In my role as the Head of Business Development for the EMEA and APAC regions at TAI, I’m used to bringing people together, whether that means huddled around the desk at headquarters or in an insurer’s conference room half a world away, to scribble away on a whiteboard as we brainstorm new ideas for products and services.
But COVID-19 changed all of that. Air travel was either shut down or severely restricted. Offices were closed or moved to reduce staff to promote social distancing. Employees, many of whom thought remote work would never be a possibility, suddenly had no choice but to work from home.
On top of adjusting to a completely remote work environment with colleagues, I was tasked with figuring out a way to collaborate across three continents to build a next-generation analytics solution for TAI users. We had just kicked off a relationship with Comotion Business Solutions to build it, and between the team members from TAI and those from Comotion working on this project, we were geographically dispersed. Somehow, however, we had to find a way to collaborate virtually to keep the momentum going.
Four Tips for Enabling Virtual Collaboration
Thankfully, I work for an organization that values innovation and isn’t afraid of exploring new ways to get the job done. Huge kudos to the Comotion team in South Africa as well. They are masters in innovative thinking, and that applies to business processes, too. In the end, some things worked out, and some didn’t, but we’ve managed to accomplish far more in less time than ever seemed possible at the beginning of the pandemic.
Here are a few ideas for enabling virtual collaboration across time zones, borders, and cultures. In some cases, I will make technology recommendations, but many of these tips are about working effectively with people when you can’t meet face to face.
#1 Idea Formulation/Brainstorming over video.
It seems that this ought to be the easiest activity to replicate, but it’s not. Brainstorming over Zoom or on a conference call lacks the energy that people gathered in a conference room can generate. But that’s okay because we found a way to make low-key brainstorming work for us.
Instead of holding one or more formal brainstorming sessions at the idea-formulation stage, we set up weekly informal sessions to kick around ideas, challenges, and whatever else was on our minds. Our approach has cultural elements. For example, we chose to meet every Friday afternoon when people were winding down from the week, and their minds were more open to thinking laterally and creatively.
Here are a few additional tips for making this approach work for you:
- Don’t push the conversation. Allow it to flow and see where it lands.
- If vital decisions must be made, consider setting up a separate meeting for them. This is an ideation session, not necessarily a decision-making session.
- Include guests from different geographies, teams, cultures, and even industries to add a wide range of perspectives. With everyone working online, we have more opportunities than ever to include people who might not normally be part of an ideation session.
- Ask everyone to join via video. Video makes it far easier to read a person’s body language and ensures everyone stays engaged throughout a session, especially when working across cultures.
- Limit the number of session attendees. We found that 4–5 was the absolute max for these types of sessions. More than that, it becomes difficult to stay engaged and ensure everyone is contributing to the conversation.
#2 Use a good meeting platform.
This best practice applies to all collaborations, not just ideation sessions. The best platforms are readily available worldwide, widely adopted, easy to use, and integrated with existing applications. We initially used Zoom, but once Microsoft Teams had sufficiently matured, we moved over. We found Teams easy to use and great for screen sharing. It also has decent chat functionality. Just as importantly, it is widely accessible to our partners and not too bandwidth hungry – a key consideration when collaborating with team members with low bandwidth internet connections.
#3 Implement a document management system.
Effective collaboration requires documentation. When working with a globally dispersed team (or even team members working across town), you can’t always pop down the hall to ask a co-worker to remind you what was decided at the last meeting. Initially, we shared documents via email using version control. We also tried MS Teams, but external users found swapping between their organization’s communication platforms and receiving notifications of document updates a bit confusing.
Both approaches inserted too much friction into the process of collaboration, so we implemented Microsoft Office 365 SharePoint. This allowed us to establish a central document repository accessible to internal and external parties and adhere to our IT department’s security parameters. In addition, we could collaborate on documents together in real-time – even to the extent of having multiple people working on the same document in parallel without the need for stringent version control.
#4 Invest in a Virtual Whiteboard.
If you’re like me, you love being in front of a whiteboard, markers in hand. If I’m not following an idea someone’s trying to share, the first thing I do is map out what I’m hearing on the board. Almost immediately, we spot our disconnect. For most humans, visuals are just that powerful. Replacing the whiteboard experience with a virtual equivalent was perhaps the most difficult challenge to solve but the most rewarding one when we did.
In our quest, we tested various options, such as Teams whiteboard, draw.io, and zoom whiteboard. We settled on Miro and highly recommend it for a variety of reasons:
- It’s easy to use, even for the most IT challenged among us.
- It comes with pre-set shapes/stickies and the ability to draw free-form with a stylus – essential for whiteboard aficionados!
- Sharing tools are especially powerful and easy to use. You can share in the application, but you can also share in Microsoft Teams. It was cool to track others’ curser movements in real-time. This enabled us to direct them to a specific part of the whiteboard or to ask them to share their thoughts visually.
We used our virtual whiteboard as a pseudo scrapbook for ideas as well as for visuals for proposed dashboards and charts.
Introducing TAI Insights
I hope you found some value in what I’ve shared in this post, but the story doesn’t end there. Through collaboration, our virtual team brought the TAI/Comotion analytics initiative successfully through design and proof of concept into development.
TAI User Group attendees got a first-hand look at the next generation of TAI Insights, to get a demo of the tool, reach out to our team.