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The 4 Pillars of Remote Collaboration | Effective Meetings Series Part 3

Written by 
Voltage Control
September 30, 2020

How to bridge disconnection and establish communication processes for successful remote collaboration

So far in our Effective Meeting series, we’ve talked about the importance of understanding common meeting problems (so you can avoid them) and using guided visual methods to focus imagination and productivity when working with your team. Now in Part 3 it’s time to explore remote collaboration.

Let’s dig into remote work. We’ll address the challenges of remote teams and how to overcome them to achieve successful remote collaboration.

Remote Collaboration requires an intentional approach

The 4 pillars of remote collaboration:

1. Building your remote collaboration tech stack

2. Establishing communication processes and norms

3. Upholding a reliable schedule

4. Creating an intentional space for connection

You must be intentional about fostering collaboration in the virtual landscape.

If you’ve battled any of the 9 problems with meetings — from an unclear meeting objective to actionless discussion — you know how difficult it can be to bring team members together and create an environment conducive to tackling problems, sharing ideas, and imagining solutions. You know it’s even more challenging to do this when your team is remote. Let’s take a moment to look at some of the gravest challenges remote teams can face and how to overcome them.

The grinding challenges of remote teams

Remote collaboration has its own set of unique pains. The result is disconnection — all the missing, personal, human elements that remote work struggles to fully offer. We’re social beings by nature and have depended on being physically near each other in order to work, to build, and even to survive. So in the absence of in-person interaction, you have to become intentional about creating human connection both in and outside of meetings.

Re-creating human connection in the virtual landscape is crucial to effective collaboration.

Connecting with your team and building company culture is only possible through shared understanding and experiences — the work that builds trust. When you work in the same physical place, like an office, everyone there automatically has a common experience. Even just seeing your co-workers across the office, whether you talk to them or not, brings a sense of togetherness — that you’re working together toward common goals. Whether it’s at the watercooler or during moments between meetings, there’s a layer of engagement that exists in-person, a layer that’s easy to take for granted — until it’s gone.

Remote collaboration changes or outright removes these in-person dynamics. For example, take distraction. Working from home, or anywhere that’s not a controlled environment (like a collaborative workspace), is likely to introduce unpredictable distractions. From kids to microwaves to attention-seeking dogs and cats, there are all kinds of outside factors that can divert attention.

It’s also hard to stay focused on a screen for hours on end with no one physically around to break up the energy or help keep productivity and engagement levels high. Just staring at a screen for hours straight is a problem. Zoom Fatigue is a real phenomenon. It stems from how we process information received via video:

“On a video call, the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera. But, in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at their face? Probably never. This is because having to engage in a ‘constant gaze’ makes us uncomfortable — and tired. In person, we are able to use our peripheral vision to glance out the window or look at others in the room. On a video call, because we are all sitting in different homes, if we turn to look out the window, we worry it might seem like we’re not paying attention.”

💡 Harvard Business Review

We’re not at our best when we’re multitasking. Screen fatigue takes a toll.

Operating on a screen all day also requires you to constantly turn off and on different parts of your brain to collaborate across multiple channels. Think: you’re answering an email while you’re pinged on Slack by a co-worker who has a question about the meeting you have in 10 minutes … Oh and you’re also adding final tweaks to your meeting notes. Woah, that’s a lot of brainwork just to keep the collaboration going! Researchers at Stanford found that when we multitask, we don’t remember things as well. What is the impact on of multitasking on the quality of your communication? We can’t maintain a healthy, effective workflow when we’re multitasking, especially not when it’s our default mode.

According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, as much as 40 percent of your productive time is wasted on switching between tasks.

The problems we face with virtual collaboration are larger than just the use of video, which is only a one- or, at best, two-dimensional aspect of collaboration — that is, you can see and hear your team.

There’s no question: Remote collaboration has significant obstacles to overcome. And while we’re getting better and better at using technology to overcome these challenges, we still have a lot of work to do. Our goal: make it easy to collaborate from anywhere.

Just how do we do that? Let’s take a look at what those solutions are and how to implement them.

How to get the most out of meetings — even at a distance

If we want to have better meetings and collaborate effectively regardless of location, we need to solve remote meeting problems. How do we do that?

First things first, we start with understanding common meeting problems. Next, we aspire to do the work in the meeting, not after.

Say what? Most meetings are structured to discuss the work that needs to be done instead of actually doing the work itself. At Voltage Control and MURAL, we aspire to use meeting time to actually do the work together as a team.

Think about it this way: How much more willing would you be to attend a meeting if you knew it wasn’t all talk, and that you had the opportunity to roll up your sleeves and get sh*t done? That’s a game changer.

Next, meetings need to spur imagination.

The more imagination you invite into the meeting, the better your outcomes will be.

Imagination is a business asset. It is core to effective meetings, drives real business outcomes, and is even the key to innovation. Imagination fuels innovative ideas, challenges traditional thinking, and paves the way for business opportunities. According to a recent IBM survey of over 1,500 chief executive officers, creativity was the number one identified factor for driving future business success — ranked higher than management discipline, vision, or integrity.

“Imagination in business is the ability to perceive opportunity.”

💡 Abraham Zaleznik

When companies invest in creativity and imagination, they in turn invest in their future success.

Put it all together. The most productive meetings — the meetings worth holding — are the ones where the time is used to integrate team members’ imaginations to do meaningful work together. 

A remote team is as good as the tools they use.

Tools, technology, and practices to support remote collaboration

Just as guided visual methods are used to bring focus to our imagination, having the right technology at your disposal and agreed-upon conventions for how to use that technology can make all the difference for effective remote collaboration. The objective is to take the guesswork out of remote collaboration, remove friction in the process, and bridge any gaps along the way.

Below are listed useful tools, technology, and practices to speed up remote collaboration. They will help you stay organized, connected, and inspired with your team so you can do the work in the meeting.

1. Build your remote collaboration tech stack

To help you run better meetings:

  • Zoom – Video Conferencing platform with breakout room capabilities. 
  • Krisp – Mute background noise during calls.

To get synced:

  • Loom – Screen recorder that allows you to capture video screen messages instead of sending long emails or monologging a presentation over Zoom. It’s also helpful for sending team members visual directions if you cannot screen share in real-time.
  • Slack – Team messaging platform that is a smart alternative to email and results in more conversational, often real-time exchanges. Slack helps the team to have a shared view of work progress and purpose.

To stay organized:

  • Google Docs – Docs makes documentation and remote editing and long-form, written collaboration easier. Smart editing and styling tools make joint production and editing flow smoothly and easily. Note: Docs is not ideal for raw ideation. 
  • Google Sheets – Collaborative spreadsheets to organize and update tasks and information. 
  • Airtable – Like a mash-up of a spreadsheet and a database, Airtable is useful for all kinds of things. For example, it can be an incredibly powerful, accessible system of record for content, customers, and more.
  • Google Drive / Dropbox (or other cloud storage) – Drop all assets and work content into a shared space for easy access for all team members. Use different folders to organize information. 
  • Calendly / Doodle – Calendar scheduling system for time management and to easily coordinate one-on-one and team meetings. 
  • Asana / Trello – A place for assigning work and tracking work progress using a Kanban-style list-making application. Assign individuals to cards to create clear to-do lists and organize priorities.

To nurture creative and visual collaboration

  • MURAL – Digital workspace for visual collaboration. More than an online whiteboard, MURAL offers a platform for everything from product strategy and planning to leading immersive workshops. (You are here.) 
  • Figma – Collaborative design platform to design, prototype, and gather feedback in real-time in one place.

2. Establish communication processes and norms

Identify the tech and tools that work best for your team, then establish communication processes around them. It’s important for your team to understand how each part of your “remote collaboration tech stack” works and what each one is specifically meant for.

For example, this is how we use some of the above technology at Voltage Control:

  • Slack is for work-related conversations, 
  • Email is used to stay connected on client projects and info,
  • Google Docs is used to collaborate in working google docs/sheet, and
  • MURAL is used to brainstorm and ideate in real time.
🚀 PRO TIP: Document how to communicate using your tech! Establish expectations for etiquette, where to do what, and more. There are many suggested best practices here; for example, Slack has an etiquette guide.

3. Set and uphold a reliable schedule

Support productivity by maintaining a steady schedule. Create weekly and monthly agendas so that the team clearly knows what they’re responsible for on a daily basis and the overall landscape of what to expect. Increased collaboration requires consideration of busy schedules and different time zones. For example, you don’t want to be setting a meeting when someone is asleep or about to eat dinner with their family. Don’t change plans at the last minute or repeatedly alter from the distributed schedule.

Smart scheduling sets your team up for success.

4. Create intentional space for connection

We crave connection with other people; it’s in our nature. From mental well-being to impactful collaboration, connection is the key to success.

“Strong social connections make people happier and physically healthier, which can translate into work performance.”

💡 Forbes

Without authentic connection, we can feel extremely lonely and our work suffers from limited diversity and a lack of teamwork.

When working remotely, we must make intentional space for connection. MURAL offers a virtual space specifically built for collaboration — a place where your team can work in sync in real-time to ideate, explore, and forge ideas together visually.

How to (remotely or in-person) do the work in the meeting

Successfully doing the work in the meeting requires you to have something to work on. What you need is something concrete, a focal point. We refer to this focal point as a prototype, or a tangible idea to flush out and explore. A prototype can take various forms. For example, it could be a storyboard, written brief, or a sample pitch of an idea. Any mock-up representation of the idea you want to work on fits the bill. The idea is to bring a prototype to the meeting that best aligns with your needs, then use the meeting time to explore it with your team. At Voltage Control one of our meeting mantras is: “no prototype, no meeting.” For us, if you don’t have something to work on, you shouldn’t have a meeting at all.

Do the work in the meeting with interactive prototypes.

MURAL offers teams digital space to create and explore prototypes — and do it in real time, from anywhere. Team members can express themselves in a visual way that’s more concrete than just words yet still abstract enough to encourage iteration and improvement. This balance makes the learning loop quicker and more efficient.

MURAL is your prototype playground. It’s where you can show people exactly what you mean versus just telling them. For example, say you explain something aloud to someone and they create their interpretation of your shared, verbal vision in Figma. Chances are, what they craft will be different than what you envisioned. The resulting back-and-forth to get it right will not only waste time and money, it’ll frustrate everyone involved. Instead, visually show that same person a representation of your idea as you’re explaining it — even if it’s highly imperfect (no need to be an artist!). They’ll see your vision more clearly and react to it with their own ideas in real-time. Soon you’ll be doing the work together, reacting and ideating on the fly in MURAL.

At Voltage Control, we use MURAL templates to guide most of our meetings. Whether we are building a prototype together, or brainstorming solutions, MURAL helps our team do the work in the meeting — and we do it effectively despite our team being distributed!

We used MURAL to create our Group Planning Template. It’s a brainstorming exercise that helps your team generate ideas, ideate solutions, and plan as a team

MURAL provides a work area for collaboration that supports solo work time in anonymous Private mode as well as a new quick talk feature to interact with the rest of the team during group work.

And since your efforts are digital, they aren’t stuck in a meeting room. You digitally “leave” the collaborative experience with an artifact to continue working from once the meeting is over. This way, teams can jump back into a mural at any time and pick up where they left off, keeping the momentum going without having to transcribe numerous stickies and whiteboard notes from a physical space. 🙌

🚀 PRO TIP: Get acquainted with MURAL's facilitation toolkit and dive deeper by downloading The Definitive Guide to Remote Collaboration.

The power of collaboration from anywhere

It’s now time to take remote collaboration to the next level by embracing the concept of a multi-threaded meeting. This is the idea that a meeting is consumed differently by all attendees — and that’s a good thing! There is power in documenting and sharing diverse perspectives. It’s how you create a rich, collective understanding of what’s discussed. It’s how you work to understand the complexity of problems from many angles. When you have space for imagination, you can tap into this power.

Here’s how: while one person is talking during the meeting, have everyone take notes on digital stickies. Why? Each person hears information differently. Collecting each perspective creates a rich understanding and deep perspective of the idea, how it impacts the team or company, and what to do about it. Here, we’re tapping into the power of visual collaboration.

Diverse perspectives create a rich outcome.

Ready to get more out of remote collaboration? The Perspective Reveal Template is a great way to help your team understand the impact of perspective, the pitfalls of alignment, and the benefits of true collaboration. In this exercise, you’ll explore a simulation of how most (ineffective) meetings work — because of divergent perspectives. This structure can give the illusion of alignment, but attendees may actually be thinking differently. Then, you’ll explore a different technique that helps expose disparities in attendees' interpretations/insights, so you can move toward the conflict, resolve, and converge it. This exercise can be helpful to build awareness around the power of perspectives. It can be equally powerful to teams that already understand this, because we can quickly surface any potential issues and build clarity, together.

Turn on Private Mode to conceal team members’ inputs during exercises like the Perspective Reveal MURAL, where anonymity allows the team to do solo work.

Use the Perspective Reveal Template to explore the power of perspective with your team.

Your meetings are getting better and better. What’s next?

You just wrapped up Part 3 of our Effective Meetings series. 🎉 By now, you’ve raised your awareness of the nine common problems of meetings and you’re on track to avoid them. You’re bringing visual collaboration and guided methods to bring play into your meetings and focus your team’s imagination. And you’re ahead of the curve because you’re actively seeing and solving the challenges of remote collaboration.

In Part 4 of our series, we’ll explore effective meeting culture even further in. With the knowledge of how to run effective remote meetings, we’ll dive into facilitation and how to hone the craft to get the most out of meetings. And then finally, we'll cover the future of working together to solve hard problems.

About the author

About the authors

Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual.