Transformation•Jul 26, 2022
4 Collaboration Lessons: Navigating Online Collaboration in an Increasingly Digital World
The past three years have been an extraordinary growth period for Credera. When I first started in 2019, there were only three offices in the United States: Dallas, Houston, and Denver. Back then, I never would have guessed that I would be writing this overlooking the London skyline. Since 2020, we have expanded to 16 offices across three continents.
With company growth, however, also comes growing pains. Projects and teams are spread across the globe, and the learning curve of this new environment only widened with the changes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Achieving success in an increasingly digital world is novel, but can be familiar. All it takes are some tweaks in how we communicate.
Stretching Flexibility to the Limit
With every problem, comes a solution. Credera experimented and implemented a new Flexible Connection Model to address the changes of working in a post-pandemic world. Our team is working on a custom software project with a healthcare client to put this connection model to the test. Scattered across five time zones from Denver to Spain, a typical workday quickly proved a logistical challenge due to the dependencies we had with one another.
Early in the project, we noticed the complexity involved more than the technical problems we were trying to solve. In the depths of the pandemic, we knew we wouldn’t be able to fly to client locations to build relationships. Our Spanish clients’ day ended before many of our U.S. Mountain Time teammates had even logged in. In the middle of solving our client problem, we had to experiment with ways of building the necessary team cohesion to be effective.
There’s no secret methodology to get your team to work effectively across the globe. In fact, all you need is one thing: communication. The twist is that the communication needs to be constant, open, and honest. This is tricky to do when the only interaction with another person comes from meeting through a computer screen rather than catching a co-worker at the office water cooler. Let’s take a look at four key lessons we learned about what worked and didn’t work for our dispersed team.
Distribution Collaboration Lesson #1: Not Everything Can Flex
One of the things we found that didn’t work was attempting to replicate certain physical events virtually. Things like virtual happy hours quickly failed for a few reasons. First, meeting technology doesn’t handle multiple conversations well. If you have a team of seven, and they are all at a virtual happy hour, only one person can speak at a time. For happy hours, where jokes happen and conversation moves faster than in a meeting, it can be frustrating to be unable to make a quick comment or joke in the moment. The delay that occurs in remote meetings already inhibits the ability to make quips.
Second, due to the limit of one active conversation at a time, happy hour participant size had to be limited to around five to seven people. Having a group of 15 on a call where 13 to 14 of the participants are quietly listening and waiting for their turn to talk does not make for a very “happy” hour.
Finally, we found that these meetings felt like any other, despite a drink of choice being in hand. In the depths of the pandemic where much of our day was filled with meetings, no one wanted one more.
Distribution Collaboration Lesson #2: Weird Flex, But OK
After our failure at simply attempting to take physical events virtual, we had to be more intentional and open minded. With all of us scattered and locked in, we decided to plan our first event: Team Trivia Night. An idea from our scrum master, the unique part of the game was that a survey was sent out to everyone with a questionnaire asking more about us. Prompts ranged from “What is your least favorite food?” to “Where is the first place you’ll go once the pandemic is over?” The resulting list turned into a competitive game of Kahoot. We learned a lot about each other that we normally would have learned through natural office conversations.
Another thing we learned was team building doesn’t have to only reside within Credera. We work and spend our time with our clients, it is important to build up a comradery with them as well. We are there to deliver the best product we can deliver for them. One way we did that was to follow their local sports. Part of our hybrid team was in Catalonia in Spain and the local team was Athletic Club de Bilbao. When the team won, we’d change our Teams backgrounds to display the team colors and crest so we could celebrate together.
Distribution Collaboration Lesson #3: Sometimes Flexibility Requires Cooperation
A difficult part of geographically distributed teams is finding workable times for meetings. Needs vary depending on the team, but we recommend surveying the team’s preferred working hours anonymously (so they don’t feel pressure to provide hours outside of their comfort zone) to see if there is a band of core hours that the entire team can commit to.
Otherwise, fairness is a good plan: alternate meetings so that occasionally some team members will have to be on early, and some will have to be on late. Also, use this time zone discrepancy to judge what meetings are truly “must-have.” Is that status meeting worth making someone get online at 6 a.m.? As consultants, we naturally defer to being flexible so our clients don’t have to. But we found our clients were open to abnormal meeting times when we transparently communicated the reasoning.
Distribution Collaboration Lesson #4: Practice Flexibility
After building our relationships over time, we noticed things beginning to run smoother. Communication was more frequent. The feedback loop was easier to deliver across all levels. Extra-ordinary asks such as 5 a.m. meetings were not met with resistance.
We all knew and respected the unique challenges we were facing and met them head on. It wasn’t something we solved immediately, and it wasn’t something that, once solved, didn’t require any more effort to keep running effectively. We had to practice flexibility regularly and check in with each other to make sure needs hadn’t changed. Projects can have long run times, after all. A solution may not always work. But thankfully we have Credera teammates (and excellent clients!) who are open to continuous improvement.
Learning How to Collaborate From Afar
While the pandemic challenged our ability to connect, our team never lost the spark for growing relationships organically. As we transition out of solely the work from home era, three overarching lessons learned can be pivoted and reused in a hybrid environment.
First and most importantly, build those relationships as organically as possible through a screen.
Second, be flexible. Cross global teams mean cross global times. Align time zones, respect peoples’ time, and take turns for that 6 a.m. meeting.
Third, practice the communication feedback loop. Ensure it’s a constant drip across every single person on the team. The more comfortable you are with working together, the less you find yourself consciously trying to oil the machine.
If you’d like to connect with our team to talk more about how to collaborate in a changing work environment, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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