How to be effective in a world without meeting rooms.
Collaboration, co-operation, teamwork. Call it what you will. The ability of people to work collectively towards solving a mutual problem or attaining a shared goal is the defining characteristic of what it is to be human (well, that and opposable thumbs). We innovate better when we do it together.
Other unique characteristics, like speech, writing, creativity, and imagination played their part in our meteoritic rise to the top of the biological pile. But it was only when we started to build cities and create a critical mass of people sufficient to optimise information exchange that we lit the afterburners of innovation.
Why proximity matters
The cradle of western civilisation was the ancient city of Babylon. Her citizens made huge advances in astronomy, medicine, agriculture, glass making and mathematics. (Nerdy fact – The reason we have sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour and 360 degrees in a circle is because of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60).
Cities are like giant intellectual organisms that scale in a non-linear way. Which is why big cities are disproportionately more effective than smaller ones. According to a 2010 paper in the journal Nature, when a city doubles in size it becomes 130% more innovative. A subsequent paper from MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab explained this non-linearity as a consequence of greater population density creating greater opportunity for face to face interaction. Put simply, we do better when we get together in sufficient numbers. Proximity and scale matter.
This fact didn’t escape IBM, when, in 2017 they reversed the growing trend towards remote working and called thousands of their workers back the office. Which was, presumably, not universally welcomed by the 40% of the 386,000 IBM employees that were reported as working remotely in 2009.
It seems that, despite their obvious advantage in having the technology to enable remote working, IBM realised that the efficiency came at a cost of effectiveness. It looked like remote working would be consigned to the ‘it seemed like a good idea in principle’ bin of history.
Then, in early 2020 a novel coronavirus emerged and turned the world on its head. The question of remote v office working was over, at least temporarily. It was no longer a case of ‘should we/shouldn’t we’. It was a case of ‘how do we?’. And to answer that question we need to take a different perspective and ask, ‘why haven’t we made this work already?’
First, we need to distinguish between types of work. If you are an individual contributor, a graphic designer, say, or if you perform an admin task like processing loan applications or similar, then remote working is relatively straightforward. But if you are involved in a collaborative effort, like new product development or marketing management or strategic planning and so on, then proximity becomes critical. In all its forms.
The three types of proximity and how to manage them.
Proximity is defined as closeness or nearness or in the vicinity of. We most often think of it in terms of physical space. As in ‘Silicon Valley’s prominence is due to its proximity to Stanford University’. The city hypothesis we touched on earlier relies on the physical proximity of citizens to encourage personal interactions. But this isn’t the only type of proximity that matters. There are two others and managing all three is critical to effective remote collaboration.
Technology has loosened the ties of space and time proximity since 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg had his eureka moment. People could now read the works of eminent scholars and use them to develop their ideas and theories. The era of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ had begun.
Education no longer required you to be in the same room as your teacher. In 1728 Caleb Philipps advertised probably the first-ever correspondence course (for learning shorthand if you are interested) in the Boston Gazette. Firing the starting pistol for the business of distance learning.
More recently technology has allowed the shift from remote individuals to collaborative groups. From telephone conference calls and ‘groupware’ or ‘shareware’, such as Lotus Notes, in the nineties. Through video conferencing, group chats, on-demand content and the multiple types of collaborative software available today.
Time and space proximity is no longer a barrier to teamwork. Most businesses have the knowledge and tools to connect its people remotely. And if this was the only barrier to success, we would have the champagne on ice already. But it isn’t. So, we haven’t.
If your team members vary in their core abilities needed to tackle the problem, the disparity will inhibit effectiveness. It will create tensions and, in worse cases, make the entire effort dysfunctional. Which, I agree, sounds self-evident and pretty obvious.
If you faced a challenge to ‘improve histologic image analysis of pancreatic tissue’ you would assemble a team of biologists, pathologists, computer scientists, and engineers. Rather than, say, Barry from accounts.
Yet something similar to this happens with teams assembled to look at strategic or marketing type challenges. Businesses don’t always provide adequate training and education to ensure their people are sufficiently skilled to solve the problem. In normal times this will limit effectiveness but in the new world of remote collaboration, it leads to disengagement and detachment.
Skills are closely related to the use of a common language. I am not talking about a situation where half the team speak only Spanish and the other half speak only German (although this would obviously represent a challenge). I am talking about creating a clear and unambiguous understanding of relevant concepts.
If you want people to contribute to generating a ‘value proposition’, develop a ‘positioning statement’, understand ‘benefits and values’, create some ‘differential advantage’, analyse a ‘price response curve’ etc. then you need a crystal clear and shared understanding of what exactly those terms mean.
More than that, you need universal templates and frameworks for each concept. Shareable, collaborative tools that use agreed inputs to feed an agreed process that leads to an agreed output. These ‘tools for thinking’ are rigorous and disciplined and, somewhat counterintuitively, encourage originality and innovation. They don’t stifle creativity they liberate it.
When your teams are collaborating on a marketing, product or strategic initiative they are, by definition leading change. Some businesses may be happy just ‘doing what we’ve always done’ but let’s be honest, they stopped reading this a long time ago. For the rest of us, the relentless march forward requires constant change and reinvention.
When your key team members are no longer co-located it becomes even more important to ensure you have a shared and common purpose. The context for what the team is doing and the reason why it is important is critical to success. Any distance between your vision and that of the team creates a drag on progress. It can even stop it dead in its tracks.
The first step is to be clear why change is required. You need to tell a compelling story to support the need for change and make it a shared quest. Of course, this is important in normal times, but businesses used to be able to overcome it, to some extent, by use of the traditional, top-down, management hierarchy ‘just do what I say’ approach. This is not so effective with remote teams.
Once you have created a compelling need for change you need to construct a vision of what the future will look like. Ideally, this will be a collaborative effort where the team, who will be charged with the responsibility of delivering change, are instrumental in shaping the future vision.
Only when you have created a compelling shared need, shaped an agreed vision of the future can you successfully mobilise your resources for action.
Remote collaboration requires proximity. Your job is to reduce the distance in three key areas. To maximise the effectiveness of your remote teams you need to address each one. Working backwards from the order we revealed them…
- Reduce distance in terms of affinity and purpose
- Create a shared need for the job at hand
- Shape a vision of what is being created
- Mobilise commitment and resources
- Reduce distance in terms of skills and language
- Agree on a common language and vocabulary
- Invest in training to level up required skills
- Use common shareable tools and frameworks
- Reduce distance in terms of space and time
- Use on-demand learning to increase skills
- Use shareable tools to develop ideas
- Use virtual meetings to enable collective contribution
Your challenge isn’t about making remote collaboration as good as the office-based alternative it is having to replace. It is to grab the opportunity to create something better. Remote collaboration has the potential to improve your current capabilities and create a significant competitive advantage.
The future will belong to the people who crack the code of matching the efficiency of remote working with the effectiveness of face to face. It’s all to play for.