Over the past 18 months, technology has allowed employees to operate remotely, remain productive and develop new skills, despite the challenges of being home continuously. It took some trial and error, but the difficulties of working “together apart” have been greatly mitigated by widespread adoption of communication tools like Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams.
Communication is just part of the challenge, however. As businesses try to create optimal in-person workspaces while some staff remain remote — what many are calling our “next normal” — we must solve hybrid collaboration.
This change could be more difficult to navigate for leaders, even compared with the rapid switch to remote working in early 2020, but this new, blended approach to work stands to be a major growth opportunity as well, offering a chance to get collaboration right and inspire new levels of creativity.
Working side by side, not just face to face
To ensure this switch to the next normal has a positive impact, leaders and companies will need to adopt a whole new mindset when it comes to collaboration. Research my company conducted last year showed that while managers were still concerned about how remote working impacted productivity, employees were worried about how it impacted their ability to collaborate. Indeed, other studies have found that innovation has declined during the pandemic.
This is unsurprising. Innovation depends not just on talking with one another face to face, but with collaborating — working on something together, side by side. And collaborative tools have been stale for a long time. While the advent of new videoconferencing and instant messaging platforms have shifted businesses away from operating solely on email, they remain communication platforms at heart, not collaboration solutions.
And the office suites we use today are broadly similar to those we used 30 years ago: We’re still collaborating around 8.5 x 11 documents and spreadsheets that have simply been digitized. But the fact is, we no longer go to work to pass memos around. Why are we limiting our collaborative work to what fits on a virtual sheet of paper?
Collaboration solutions for builders
We go to work to build things, whether it’s a company, a product, or a market. To do that effectively, companies need to embrace solutions that put the work front and center, not the grid of faces. Often, that means a visual solution. Sometimes, it means reimagining the work product in completely virtual terms.
Examples include virtual project management solutions like Monday.com and Asana, which turn to-do lists into shared projects with flexible, adaptable structures. Collaborative, web-native design platforms enable people to work together to create assets that will be used in social media, email campaigns, and more. Real-time, free-form databases like Notion and Airtable, as well as souped-up spreadsheets like Smartsheet, let teams play with data in fresh ways, collecting and sharing information with fewer restrictions than older data storage and analysis tools.
Even the humble wiki can help teams (or an entire organization) create a shared employee handbook that can be far more comprehensive than any traditional guide. GitLab, for instance, has a public employee handbook that’s the equivalent of 13,000 pages long. In the real world, that would be a daunting shelf full of binders. In the virtual world, it’s a limitless, hyperlinked resource that answers almost any employee need — and which aligns with our similarly boundaryless hybrid work environment.
The culture needed to support hybrid work
When work isn’t a place you go, creativity and collaboration depend on managers building cultures that support and prioritize these values, not just productivity. Work styles and visual technologies need to give people a voice and spark creativity, regardless of their location.
For example, BambooHR entered a three-year strategy refresh process just after the pandemic hit in 2020. Normally, this process would involve holing up in a conference room, scribbling on whiteboards and flipcharts. Instead, BambooHR conducted everything online, using a virtual whiteboard and meeting space that allowed them to replicate the energy and excitement of an in-person session. The exercise was so successful that the company is making this virtual approach central to all its future strategic planning sessions.
Putting everyone on a team in a shared, virtual space eliminates old barriers and constraints. By collaborating on a virtual canvas, a freeform database, or a virtual whiteboard filled with an infinite number of colorful sticky notes, people’s ideas can literally “stretch out” and go beyond the frameworks that normally constrain their thinking.
There’s an opportunity to make virtual workspaces the places where all collaboration takes place, the equivalent of a real-life meeting room — whether you’re in the office or not. There are spaces for builders and innovators, whether they’re tussling with a challenging task or tackling simple actions. Companies that promote this modern way of collaboration, by providing the solutions our hybrid workforces need now, stand to thrive in the next normal.