Remote collaboration methods give people more ways to participate, and that tends to bring out the best in their work. You don’t even have to be remote to use these tricks.
The most successful remote teams collaborate in a way that intentionally supports people in a remote environment. I know that may sound like circular logic, but stick with me. They collaborate in a way that strengthens their ability to work together, while also bringing out the best ideas from everyone on the team. Here’s the kicker: The same methods also enhance teamwork and promote idea-generation among people who work together in the same location, such as an office.
Most people assume remote collaboration means getting together on their favorite web conferencing app for a video call and having a meeting. But meetings are among the worst places to generate ideas, consider other people’s ideas deeply, or do other meaningful cognitive work. Meetings are good for discussing ideas in real time and making quick decisions, but that’s only a tiny sliver of what collaboration means. Most workplaces don’t have a culture of keeping meetings efficient either, so people feel drained by them. Most important of all, meetings stifle creativity(Opens in a new window). Most people are more successful and innovative when they showcase their talents and intellect in a different environment.
I’ve been writing about and participating in remote work since well before the COVID-19 pandemic. I also have a book called “The Everything Guide to Remote Work”(Opens in a new window) that talks about the best way to collaborate when people are working remotely, along with other issues related to remote work. The idea that meetings don’t bring out the best in people—and, in many ways, make remote work worse—has come up again and again throughout the years as I’ve talked to leaders who run remote organizations and read research on productivity in remote organizations.
So if a meeting isn’t the best way to collaborate, what is?
What Does Remote Collaboration Look Like?
Remote collaboration can—and often should—be asynchronous. What that means is that collaboration doesn’t have to happen at the same time for everyone. The best collaboration tools are built to be used both asynchronously and synchronously, so you always have an option.
Let’s use the example of a team brainstorming ideas for a new campaign. The old way of working would be to have a meeting where everyone in the room is encouraged to pitch their ideas aloud. The new, remote-focused way of working might be to set up a shared document or virtual whiteboard, such as Mural or Miro, shown above and below. You give all the team members access to this shared online space, explain what you want them to do in that space, and then let them add their ideas and read other people’s contributions over the course of a few days.
The benefits are almost too many to name, but the most powerful ones have to do with giving people time and space to work in the way that’s best for them. Here are some:
- Remove time pressure. Instead of feeling limited to generating ideas in the course of a 45-minute meeting, everyone has time to come up with ideas.
- Brainstorm when we’re sharpest. People can generate their ideas at the time of day when their minds are sharpest, rather than whenever the meeting happens to be.
- Develop ideas. People also have time to ruminate on their thoughts and develop them, rather than feeling pressured to share the first thing that comes to mind in its draft form.
- Edit and present. Having less time pressure also lets people figure out the best way to share their ideas, whether it’s editing a written thought or sketching it out.
- Reflect on others’ thoughts and take inspiration. Each person can also look at the ideas that other people are sharing, reflect on them, and possibly use them as further inspiration for their own ideas.
As I said before, while these methods of working are much more popular among remote teams who are forced to think differently about collaboration, they are just as accessible to and just as beneficial for in-person teams.
How Remote Collaboration Methods Benefit Everyone
The other critical reason remote collaboration is so useful is that it removes many of the inherent biases from meeting culture.
For a variety of reasons(Opens in a new window), men tend to speak more than women in mixed gender settings, and women are more likely to be interrupted by people of any gender than men are. Removing the real-time group dynamic of a meeting from a collaboration session by making it asynchronous eliminates a lot of the “who’s talking more” problem.
Asynchronous, remote collaboration benefits shy and introverted people who don’t like speaking up in meetings but have valuable insights to share. It’s the same for anyone who doesn’t have a strong verbal command of the language, such as non-native speakers or anyone with a speaking disability. Equally, people with disabilities of all kinds are at an advantage when they can take their time to read or listen to what other people have contributed and decide how best to put together their own contributions.
Shrink the Meeting, Embrace Remote Collaboration
Why have we for so long expected people to come up with their best ideas in meetings? It doesn’t make sense. The way to work better together is to take what remote organizations have learned about collaborating and use it everywhere. That’s not to say that meetings are pointless. It’s more that too many organizations rely on the meeting to do all the work, when often the meeting is only valuable for a small portion of the collaboration work that needs to be done.
In fact, some of the online collaboration tools I’ve mentioned have audio or video meeting tools built into them, so once people have had a chance to come up with some ideas and make their notes, everyone can look at the shared document and start a meeting to finish up any work that would be done best synchronously on a call.
So give people more opportunities to bring their best ideas to the table by supporting remote collaboration methods and using collaboration software.
For more remote work advice, see our stories on how to work from home.