Three-Part Series: Insights on Hybrid and Remote Collaboration

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The COVID-19 pandemic has driven a global transformation of the way we work. Virtual meetings have become a daily occurrence for many of us, and we are still adapting to a fully remote or partially remote working environment. And yet, while these ways of working have become widespread due to the pandemic, they are not new. Jason Fried and David Heinmeier Hanson, authors of Remote: Office Not Required, observe that, “When we started writing this book in 2013, the practice of working remotely . . . had been silently on the rise for years. (From 2005 to 2011 remote work soared 73 percent in the United States).” New technologies emerged to accommodate that rise and people began to develop effective ways of using new tools for remote or hybrid collaboration across distances. 

In 2013, I joined the growing hybrid workforce and helped lead a global team of faculty to develop a new approach to higher education. Bound by a common mission, we built an innovative model for teaching and learning. In this series, I share some of the lessons we learned about hybrid collaboration, including how to build community, invite diverse perspectives in virtual meetings, and evaluate performance based on mission-driven goals. The best practices we developed are grounded learning science and apply to any environment – large and small companies, academic institutions, law firms – in which people are collaborating on remote or hybrid teams to achieve common objectives.

Part 1: Build community by establishing clear norms for your communication tools

The modern workplace confronts us with many tools for hybrid and remote collaboration that allow us to communicate across distances at all hours. Ideally, these tools help us collaborate when we cannot be in a physical space together. However, it comes as no surprise that many of us feel overwhelmed by the volume of communication we receive every day. We cannot focus on creative problem solving when we spend most of our days digging out from under a mountain of information distributed across multiple channels. What norms can we establish for our communication tools that help us filter through the noise? How can we share these norms to focus hybrid and remote collaboration on the work and not the technology? 

The learning principle of “chunking” – organizing information into categories – offers a helpful strategy (Kosslyn and Nelson, Chapter 11, 2017). People can only keep a limited amount of information in their working memory. If we “chunk” our communication tools and norms into categories, it helps people quickly remember which tool they should use, how they should use it, and for what purpose. 

To organize information about communication tools and norms, follow these steps:

Identify one tool for each type of communication and use it consistently

Think through which tool best fits each purpose and share your decisions widely. For example, which tool works best for 1:1 virtual meetings? How about larger group meetings or training sessions? What kind of information is best suited for email, and when should a team use chat messages instead? Choose one tool for each communication type. People will get confused if you have a proliferation of tools that serve similar purposes. 

Establish norms 

When a person is new to an organization or adapting to a new way of working, it can take energy and focused attention to identify common behaviors and adopt them. To reduce cognitive load for the members of your team, establish norms for virtual communications.

For example, in larger group meetings, do you want participants to have their cameras on or off? Seeing faces allows people to read non-verbal cues and it also builds community. However, if you are holding a meeting that features a single speaker, you might choose to have participants turn off their cameras to help people focus and reduce fatigue. Either way, if you share your norm for that meeting transparently, it removes the mystery. People become free to focus on what really matters. Similarly, if you are collaborating with a team, designate when they should use email – to convey complex information-  and when chat messages are best – to send a quick notification that they are running late to a meeting. 

This may sound simple, but it is crucial to establish norms for effective interactions if you want to have insightful, inclusive, and creative hybrid and remote collaborations. 

Share your tools and norms clearly and widely

For simplicity, “chunk” your communication tools into types and describe the norms for each one in a clear chart. Share it through announcements and on a website for easy reference. Use graphics, engaging the learning principle of “dual coding” to provide people with both visual and verbal cues that will help them retain the information (Kosslyn and Nelson, 2017). Just as you might take a new hire on a tour of the office, take them on a “tour” of your communication tools and norms as part of their onboarding process.

Limit your training to the essentials and tie it to your norms

Most hybrid and remote communication tools are well designed and do not require much training for users. Training should be catered to your norms. For example, if you have established a norm for instant messaging that people are expected to respond quickly unless their setting indicates they are “away” or “in a meeting,” ensure that they know how to use those settings. Otherwise, encourage your employees to learn by doing, just as they might if they downloaded a new app to their phone. Identify a channel and assign moderators to answer questions when they arise. 

A simple “tools, communication type, and norms” chart, a few technical pointers, and regular practice should help your teams build connections across distances, let the technology recede into the background, and focus on what really matters. 

If you want to design a virtual onboarding or you’re interested in holding a workshop on communication tools and norms visit my contact page and send me a message. 

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