The Quest to Build Remote Digital Collaboration
By Florian Roth, Karina Montilla Edmonds, Maren Meyer, Fawn Fitter | 11 min read
When James Cham talks about collaboration, it sounds a little bit like love.
“We all know the fizziness of being truly in sync, when things are really clicking, that in-the-moment feeling,” says the partner in early-stage venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta, which specializes in startups shaping the future of work. “Then there’s also the other part, where you see that you’ve managed to accomplish something, where the interaction is additive.”
When collaboration works, it is magical.
Yet the rapid and pervasive ascendancy of remote work since the start of 2020 has – like long-distance romance – made us hope for more than we’re getting. Despite our best intentions, many of our interactions are transitory, with no lasting results. We’re still learning how to collaborate well from a distance. At the start of the pandemic, when researchers in the UK asked 212 people what they found challenging about remote work, the things the respondents missed most included face-to-face communications, informal discussions, and a daily social life.
These challenges predate the pandemic, of course, and they persist. With remote and hybrid workplaces probably here to stay, though, the need to bridge the gap between the real and the virtual is more pressing than ever. We have a plethora of tools now to help us simulate in-person interactions, but it’s not enough to settle for a digital version of what we’re already doing. Instead, we need to think bigger about how to go beyond on-screen meetings to advancing tangible goals. Getting to truly great collaboration means improving on current technologies, considering how they could evolve, and tackling the challenges we might face along the way.
An evolution from online games to virtual reality
Even as companies are pouring millions of dollars into the “metaverse” of immersive digital technologies, many of their concepts seem like shout-outs to a 20th century vision of the future. Indeed, so do many of the digital tools that organizations are currently using to enhance collaboration. Cisco still refers to one of its audiovisual collaboration systems as “telepresence,” a term that digital visionary Jaron Lanier used in 1990.
We’re still learning how to collaborate well from a distance.
Still, today’s tools are built on firm foundations. Simulation, for example, is a long-standing and proven training tool. Dissecting a digital frog on a screen with a cursor is charmingly retro, though, compared to the virtual reality modalities many medical students now use to learn and practice diagnostic and surgical skills on virtual cadavers. In a less life-and-death example, graduate students at more than 250 business schools are learning business concepts with a real-time interactive game called ERPsim where they can evaluate and adjust the financial and sustainability effects of their decisions on a virtual company.
Gamification is another well-established tool for keeping people engaged. Today, AI can personalize challenges, competitions, and rewards for each individual player so they learn the specific skills and information they need, and it supports collaborative capabilities so players can learn from each other. For example, when SAP employees log in to the company’s internal Digital Heroes training software to study various leadership topics, they’re guided to specific modules, told who else has taken them, shown how their own results measure up, and added to a group chat for everyone who has completed that module.
Communication tools are also continuing to evolve to keep meetings and other group work more engaging and effective. One notable trend is the convergence of features in applications that used to be distinctly different. Today, companies can choose a single integrated system rather than one application for audio and video calls, another for real-time messaging, and a third for asynchronous chat. Tomorrow, available applications will also incorporate virtual and augmented reality capabilities to allow multimodal presentations and help distributed teammates feel like they’re in the same physical space. For example, Microsoft has announced that it will tightly integrate its “metaverse engine,” Mesh, into Teams to allow immersive collaboration.
These changes seem to be at least somewhat inspired by the gaming space, where a single technology often hosts multiple modes of communication and collaboration. Indeed, the generation currently entering the workforce has grown up on applications like Discord, which has more than 140 million active users and is, in fact, often called “Slack for gamers” for its resemblance to the business software. Discord is easy to set up and gives users rich functionality including channels, user lists, multimedia posts and direct messages, and simple screen sharing. However, it’s hosted on Discord’s own servers, which aren’t set up for the security demands of business use in the way that hosted business tools like Microsoft Office 365 and Zoom are.
Still, that risk doesn’t mean someone, somewhere isn’t using Discord, Twitch, and other consumer software to communicate and collaborate with coworkers in the ways they became used to during playtime. “The reason you’re not hearing about it is probably that it’s against the IT security rules, so people aren’t going to be forthcoming about it,” says Brad Berens, a senior research fellow and strategic adviser at the Center for the Digital Future, part of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “But I’m sure it’s happening.”
Addressing three shortcomings of collaboration tools
As collaboration applications start to look more and more alike, it suggests that they’re reaching a maturity level that lets companies go all in on their potential. Instead of having to integrate multiple technologies to get all the different tools and features people want to use, a mature collaboration technology provides those benefits without integration and interoperability challenges. Yet to move into an era of truly great collaboration, we still need to address three key issues inherent in remote technology.
Distraction. Remote work involves spending a lot more time in meetings, according to economists who studied the issue early in the pandemic. People tend to multitask during remote meetings to make sure they do all they need to get done. That makes it hard to keep track of the key points and action items that are the reason for holding the meeting. Meanwhile, other participants sense their lack of engagement but have less ability to intervene.
Lack of inclusivity. Some people prefer visual communication through images and drawings. Others prefer written or spoken speech. And some have disabilities that make collaboration more difficult – for example, a presentation isn’t accessible to employees with vision problems unless someone narrates what’s on the shared screen, or to employees with hearing problems unless the presentation has real-time closed captions. For everyone to work together meaningfully, collaboration tools must work together too.
Tech for tech’s sake. It’s easy to become enthralled by new technology, but being blinded by novelty steers us away from wise choices. “Our imagination about what collaboration tools might do has moved far ahead of reality,” Berens says. So we kludge together a piecemeal combination of consumer and business technologies to collaborate in the ways we want – which, he points out, fails to satisfy our needs and creates a security nightmare.
What’s next: higher-quality interactions, more discerning users
Cham believes the actual effect of gaming and other consumer tools on remote collaboration is that it raises expectations of user experience – and that meeting those expectations is more likely to generate the fizzy collaborative energy that drives tangible outcomes.
One immediate possibility for moving forward into that more productive realm might be to deploy telepresence robots so people who can’t attend meetings in person, for whatever reason, can still feel like and be treated as if they’re in the room. This could theoretically be a big step toward increasing both engagement and inclusivity. There’s a caveat, though: some companies that have experimented with telepresence robots have run into logistical barriers to widespread adoption. They require users to learn how to operate them. They can do little beyond transmitting and receiving voice and video. And crucially, they aren’t yet designed to climb stairs or operate elevators, so making them practical for everyday use would require a company to make large numbers of robots available on every floor of a building. Enhancing the hybrid meeting experience so every employee can join and participate successfully with the technology they already have will likely be a better way to reach the same goal.
In the past, your boss could warn you clearly about something that wasn’t working in a meeting by giving you a funny look. I think we should make every one-hour remote meeting 50 minutes, and spend the last 10 minutes reflecting on how well a collaborative action or tool worked.
- James Cham, partner, Bloomberg Beta
Another option might be to go fully virtual. Consider Fortnite, the multiplayer online game with up to 4 million concurrent daily users globally (including professional e-sports gamers). Players are represented by lifelike avatars that can move and interact as if they were together in person. Musical artists have also used it as a stage for live events where they perform as avatars in the game’s world, with users’ avatars as an audience. As Berens points out, “If people are having concerts in Fortnite, why not meetings?”
We’ll undoubtedly see more cyberattacks on collaboration tools, but we’ll also see more secure methods of authentication and access to protect them, with easier, more intuitive ways to implement and use them.
Most critically, we’ll avoid the lure of unproductive novelty by being more evaluative and strategic about which tools we select. “In the past, your boss could warn you clearly about something that wasn’t working in a meeting by giving you a funny look,” Cham says. “I think we should make every one-hour remote meeting 50 minutes, and spend the last 10 minutes reflecting on how well a collaborative action or tool worked.”
A vision of an effective remote future
The argument for better remote collaboration tools is clear: By delivering greater employee engagement, technology that enables a better user experience with remote collaboration will also deliver business benefits like higher productivity and reduced costs. Saving time and money on business travel by letting executives use avatars or even holograms to interact from a distance in a natural and personal way is one obvious aspect of that future – but it barely scratches the surface. Here are some other work-altering possibilities:
Research and development. Traditionally isolated phases of product development will be connected and streamlined. People will be able to cocreate holographic 3D models, leave comments on them, look at cross sections, and even enlarge them up to a massive size to walk through them. Yes, this may remind you of some of the “virtual reality” movies of the 1990s – but remember, Star Trek: The Next Generation also imagined tablet computers decades before Apple came up with the iPad. Sometimes fiction is the first stage of R&D.
More effective training. In soft skills trainings, for example, people could use virtual reality goggles or something similar to swap personas – literally seeing a situation through another person’s eyes to understand how they experience a challenge, how they address it, and how they might do things differently. Over the last two years, in fact, SAP’s Academy for Customer Success has been using virtual reality goggles in exactly this way.
Greater productivity and inclusivity. Collaboration tools will integrate AI and other capabilities to support people. For example, AI-powered virtual assistants already exist and are capable of understanding an employee’s schedule and proactively bringing up important tasks and meetings. In the future, they will also capture action items in virtual meetings for distribution to attendees and maybe even schedule follow-ups and reminders automatically. In addition to helping existing employees work more effectively, these tools will broaden the hiring pool to include more people who were previously excluded from certain roles by helping them compensate for physical and cognitive challenges.
Brainstorming sessions. There’s also potential for new opportunities to make collaboration more engaging and interactive. Imagine a business version of “duets” on TikTok, in which creators respond to and extend one another’s videos by adding commentary to a presentation or engaging in asynchronous brainstorming.
Companies need clear objectives for adopting various tools, as well as metrics by which to measure their effectiveness and decide which are worth keeping. However, they also need to accept that while tools can enable collaboration, they don’t create it.
Bloomberg Beta is looking for just such opportunities by investing in companies that are developing tools to change the way we interact, Cham says. One of its recent investments is a company creating ways to improve remote stand-up meetings with more structure and increased use of video. Another is a company using technology to enhance meetings with icebreakers, questions, and rules that replace small talk with productive but still connection-building activities.
This is not a game
Companies need clear objectives for adopting various tools, as well as metrics to measure their effectiveness and decide which are worth keeping. Yet they also need to accept that while tools can enable collaboration, they don’t create it. All they can do is choose the ones that encourage or enhance the human connections that transform individuals into cohesive, enthusiastic teams.
Harmonious working relationships of the future are going to need technologies that help people work smarter and use their time more efficiently. The existing workforce wants to do what it’s already doing, only better. The incoming generation of employees juggle text, voice, and video; communicate in memes; and expect interactivity that’s as seamless in the workplace as outside of it. The goal of smart leaders isn’t to force them together. It’s to help them connect in ways that seem so natural they’re practically inevitable.
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