One source of relief from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is that the collaboration technology needed for working from home is surprisingly ready for prime time.

Many people are being asked to work from home as a way to help flatten the curve of the disease’s spread and, fortunately, many can. The collaborative technology they need is no longer new or unfamiliar. Software and services such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom Rooms, Basecamp, Asana, Slack and Google Meet have become familiar tools, giving many people the confidence to work remotely.

That said, transitioning to a new, more remote workforce isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Challenges exist, and the consequences can be serious if issues are mismanaged. When that happens, working from home can lead to plummeting productivity, disrupted projects, missed deadlines and more.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Our research clearly indicates that organizations can increase their chances for successfully reconfiguring this new collaborative workspace by following these four best practices:

Build camaraderie: Find ways to replicate what we call coffee conversations. Those are informal microinteractions, such as those people might have around the coffee maker. During these interactions, coworkers build trust in small ways. Later, they can rely on that trust when tough issues arise.

One technique for building camaraderie, as highlighted by our research, involves explicitly setting aside time at the beginning or end of a meeting for warm-up or cool-down chats outside of the formal business. Another technique involves arranging virtual coffee times during the week. At these times, team members dial in for informal conversations, either as a group or one-on-one. Yet another technique is to introduce games, quizzes, team awards and so forth — all to help build a sense of shared team spirit.

Default to the weakest connection: This strategy, often recommended by accessibility-inclusion advocates, is known as the curb-cut effect. Basically, it means that by optimizing for your most vulnerable team member, you end up benefiting everyone. This will likely mean introducing new practices. For example, if one person is dialing into a meeting, then everyone — including onsite team members — would dial in. That way, nobody would have the advantage of physical proximity for seeing a screen or taking the next turn speaking. This is a powerful way to mitigate some of the communication inequalities of a blended team.

Build trust: Some teams will need to trust their remote workers. Members of these teams may be more accustomed to presence management than performance management. That is, they think that because the boss can see them, the boss knows they’re working. But if you’re working remotely, the boss can’t see you. So how do you demonstrate value?

One common but mistaken response is to send flurries of reply-to-all emails, believing this will demonstrate they’re working. Another is responding to every single message in the company chat system. Both are examples of what we call “presenteeism,” the incorrect idea that the appearance of working is more important than the real outputs a team member has been asked to achieve.

The solution: Find a happy medium. Managers will need to trust that all team members are doing what they need to do, even if they can’t be monitored all day. This is also where the trust built in the aforementioned coffee conversations becomes so valuable. But workers must put in a special effort, too. They’ll need to do more working out loud: Managers aren’t mind readers, so workers need to share challenges, big wins, project updates and more. Finding an appropriate cadence is important; overwhelming colleagues with too much news can be as bad as starving them with too little.

Invest in high-quality gear: In one of our case studies, a team of people split across offices and working remotely between two countries (and languages) were finding it difficult to communicate effectively in meetings because the sound quality of their equipment was poor. Surprisingly, one language group complained not on their own behalf, but that of their suffering distant colleagues. By showing that they wanted to improve communication and participation for everyone, they were able to persuade the leadership team to invest in better headsets and meeting-room microphones. High-quality equipment not only makes it easier for remote team members to collaborate, but also fosters trust.

The coming weeks and months will undoubtedly be challenging. But organizations can help to limit the spread of the coronavirus by having more team members work from home using collaboration technology. And by following these four best practices, remote teams can make this transition a success.


Learn more about changing how work works in your organization in the Leading Edge Forum’s research report, Reconfiguring the Collaborative Workspace: Making the most of Time, Space and Attitude.