How to maintain collaboration during lockdown

Collaboration with employees has always been a key component of work culture, but since the coronavirus pandemic began, workforces have had to operate remotely due to lockdown restrictions, meaning that many employees have had to get accustomed to using conferencing, messaging and other tools designed for remote working for the first time.

For many previously office-based companies, remote working is set to be a regular occurrence for at least the next few months, with some contemplating the possibility of flexible or completely remote bases being the norm for years to come.

With this in mind, what should companies consider in order to maintain collaboration as offices remain in lockdown?

Evolve beyond office practices

In order for companies operating remotely to not only survive, but thrive in the current ‘new normal’ they find themselves in, their collaboration practices must adapt to home working.

This means making use of cloud platforms that are accessible to all employees to lay down ideas, as well as carrying out administrative tasks.

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Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, explained: “Organisations forced to change to remote working quickly might try to ‘cut and paste’ office-based practices into digital environments, imitating the habits of physical settings. But leaders can fixate on replicating what went before, when a more valuable approach is to identify the best outcomes from existing practices and use them to build smarter processes.

“Companies can evolve their processes and use nimble business tools to replace previously-manual tasks. By automatically recording meetings, or using a shared Google Doc in a meeting, firms can better capture knowledge and teams’ input more dynamically to key tasks.

“As remote employees start working comfortably, there are more and more valuable moments where people communicate informally and build trust online. Employees can progress their work using an accessible company handbook, documenting new ideas and protocols without constant direction from line managers.

“Staff increasingly ask for colleagues’ inputs to documents or activity trackers, rather than relying on private chats or email where information can be dissipated or lost, can also be beneficial, as can teams categorising unstructured ideas, sharing updates, roadmaps, and milestones.”

Constant communication and recognition

No business can run on technology alone, however. Constant communication between employees and their managers can encourage the workforce to remain productive, while recognition can keep spirits high.

“The key to keeping remote workers engaged and productive is frequent and regular check-ins between managers and employees,” said Derek Irvine, senior vice-president, strategy at Workhuman. “It’s not about checking up on your employees, but rather checking in, and exchanging useful feedback; even a once-a-week Google Hangouts call empowers managers to recognise the contribution employees are making and can motivate employees to perform at their best.

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“Now that managers are physically apart from employees, it’s also crucial that employees feel recognised and appreciated for the work they do. Gratitude and recognition keep team morale high, with over 80% of workers who were recognised in the last month reporting that they trust executive leadership (81%) and find meaning and purpose in their work (82%), according to Workhuman’s 2020 survey.

“Recognition and reward software tools are a great way to make recognition, both from managers and among peers, easy to do – even when your workforce is entirely remote. Sharing gratitude throughout the organisation can drive connection and positive company culture; both of which are essential for businesses to adapt to the new ‘working-from-home’ normal.”

Educate and empower employees

When companies began their transition to remote working, this would have been a completely new experience for many workers, not only in terms of the change in location, but also the tools that would be needed for collaboration during lockdown.

This is where talking employees through any tools that may be unfamiliar to them, ensuring that they can use them effectively, becomes vital, and will continue to be so as businesses experiment with other new platforms going forward.

“Tools such as Microsoft Teams or Slack have enabled teams to continue collaborating during this time; instant messaging, video meetings and file sharing functions make the transition to remote working far easier, bringing the ‘teamwork, dreamwork’ values from the office, online,” said Alex Dalglish, head of future workplace at SoftwareONE.

“However, there is a fine line between a successful and a failed attempt at maintaining collaboration during lockdown, and educating and empowering employees on how to get the maximum benefit from the new tools at their disposal is crucial.

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“Organisations need to make sure workers are aware of what tools are available, how they work, and how they can boost efficiency, so time isn’t wasted trying to get to grips with the technology. This can be achieved through online adoption and change management programmes that encompass online educational courses, webinars or workshops, driven collaboratively by the IT and HR departments.”

Keep collaboration tools streamlined

What companies operating remotely during office lockdown need to be wary of, however, is using too many different tools for various collaboration functions, such as video calls and instant messaging, which may cause confusion.

Robbie O’Connor, head of EMEA at Asana, said: “Our research revealed that nearly two-thirds of full-time workers have increased their use of collaboration tools since working from home, highlighting how these platforms can benefit teams by helping them orchestrate work and remain connected while working in remote and distributed teams.

“Collaboration tools are the first choice for many businesses looking to navigate remote working, as they enable teams to have transparency, accountability and clarity around the work that is happening- regardless of location.

“But remember that less is more: in the rush to implement a full suite of new technologies, businesses can forget the importance of keeping this streamlined and end up introducing too many tools and platforms at once. This could lead to information silos, leave employees confused and overwhelmed by a barrage of extra notifications.

“To help employees minimise the amount of time spent jumping between different platforms, set clear guidelines and outline best practices to help streamline activity.”

Implement cloud and AI technology into customer interaction

Going back to the remote working use cases of the cloud, this kind of technology can also come in handy when continuing to communicate with customers, an area that remains as important as ever to a company’s prospective success.

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Alongside this, as Vannina Kellershohn, vice-president of enriched interactions and collaboration business unit at Orange Business Services, explains, artificial intelligence (AI) solutions are also an option that’s worth exploring.

“Success is defined by the quality of customer relationships,” said Kellershohn. “Employees need more than ever to work in a collaborative manner and continue to engage with customer contacts across all touch points and locations and connect them to their best skilled employee.

“With some call centres temporarily closed, it has become more difficult to offer customer support functions. Migrating contact centres to the cloud, is the first step to continue business as usual and enable voice calls from everywhere.

“Then, to help customer service organisations respond faster and manage the rise in calls throughout the pandemic, it is vital to harness the best of both bots and humans: let live agents handle the complex questions, multistep processes, and emotionally-charged interactions and automate the rest.

“For frequently asked questions, AI chatbots can quickly increase first-line call resolutions, freeing up agents and human resources personnel to answer more complex, unpredictable queries. Research has shown that contact centres using chatbots or automated call answering receive better customer experience ratings overall. ”

Keep security in mind

Lastly, given the shift in targets to devices used to work from home on the part of cyber criminals, it is worth ensuring that networks and platforms are as secure as possible. The rise in zoombombing is one example of how collaboration during lockdown can go wrong if security isn’t sufficient enough.

“When meeting in person, we provision access through a key, password or token and then validate people based on their visual appearance, and the way they speak and act, for instance,” said Vincent Berk, vice-president and chief security architect at Riverbed. “In a work from home scenario, where we are reliant on collaboration tools, traditional security “on-boarding” becomes more difficult and it’s harder to authenticate who we’re talking to.

“Video conferencing tools are a prime example; their lack of strong passwords and end-to-end encryption means it’s possible for cybercriminals to bypass the authentication process and eavesdrop on sensitive business conversations. Not only does this pose a threat to company IP but allows hackers to gather details that can be exploited for more convincing phishing attacks.

“Businesses need to not only think about how employees can collaborate remotely, but also how they can do so safely. This means carefully vetting the tools employees are using, and educating them on the security risks of others.

“It’s also highly beneficial to invest in network performance monitoring solutions – that provide end-to-end visibility over your network – so that, in the event of a successful attack, you can carry out a forensic evaluation of what happened and resolve any issues.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.