How to improve virtual collaboration in the workplace
Today, more and more organisations are providing employees with the flexibility to work remotely or in a hybrid arrangement. With recent research showing that 89% of Hong Kong employees prefer to work entirely or mostly remotely, it’s essential that leaders have a clear understanding of what it takes to manage a successful virtual team.
While remote work has been a revelation, leading a virtual team from afar is not without its challenges. Traditional teams were physically present in the workplace and available to discuss ideas and solutions to keep things moving, but fostering this same type of collaboration in a remote world requires a unique approach.
The myriad of collaborative tools available to support virtual teams offer a valuable starting point, but when it comes to collaboration, technology alone is not enough. Feelings of isolation and disconnection can creep in if there is a lack of structure around communication, culture and expectations, and this can put a serious dent in your team’s ability to collaborate, which negatively impacts results.
So if you’re leading a remote team, how can you keep your people on task and encourage effective virtual collaboration in the workplace? Read on to learn the key challenges, and some tips to overcome them, so your remote workforce can unite in effort, despite the distance between them.
Key challenges of virtual collaboration in the workplace
While there are numerous benefits to remote work, to maximise the gains you need to be aware of how a lack of face to face contact impacts your team’s ability to collaborate effectively. Some of the key areas where virtual collaboration in the workplace can be challenging include:
Virtual chat lacks the visual and auditory cues of in-person discussion, and this can lead to misunderstandings. What’s more, it can be harder to get the heart of the matter – what could be a quick in-person conversation can turn into a lengthy email chain that bounces back and forth and takes much longer to resolve.
Because virtual communication generally lacks the flow and insight of face to face discussions, it tends to be shallower and more disjointed. This makes it harder to brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other, which can affect your team’s ability to make swift decisions and take action.
Working on-site together allows for clear visibility on the expectation around roles and responsibilities within projects. When teams work remotely, there can be a lack of clarity on the allocation and organisation of tasks which can lead to lost time and double handling.
Without the physical presence of your workmates around you, the sense of connection within the team can be lost. This can have a seriously detrimental affect on collaboration and motivation.
When leading your team in the office, you can easily assess how employees are progressing on assigned tasks to make sure the project remains on track. With a remote team, there is often less insight into how tasks are progressing and a higher chance of things slipping through the cracks. On the flip-side it can also result in an uneven workload, with some employees being allocated more than their fair share.
What can leaders do to improve virtual collaboration?
So how can you overcome these challenges and improve collaboration in your remote team? As Elaine Lam, managing director at Robert Half Hong Kong suggests, the first step is to acknowledge the differences in collaboration between remote and on-site work and plan an approach that addresses the challenges and puts people at the centre.
"Virtual collaboration can be just as effective as it is in-person, but it will require scaffolding and leadership to build and maintain. Managers must find ways to extend the workplace out to embrace remote employees, so they feel part of the culture and have a strong connection to the organisation and their colleagues. Providing them with the tech and tools to collaborate is only the first step. You also need to set clear expectations, organise regular video meets and continue to actively develop interpersonal and communication skills within your team. The ability to communicate effectively is paramount for remote workers, as your message and meaning is much harder to convey in emails, chat and Zoom meetings."
How can digital tools enhance collaboration for virtual workers?
There’s no doubt that digital tools enhance virtual collaboration in the workplace, but there must be a strategic approach as to which technology is used and for what purpose to maximise the benefits.
There are three main areas where technology can support collaboration in virtual teams:
While email is an essential communication tool in the workplace, for conversational interactions between team members, real-time communication is far more efficient and effective. This can be via chat features in tools such as Slack, but if the subject is complex or requires further clarification, picking up the phone may be the best approach.
Video calls are an ideal virtual communication medium, but be mindful that you don’t overdo it. To avoid fatigue and maximise the impact of video meets, be selective on when your team will benefit most from seeing others. Schedule those meetings ahead with a shared agenda distributed beforehand so everyone knows what to expect.
For virtual teams, the ability to manage and track projects remotely is a must, and there are numerous project management tools that do this well including Asana, ClickUp and Monday. Within these tools you can create and allocate tasks, set due dates, add comments, share files, record progress and more. The right project management tool can provide the perfect centrepiece to effective virtual collaboration.
To keep your virtual workforce organised, a simple and effective file sharing process is a must. Sharing, viewing, editing and commenting on files should be seamless and intuitive, so choose a system that has the features you need. Popular options include Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive and iCloud.
Boost collaboration with people at the centre
As the demand for remote work in Hong Kong continues to rise, organisations who can enhance virtual collaboration in the workplace will set themselves apart as an employer of choice. With the right tools and a tailored approach that puts people at the centre, you’ll set yourself up for success.
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