The team that I work with has become more virtualized over time. A few years back, almost all of us were together in the same office, all working on the same projects at the same time. Fast-forward through a few corporate acquisitions and many personnel changes, and we have most of our key people located across the country, usually working on multiple projects at a time. It’s made collaboration more difficult, or at least more of an adjustment.
Having better technology tools has helped facilitate collaboration, generally in the simplest ways. I can’t imagine trying to keep in touch with a distributed team without being able to “ping” somebody on IM before calling them. There used to be a time, kids, when your phone would ring unexpectedly, you wouldn’t know who was calling or why, and you were expected to answer it. Thinking back now, I’m not sure how anyone got anything done.
But the technology tools by themselves won’t necessarily provide optimal collaboration. How we use them—the culture we build around using them—determines whether they succeed.
We have an interesting guest post on our sister website, No Jitter, from Pegah Ebrahimi, an executive in Cisco’s Collaboration business unit, in which she identifies the goal of enterprise collaboration strategy as the creation of more “think hours” for employees. Her argument is that enterprises need to fine-tune their collaboration strategy to maximize the amount of time available for employees to use as “think time,” which is the time spent doing “constructive, creative” work rather than simply sitting in unproductive meetings or burning time just trying to get their collaboration tools to function for them.
This is an important point, but I tend to view the difference not as “think time” versus unproductive time, but as structured time versus unstructured time. If, as Pegah suggests, technology providers can improve their tools to eliminate much of the friction from their use, and if enterprise leaders reduce the amount of obligatory meeting time they force people to endure, what the user really gains is unstructured time.
One of the things that really worked about our old team setup was exactly what the open-office proponents say is supposed to happen: We really did use unstructured time to talk about challenges or issues we were having, or sometimes just to shoot the breeze in a low-key team-building way. I still have the opportunity to do that with some of my closest colleagues now who are in remote locations: I may not ping them on IM just for idle chit-chat, but a scheduled call may run long and wander into collaborative “think time;” or a conversation that started because of an immediate concern may segue into a different but equally useful discussion.
Employees need to feel like they can have that sort of interaction without being punished for it—either directly, by getting a bad review for too much perceived chit-chat, or indirectly, by sacrificing time that had been committed to a less productive but required activity. So much of workspace strategy is about creating those opportunities—in physical space, virtual space, and time.