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How to facilitate collaboration in a virtual team

Jan Gerken

The number of companies that enable their employees to work remotely has risen year on year, as businesses of all types and sizes respond to the needs of their people. But the ability to access company networks from any location does not necessarily go hand in hand with new types of collaboration for remote working. Many companies are under exploiting tools and techniques that can facilitate productive collaboration as the paradigm shifts towards ever-more remote and distributed working.

The rise of remote working is fueled by cost-oriented travel guidelines, growing ecological awareness and sustainability policies, pressure on office space, and changing workforce expectations. We’re at an inflection point where, for many, remote working is becoming the norm, not a luxury – and organizations need to act on this by proactively instilling a culture of virtual collaboration.

Virtual collaboration enhances companies’ productivity through the use of digital collaboration tools that enable employees to work jointly on digital whiteboards, edit documents together, and conduct project work virtually. To make the leap from simply remote working to a thriving culture of virtual collaboration, companies must build a stable infrastructure, embed a digital mindset among their people, establish a leadership culture based on trust, promote digital skills, and take collaboration to the next level.

Pivoting to virtual collaboration: let’s get started

As is so often the case, all beginnings are difficult: How does successful virtual collaboration work? What are the necessary conditions for it? There are three areas to address to get started.

Digital infrastructure and tools

The pre-condition for establishing virtual collaboration is a strong digital infrastructure. Accessing the corporate network from anywhere with a stable connection is not a given in every company. Yet, it is one of the must-haves.

It is also critical to use the right digital tools; manageable, intuitive tools that make virtual collaboration feel as real and effortless as possible and, at the same time, are fun to use. Established offerings in the market include Microsoft Teams, Slack, Asana, Jira, Trello, SharePoint, and Deon. Visual collaboration tools make it possible to work jointly and simultaneously on documents; online whiteboards replace the classic flipchart; virtual rooms offer almost endless possibilities to work creatively and interactively with one another; and live voting or ad-hoc surveys actively involve all participants. With these and many other functions, virtual working comes incredibly close to working in a shared office, and this can further increase efficiency.


Strong commitment and the right expectation management are needed

Establishing virtual collaboration is a long-term effort, which is why strong ambassadors and role models at all levels of management are so important. Visible commitment and expectation management from the most senior leaders encourage successful implementation and cultural change across the whole organization.

Managers have to be able to inspire themselves and their staff with enthusiasm for the new way of working, arouse curiosity, and enjoy working together. Mutual support, communication, patience, and a high level of trust are essential in this process.

Two things are especially important in building a high level of trust within a virtual team and in making the best use of the technical possibilities available: excellent moderation and facilitation skills, and professional preparation of virtual meetings or workshops.

Simply getting started

Starting on a small scale is the way to begin. It is important to first identify which tools already exist in the company, how often they are used, whether employees have access to them and know how to use them, and what possibilities they offer. The next step is communicating the existence of these tools throughout the organization and – more importantly – training and taking measures to empower employees to use them – virtually, of course. This requires a degree of flexibility, but in times of agility and organizational dexterity, it is how your organization evolves and adapts. Ambassadors for specific digital tools can help make adoption of those tools an internal success story, and here again, commitment and best practices play a major role.

Creating virtue out of necessity: an opportunity to grow

Virtual collaboration means not only working together remotely on everyday work processes. It also involves conducting workshops virtually – from meetings, to large group events with more than 200 participants. How is this supposed to work? It should be driven by clear business needs, with the right mindset, the right tools and good facilitation skills, and meticulous preparation, organization, and follow-up. The advantages of virtual workshops and meetings are obvious: by saving travel costs and time, the efficiency of teams can be increased significantly.

Embedding a culture of virtual collaboration should be on the strategic agenda of every CxO. Organizations must continue to develop this culture if they are to be prepared for the future. It not only makes them a more attractive employer to new talent by responding to the demands of a new generation, but also strengthens the bond with their existing workforce by placing more trust in them, and making everyday working life more flexible. It increases their efficiency by empowering people to be productive wherever they are.

The key to success is to choose the appropriate technologies and tools, and orchestrate them creatively. For more insights on leading, motivating and collaborating in a virtual environment, read the Capgemini Research Institute’s latest research: Virtual organizations need real leadership.

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