meeting with a client right now? Are they listening to music?) and they provide multiple pathways by which coworkers can informally connect.

Let’s not stop at virtual offices. Some studies have shown that VR—virtual reality—is a promising medium for remote collaborative work. Users experience a 3D shared environment where they can see representations of themselves and colleagues and conduct meetings. Immersive environments are best suited for interactive sessions and cocreation/ideation.

Some vendors make it possible for users to take a selfie and upload and wrap the image around an avatar for a personalized, lifelike presence. Combined with spatial audio and visible mouth or hand movements, these technologies can give one the impression of being in the same space as a colleague. Interacting with the environment and accessing menus using one’s hands or controllers is highly intuitive.

Typical features include 2D or 3D whiteboarding options, 3D process flows, and the ability to access content from the web, including images and 3D models. Progress in the underlying technology of AR (augmented reality)/VR, and increasingly affordable hardware, boost could the appeal of immersive environments during the next couple of years.

ABI Research forecasts the market for AR and VR immersive collaboration solutions will exceed $400 million by 2025, up from less than $12 million in 2019. The communication and collaboration market in aggregate is having heightened interest and demand and is expected to see accelerate adoption of a wide variety of newer technologies.

The XR (extended reality) collaboration space, for example, is far more nascent and diverse. There is a wide array of companies approaching the market from different angles and while industries like AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) have emerged as early adopters, the market is still undergoing significant development.

Video conferencing hardware, which is expected to approach $4 billion by 2025, up from $2.4 billion in 2019, has developed some drawbacks since becoming the go-to method for collaboration during the pandemic. Improved tools may eventually solve the big videoconference problem of fatigue, but it’s possible emerging remote collaboration technologies may give rise to other unpleasant technology-induced side effects such as the dizziness or nausea that can accompany immersive environments. When choosing a collaboration tool, organizations should take these into account and design mitigation strategies such as time limits where applicable.

Don’t let this focus on new technologies overshadow the importance of cybersecurity in remote locations as well as at company facilities. As workers migrated to home networks and personal devices after the onset of the pandemic, firms faced an increase in hacking attempts, and many are enhancing their cybersecurity posture accordingly. During the first years of the pandemic, malicious remote access attempts grew 2.4 times. In September 2021, the hybrid workforce was targeted with more than 100 million email threats daily. Security infrastructures must keep work accessible to the right users and out of reach of fraudulent actors.

The amount and type of information generated by remote collaboration tools could be especially sensitive, and companies should strive to ensure such data is secure while meeting workers’ reasonable expectations of privacy. As Trimble points out, different sectors have different challenges, and there are some cybersecurity risks in construction that are particular to the way that the industry works.

Just the fact construction is carried out in a variety of sites and locations can present a risk of cybercrime. Bases can often be temporary locations such as onsite cabins and trailers, with workers connecting to business networks and systems via laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Security can often be laxer than it would be in a permanent office, especially if workers can access critical systems on their own devices. It is important to have a policy that requires passwords and other validation, while mobile devices should be assessed for vulnerabilities.

A construction project often involves collaboration between professionals of different disciplines, as well as stakeholders such as owners and clients. This means plans, blueprints, and other sensitive information such as bids, financial information, and employee records may have to be shared outside the company. Security, naturally, should be a top priority.

While cybersecurity techniques, software, and systems have a huge part to play, human error can also frequently put firms at risk. It is therefore important to institute robust policies and training to help ensure that everyone in your organization follows best security practices. In the cybersecurity arms race, it’s virtually impossible to guarantee immunity, but it is possible to drastically reduce your risks simply by adopting a commonsense approach and taking the threat seriously.

As we enter the “next new normal” phase with remote, hybrid, and onsite work the way of life for many, communications by computer and smartphone will be the basic collaboration technologies. Lessons learned during the crash course of the early days of COVID will benefit us if we can balance the new work environments with a new work ethic that allows people to make choices not available to them a decade ago and still maintain the productivity needed by their companies.

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