If you’re embracing online collaboration as a necessary evil — the only way to work with an increasingly dispersed team of global or remote workers, for example — then you’re doing it wrong. Online collaboration is not a second-best substitute for face-to-face work: It’s a complement with its own perks and benefits.
Yes, knitting your team together with online communication tools like Yammer and Slack can help you mitigate the disruptive impact of people working from home instead of at the office. Yes, team-oriented project management tools like Basecamp can help with the coordination challenges of working with teams that are spread out around the world instead of around the building. And yes, sharing knowledge with wikis or Evernote, or co-authoring via Google Drive, are handy options when you can’t simply pass a document to the person down the hall.
But if all you’re asking from online collaboration is for the magic of working face-to-face, you’re doomed to frustration. After all, we know that there are unique benefits to working in a shared location (like the creative power of spontaneous interactions) or talking in person (like tapping into non-verbal communication). And even the best telepresence facilities or in-house social networks can’t replace what we lose when we stop working side-by-side or face-to-face.
But in many circumstances, online collaboration is actually preferable to in-person collaboration. Focusing on what online collaboration can do uniquely well will allow you to realize its benefits — and to identify the particular kinds of projects, tasks, and teams that stand to gain by working together online.
Online collaboration, like most digital phenomena, is good at solving very specific kinds of problems: time problems, distance problems and communication problems. By solving time problems it creates the benefit of 24/7 production cycles; by solving distance problems it enables newly diverse teams; and by solving communication problems it lets us work together in ways that tap into a broader set of skills and capacities. When we use online collaboration to support tasks and projects that specifically leverage these distinctive benefits, we go beyond treating online
as a band-aid for the problem of dispersed teams and use it to actually move our work and our organizations forward.
Take the virtue of 24/7 production cycles — arguably the most widely recognized benefit of online collaboration. When you’re working with a virtual team, you can finish your workday at 5:00 or 6:00, send your work product or question to a colleague in another time zone, and have an answer or next step in the process waiting by the time you’re back at your desk in the morning.
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Just as valuable, your own workday can be more action-packed: instead of waiting for the meeting or call that can address your question or provide that missing piece of information, you can reach out to a colleague with an instant message or email – or better yet, find an answer yourself by accessing an internal wiki or knowledge base.
When you’re working on a team or project that involves discrete tasks, defined knowledge sets, and dependencies you’re in a great position to take advantage of the 24/7 benefits of online collaboration. If you’re working on a project that requires you to pass the baton to a colleague in order to move a project forward, or where you’ll be dependent on a colleague’s input or task completion in order to get your own work done, you may be better off working with a dispersed team than with the colleagues down the hall. And if the kind of input you need from colleagues takes the form of black-and-white answers or common knowledge that can be shared online, you’ll work more efficiently when people share information electronically and on demand rather than intermittently and face-to-face.
The ability to convene diverse teams is another benefit of online collaboration – one that works hand-in-glove with 24/7 production if you’re leading a global team that works together across time zones. But the diversity enabled by online collaboration goes beyond the simple (but powerful) ability to source team members from around the world. Online collaboration also makes it easier to pull in people and resources from other organizations, and to tap into emergent forms of on-demand labor like Fiverr, oDesk and Elance.
This approach has greatest value to projects that require specific skills or expertise, and to tackling problems that require a fresh perspective. If you’re trying to reach a customer base that’s previously eluded you, or aiming to introduce a product that represents a major departure from your past offerings, you’ll benefit from a team that represents your target buyer or that can think about your business, message, or products in new ways. If you’re working on a deliverable or innovation that requires highly specialized skills – skills that don’t exist in your own company – the ability to diversify your product team will pay off with a better outcome or product. By tapping into a more diverse range of skills and expertise in a global labor marketplace, you’ll be able to get a better outcome by working virtually than you could hope to achieve by working within your own team or organization.
That means that instead of relying on your in-house designer, you can go to a designer with expertise in the particular kind of product you’re creating. Instead of turning to the same people you’ve worked with on your past five projects, you can bring together a team that will approach your problem with fresh eyes, and bring new ideas to the table. Instead of making do with the range of professional skills that are present in your own office or organization, you can tap into a global network of professionals and find the particular person you need for this project.
A final benefit of online collaboration is the ability to accommodate a wider range of communication and working styles. If you’re the kind of person who always speaks up in meetings (guilty as charged), the traditional workplace may work just great for you. But you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.
The ability to support a range of working and communication styles is particularly helpful to complex projects that need the engagement of both right- and left-brain thinkers. If you’re working on a narrowly defined problem that falls within a specific field or area of expertise, you’ll be just fine with a homogeneous group sitting around the table; if you’re tackling something larger or more ambiguous, you’ll benefit from online collaboration that taps into a more eclectic group of contributors and thinking styles.
You’ll get the greatest payoff from online collaboration if you make use of an eclectic range of collaboration tools that support a diversity of working and communication styles. Mix online PowerPoint presentations with collaborative written docs in Google Drive; use virtual mindmapping tools like Lucidchart and Mindmeister to encourage contributions from people who think visually, and use online project management tools like Basecamp to support team members who need clear tasks and milestones.
Approaching online collaboration as a distinctive way of working – and one that offers unique benefits – lets us get beyond using online collaboration as a substitute for face-to-face collaboration, and seeing it constantly fall short. Instead, we need to treat online and in-person collaboration as complementary ways of working, suited to different contexts and problems. When we embrace online collaboration as a powerful way of working in its own right, we’ll stop mourning the end of the traditional office, and start tapping the potential of a 24/7, diverse, and flexible workplace.