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People who are all in the same room collaborate without thinking too much about it. They talk, they observe each other’s tone of voice and body language and they use visual aids such as whiteboards and flipcharts. Normally one person at a time talks and everyone knows who that person is. Folks pick up nuances and meanings from each other without being consciously aware of how they do it.
In today’s workplace, however, it’s becoming less and less common to have everybody in the same room. Many organizations have some people working remotely, and in some departments the entire work staff is scattered throughout the world. There’s a lot of collaboration software that enables coworkers to share files and work on reports together, but the real challenge of collaboration technology in the modern workplace is to create collaboration tools that can convey the subtlety and nuance of live human interaction.
With a remote workforce, a leader can’t practice MBWA, or Management by Walking Around. Ideas and relationships don’t grow out of chance meetings in the break room. There may be no greater challenge in today’s work environment than to foster collaboration between people who never see each other face to face.
It’s not too hard for a leader to dole out assignments to remote individuals. But if people work as individuals without engaging their coworkers, they won’t provide the creativity, the extra spark, that comes when employees collaborate.
The task at hand for today’s collaborative technology is to get back, virtually, to that big room where everyone sees and understands what everyone else is doing and saying. It’s the best way to unlock the potential of the group, which will always be greater than the sum of the potential of the individuals.
Not every team’s collaboration tool is ideal for business. Collaboration tools for business need to be a lot more focused and results-oriented than tools used for sharing ideas in art or music or gourmet cooking. With office collaboration tools, there are very specific goals that need to be met.
It’s been said that you can’t rush artistry, that the inspiring muses need to have time for creativity to percolate. But business has deadlines. There are things that need to be accomplished every day. These needs not only include management of the work but specific tracking and evaluation of whether milestones are being reached on time. Also whether the work meets the objectives established for those milestones.
Is a date isn’t achieved, or if a deliverable does not meet its requirements, the consequences are more significant than a flubbed musical passage or a meal with one of the courses missing an ingredient. A lot is asked of collaboration tools used in the business world today. They need to promote collaboration and bring the human element of live interaction to the remote working environment, but they also need to be relentlessly focused on ensuring the timely delivery of a product that meets very specific business needs.
There are several types of collaboration tools in use today, both in physical offices and in virtual ones. These include tools for communication, tools for managing projects and tasks and tools that foster collaborative creativity. Collaboration tools examples include shared calendars, remote project management tools, distributed training and education software, chat apps, document sharing apps, video conferencing, virtual meeting rooms and shared online whiteboards. Even the good old telephone is a remote collaboration tool, perhaps the oldest and, with bridge or conference calling, still one of the most effective. There’s a lot of crossover between these tools; many attempt to address more than one collaborative need.
It’s not surprising that many companies have a mishmash of collaboration tools with overlaps and gaps. Any collaboration tools comparison will show that many collaboration tools perform more than one task, but far fewer do a lot of tasks well. The time is right for a truly integrated all-purpose collaboration tool. We need something that gives us the best communication, project management and creative collaboration but leaves out the “software bloat” that comes from unnecessary and unhelpful functionality.
In a physical office, a worker shows up in the morning, grabs their coffee, sits down at the desk, and is immediately surrounded by a work environment that supplies everything that person needs to attack their working day. A remote worker needs an equivalent place to check in to begin their day of online collaboration with their coworkers. With the proper virtual collaboration tools, everyone is always surrounded with everything necessary for group collaboration.
Do they need to apprise their leader of status, projects and issues? Use project and task management tools. If the project is agile or scrum, agile collaboration tools need to be on hand. Is their team attacking a new type of work where some additional training is needed? Online collaboration tools for education should be available when and where they’re needed.
There are many advantages to virtual work, from employers drawing on a larger, more diverse workforce and saving on physical building costs, to workers living where they choose and avoiding the hassle of commuting. But the danger is that the human touch will be diminished, and it may be harder for management to keep a finger on the pulse of the team.
For a remote worker, the virtual workspace should have all the features of a physical workspace except for the shared coffeepot and the physical presence of another person in the adjacent row or office. Whether they’re doing online collaboration in education, in project tracking, in producing documents or in actual coding and testing, the digital office must offer the same sort of support the physical office does.
Project collaboration tools are nothing new in software development. For example, collaborative life cycle support tools and project management tools have been around for decades. Newer tools such as Asana update these functions for contemporary practices such as agile teams and virtual teams. But today, many organizations are re-asking the question, “What is project collaboration?”
Is it just process management, task tracking and issue tracking? Or is there more human nuance to it? After all, what makes an effective project team? Skill, work ethic and conscientious attention to the task at hand are as important as they ever were. But what about those intangibles that separate a good team from an outstanding one?
Many organizations are rethinking and broadening their idea of what constitutes communication. How do effective team members praise and reward each other, and how do they give constructive feedback to one another? How do they socialize? The ideal collaboration tool should support “human touch” activities such as team building exercises and virtual happy hours, the extras that give the highest performing teams an additional advantage.
Even in a traditional office, there are good reasons for using collaboration tools, but in the virtual world those reasons multiply. While the remote environment offers freedom, cost, savings and convenience, there are important benefits to live interaction that the virtual world can fall short on.
For example, remote employees can’t get up and walk to their coworker's desk. The virtual team leader can’t get a general feel for how things are going by checking around desk by desk. There’s a danger that individuals will become isolated from their coworkers or will become narrow in their focus and misunderstand exactly what they should be doing.
How can collaborative tools save time? They can help keep everyone focused on what’s most important. The can provide status to management without leaders having to go from person to person. They can bring important issues to the attention of the entire team.
Why do companies use online collaborative productivity software? In the remote environment it would be difficult to manage without it. Most people understand how to collaborate in person, but in the new world of virtual work folks are still learning how to work effectively with someone who’s distant. The best collaboration software is helping to point the way.
A google search will show you what looks like an impressive list of free online collaboration tools. Software vendors seem to be coming up with something for everybody, especially aimed at people and organizations that may have limited budgets. There are free online collaboration tools for nonprofits and free online collaboration tools for students. The suite of google collaboration tools is widely known and used. There are other free document collaboration tools as well as free project collaboration tools.
It’s good to take a closer look before you grab a tool just because it’s free. Software vendors don’t give away their best products without having a return in mind. Many “free” tools have limited functionality, and eventually you’ll have to buy the paid version to get something that’s truly effective. Others will require you to crimp your processes in order to fit them.
If it’s not the right tool for your business, it’s no bargain even if it’s free. Collaboration tools are leverage tools, and the right choice can pay back handsomely in increased productivity. The wrong one can cost you dearly in the time and expense to install it, try to use it and then uninstall it.