As humans we are hardwired to prefer to collaborate using many physical and visual queues, and we often find it easier to explain and share complex ideas through drawing or other visual collaboration means that are made easier when we are in the same room, were we can use tools like whiteboards or simply a pen and paper. In the current climate, where we are either unable to travel to collaborate or because we just want to reduce our impact on the environment, the ability to effectively collaborate remotely is critical. Even with the rise of great and ubiquitous video conferencing capabilities, remote collaboration often leaves a lot to be desired. Whilst not the same as being able to look someone in the eye or be physically present with them, there are a number of things we can do to make remote collaboration easier and more effective.
Rules of engagement
Everyone must be on camera
All participants to utilize headphones or good quality conference speaker device
Ensure that you have a reliable internet link
Act like you are physically in the room
Focus your attention on the session
Keep sessions short, max 4 hours, but preferably 2 hours
Create and adhere to a formal agenda and times
Break up the sessions over several days as necessary
Be aware of time zones when planning
Break at least every 90min
Ensure that everyone is included and participates
Ask for input and and feedback frequently
Avoid having long periods of one person presenting or talking
Timebox inputs, but still give people the opportunity to share their thoughts
Try to keep an open microphone during the sessions (and encourage others to do so). I know this goes against the conventional wisdom, but it’s better than talking and presenting into the void. (Note that this doesn't apply in a noisy or distracting environment.)
Turn off notifications to reduce distractions
Treat the session with the same respect you would as if you were in the room with a customer or colleague; don’t read email or do other unrelated work
Where possible, try to utilize two screens: one with the participant videos, and the other with the presentation or whiteboard
Instant Messaging: Setup a dedicated Workshop/work session channel to share links and pictures (for example, Slack)
Video Conference: Pick the best possible video conferencing tool that all participants can access (such as Zoom, Google Hangouts (some companies forbid the required Google accounts on corporate machines), Webex (functionality can be limited on some operating systems, such as Linux), and so on) be aware of the participant limitations.
Web Whiteboard: Pick a online collaboration tool that allows everyone to participate and encourage everyone to get involved (See below for some options)
Shared Docs: Share agenda, notepads, spreadsheets, and so on with the whole team and let everyone contribute in real time (Google Docs)
Cellphone: Your camera can be used to share pictures of diagrams and anything else relevant.
Pen and Paper: Take notes, capture your thoughts, doodle
Whiteboard style Collaboration Tools
We can use a number of different tools, including:
Requires a account to save a board or create multiple boards
Has tools to create basic shapes (Rectangle and Circle)
Can add typed test directly
Conclusion: Great simple web whiteboard tool that anyone can access, but if privacy and access control is an issue then don’t use it.
There are of course many others, some with great features, but these are the ones that I have tried.
Workshop Setup Checklist
We've found that the more we prepare for a workshop, the greater the degree of success we'll see. Some things we'll want to consider:
Create a detailed agenda
Start and End Time
Detailed Session Description
Collaboration Tools to be used
Links to Collaboration tools and any relevant docs
Agree on the workshop start and end times for each session
Send the agenda out for comment and feedback at least a week before
Setup and test the Teleconference Tools, make sure ahead of time that everyone can access the chosen tool and test it (there is nothing more frustrating than having to deal with connectivity issues that eat into the session time)
Create Shared Docs and ensure that all attendees have access to the docs
Link all docs to the agenda
Remote work is likely to become more common even after the current emergency, particularly in the IT field, but while it can be jarring to those who are used to face-to-face contact, teleworking options are already quite advanced, and there's no reason we can't communicate effectively while spread out around the world. We just need to be certain that we're prepared, both in terms of content and in terms of technology.
Shaun has been designing and building Enterprise IT Infrastructure Solutions for 15 years. His work with customers — advising on the journey to cloud and assisting in the development of cloud solutions — has given him a wide scope to learn and try new and diverse technologies.