Working remotely is widely seen as great for our productivity – making it easier to get into a flow state and do more deep work. But what about wider team productivity? While it might sound like a contradiction in terms, the isolation that comes with remote working can actually refine workplace collaboration – helping teams communicate more thoughtfully, make more considered decisions, and sustain task motivation. But how exactly can working miles away from your colleagues make you a better collaborator?
The digital innovation of the last two decades has completely changed the face of workplace collaboration. It wasn’t too long ago that meetings, ideation sessions and project collaboration always took place in boardrooms, or at least around a table. Today, much of our communication is now asynchronous and meetings – when we do have them – are often virtual. A saturated digital workspace itself has forced us to become more intentional in the ways that we communicate –thinking not only about when we need to collaborate, but how we should go about it.
This intentionality is central to remote collaboration. Rather than spending much of the day dipping in and out of chats and threads, effective remote workers collaborate in short, sharp bursts, and take advantage of a range of remote collaboration tools to make that whole process more efficient. They put into practice what recent studies and psychological research are now confirming: that less is definitely more when it comes to workplace communication. Here’s why it works so well.
If you’ve ever worked in an office you’ll know how unstructured contact can be – unending drip feed emails, people stopping by your desk throughout the day for “quick questions”, and requests for impromptu catch-ups. It leads to a state of constant interruption, where you have to drop what you’re doing and break your flow state. Apart from being draining and frustrating, it seriously limits how much progress you can realistically make solving complex problems. With remote work, you are completely in charge of when communication reaches you – controlling when you check apps and which notifications to let through.
But it also helps improve the content of communication. When you’re talking to someone in real-time or sitting in a meeting, there’s often an unspoken pressure to answer immediately if you’re asked a question, or volunteer quick, snappy thoughts and ideas. But knee-jerk responses are rarely considered and lead to bad decision making. Conversely, when you’re communicating remotely, you have more space to incubate on a question, thinking carefully about both what you want to say and the most effective way to say it. Collaboration becomes more measured, reasoned and thoughtful as a result.
According to several studies, the best type of workplace interaction is “bursty communication” – short, intermittent bursts of communication that help sustain energy and motivation – not least because you’re not constantly distracted by the continual ping of your inbox or Slack. Research from Carnegie Mellon University found that teams who worked in short “bursts” of communication, followed by longer phases of silence, were more productive than teams who communicated more often but less intensely.
Aside from having to deal with less interruptions, this type of communication can help create a sense of enthusiasm – a feeling that can fast erode when you’re reading or sending dozens of messages without getting any real feedback. Keeping communication short and sweet allows you to remain in the loop about your colleagues’ progress, swap ideas, and encourage each other – all while leaving plenty of room for your own deep work.
Asynchronous working also lends itself beautifully to team transparency. Digital collaboration tools like Slack, Trello and Basecamp keep company-wide activity accessible to everyone, providing a searchable record of what’s going on. You don’t have to have been in a meeting to know what was decided, or interrupt a team to grasp what they’re working on.
The advantages for coordination here are clear: employees feel more included, are more informed and can access relevant information whenever they need to. But for team management, there are sizeable benefits too – namely, that you can quickly gauge performance. Most remote collaboration tools have inbuilt analytics aimed at showing teams how they’re using them. This extra visibility can reveal things like which projects are on-track, who is working over capacity, what tasks are being prioritized and whether deadlines will be met.
Like most things, learning to successfully collaborate while working remotely involves some trial and error – and being able to track your results and see the bigger picture will help you discover what works best for your team, and what doesn’t.