Disruption Reveals Opportunity in Virtual Collaboration

4 min read

“Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis,” said Machiavelli.

Working with several different clients and IBM teams, I often see teams struggle—then inventively transform—how they do their work virtually. Many companies have long-held aspirations about improving how they work: to increase efficiency, retain talent, lower costs, improve diversity, increase flexibility for their workers to expand their hiring pool—the list goes on.

COVID challenges continuity

How do you ensure business continuity in the face of the unknown? Say, a rapid-onset pandemic? The de facto starting point was translating on-site to at-home; how work was being done in-person to how the work will be done virtually. For some companies, the pandemic has had a galvanizing effect, accelerating the discovery of new ways of working, using tools and methods that were likely to come about in their own time.

A key challenge of moving from in-person to working remotely is effective collaboration. At the same time, being fully virtual actually presents new opportunities. Proactive experimentation on virtual ways of working can lead to unforeseen employee and customer benefits and positive business results.

For my team, the IBM Garage, COVID brought immediate and dramatic change in how we do work as we focus on co-creation, including co-location with our clients. We guide our clients along an iterative process, going from idea to initial business outcomes in weeks. We accomplish this by focusing on getting to a production pilot and gathering user feedback and metrics to validate aspects of the idea.

Virtual workshop effectiveness

Our methodology includes design thinking at the enterprise level, DevOps, Site Reliability Engineering, and specific agile practices, including pair programming. This means there is extensive cross-disciplinary collaboration and many workshops and working sessions, ranging from two engineers to large groups. We not only pivoted from co-location, but thanks to some innovative leaders on my team, we experimented with—and evolved to—taking advantage of being virtual.

For our workshops, we created new ground rules based on how to engage people. Surprisingly, it works best to be ‘off mute’ and on video because the delay of going from muted to unmuted causes a loss of natural flow, and the window of opportunity to contribute may close.

Including physical breaks in workshops tends to stimulate new thinking: a quick walk, some stretches, even a few yoga poses—each can be incredibly restorative. In a similar vein, we restructured our signature two-day, intense project-scoping workshop to be five half-days, which introduced the opportunity to check in with the workshop sponsors and assess how the workshop was progressing and make adjustments. We now had four afternoon opportunities to assess and adjust rather than one evening when in-person.

Increased attendance

By eliminating the need for in-person attendance for the two-day workshop—which forced attendees to often be flying in, requiring breaking away fully from their day job—we’re now able to schedule workshops with ease. It also allows sponsors to drop in on just parts of the workshop, thus increasing their participation.

Another significant benefit of everyone being virtual is that we can have subject matter experts (SMEs) attend for a specific aspect of a project. In the past, we couldn’t always fly in an SME for a few hours of work, and we couldn’t logistically staff across some geographic boundaries. In a virtual world, we and our clients have more flexibility in how projects are staffed from across locations—with, of course, consideration of time-zone differences.

Working sessions, bootcamps, and conferences offer new opportunities when delivered virtually. I’ve been asked for five years to keynote an internal event in central Europe, but the scheduling never worked out. This month, I will deliver the keynote virtually, allowing a large group of employees to attend part or all of the event who wouldn’t have had the travel approval and who couldn’t necessarily take a set of full days from their day jobs to attend in person.  

Unforeseen agility—during a pandemic?

An unforeseen benefit of a pandemic is greater agility in mentoring, learning, and staffing, which opens the opportunity for increased inclusivity and diversity. Think about how easy it is now for someone to shadow you—whether for specific work sessions or for a block of time—now that the person doesn’t have to be in the same location. With people adjusting their hours and, for some, more flexibility in their work hours, there is now increased democratization that supports more inclusion.

In addition to these examples of being virtual, another critical aspect of being effective virtually are tools that increase engagement in remote sessions. Beyond the basics of virtual meeting technology, cloud-based file sharing, shared project tracking tools (our default is Trello), and code-sharing tools (GitHub), there are myriad tools for collaboration on technical work and, of course, IBM Cloud and other cloud providers can significantly increase productivity—particularly in a virtual world. For dynamic collaboration, we are also avid users of Mural (with recommendations on use), cloud-based documents that support concurrent editing (we use Box), and rapid surveying tools (we like slido).

Empathy-led ways of working

Crucial to adopting new ways of working—whether it be large or small scale—is adopting an approach of experimentation, learning, and adapting. In the IBM Garage and across IBM, we have developed and apply Enterprise Design Thinking—always starting with empathizing with the people doing the work. A core of Enterprise Design Thinking is a looping approach to ‘Observe, Reflect, Make,’ which is a guide to experimentation and available publicly. For developing innovative solutions and adoption of new technologies, we have published the IBM Garage Methodology, which leverages Enterprise Design Thinking.

If you have an area where you want to innovate, a challenge that needs an innovative solution, and/or are adopting new technologies and you would like to experience how we execute virtual collaboration, you can try the IBM Garage free of charge through a Garage Framing Session or a Technical Discovery Session.

I want to acknowledge the thoughts above are from work and thought leadership by my team, from collaboration experiences with clients as well as cross IBM, and from other parts of IBM as well.

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