As David Bowie so eloquently put it, it’s time to turn and face the strange: the world as we know it is different in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of this writing, many major cities are winding down their second lockdown. Several companies, like Amazon, Salesforce, and Adobe have already transitioned much of their workforce to fully remote positions with the option to remain work-from-home indefinitely.
Even once the pandemic is officially over and we return to some sense of normalcy, there will still be ways in which we look at the world, and how we interact with it, that will be fundamentally different. For the many workers who have the option of working from home, the question is not when they will return to the office, but if they will return to the office.
Now, at a time when communication and collaboration are more important than ever, many people in the workforce are still struggling to figure out how to foster a collaborative culture with a workforce that is spread out and working from home for the foreseeable future - or even forever. While figuring out how to build an office culture beyond an office is an important step, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. First we have to address the question of what does it mean to collaborate in a COVID world, and beyond?
Embracing The Change
Whether your team shared an open floor plan office, or was made up completely of seasoned remote workers, I can tell you with certainty that the pandemic has changed the way each and every individual works. For some, this is the first time in their career that they haven’t worked in an office. For others, they must now juggle an existing remote work lifestyle with other changes brought about by the pandemic: sharing a home office with a partner, having to supervise the remote learning sessions of their small children, the loss of a favorite lunch spot with good wifi, just to name a few.
Rather than try to recreate the old model and enforce it from the top down, the first step in building a collaborative culture in this new normal, is to empower every member of your team to define the method of working remotely that works best for them. For each team member, start by asking the following questions:
- What is their ideal remote work schedule?
- How much of their work must be done in tandem with other team members? How much can be done alone with team members adding on or giving feedback later?
- How many times do they need to touch base with each other?
- What’s the easiest way to quickly resolve questions? A phone call? Zoom? Direct message?
Ultimately, each member of the team must answer these questions for themselves. Inevitably the answers may change and adjust as time goes on and a better flow is established. These questions are designed to establish reasonable expectations and boundaries that should be understood and respected by everyone else in the organization. What you will no doubt find are overlaps and opportunities. Overlaps where the team can convene and sync up for the day or week, and opportunities to find workflows and tools that enable ad-hoc collaboration.
Collaboration In Action
To give a concrete example of how this works in action, I once worked with a consumer goods company primarily headquartered in Asia. In order to build a new e-commerce page for a product launch I, living in California, had to work closely with the senior web developer living a full 16 hours ahead of me. The first step we took was identifying what hours worked best for each of us, and seeing where they overlapped. For us, that was just one hour in my morning (and their evening).
The next step was clearly defining and delineating which tasks would be accomplished by who. For them, whose primary skill was in web development and graphic design, it would primarily be coding page elements and designing imagery as needed. For me, whose primary skill was in copywriting and layout, it would be assembling the page and making sure it read and flowed for optimal sales.
For two weeks, every work day looked like this: I would begin my morning with a call to check in with the developer over Zoom. We each gave a rundown of what we did in the previous hours, answer any questions the other may have had over the course of the day, and spend a little time working on the site together. From there, I would use the tools at my disposal to build the page, write copy, etc.
Any time I felt I needed an additional feature, image, bit of code, I would note it in a shared Google Sheet with an explanation of what I needed and why. Any lingering questions were sent via direct messages. Hours after I logged off for the day they would get to work, building out my requests, suggesting copy and layout changes in our shared Sheet, and optimizing my work. Their day ended with the Zoom call that started mine.
Despite never working together for more than an hour a day, we built a collaborative process that was efficient, effective, and could easily integrate other team members along the way. Of course, this only worked because we each set clear expectations and boundaries for the scope of our work, and we each paid attention to not overstep out of respect for each other. While there were points of friction early, they were easily overcome through patience and clear communication. We each trusted that the other wanted to do their best work each day, and built our collaborative relationship on that trust.
Beyond The Pandemic
So what does it mean to be collaborative in a COVID world? It means respecting the ways in which we and our coworkers are having to adjust. It means setting clear boundaries not just for others, but for ourselves as we more thoroughly integrate work into our home lives. It means having the patience to work through the process until it works for everyone. The lessons learned from this experience can help not only now, but long after the pandemic has ended.