Working from home: Forgetting to inform colleagues about what you're up to can have consequences
Almost overnight, Denmark transitioned from a physical to virtual workplace as the Corona shutdown went into effect. However, broader involvement is required to ensure for the success of our collaborative endeavours when we are physically distanced. Knowing what colleagues are up to is essential, so that we avoid working in different directions and ending up with poorer results, according to Professor Pernille Bjørn of the University of Copenhagen.
Brief interactions across the desk about how things are proceeding with a task, quick chats around the coffee machine or updates on the office white board have become tough to obsolete since being supplanted by 'collaborative technologies'. Now we 'Skype' or 'Zoom' from home and keep track of tasks using an array of digital platforms.
Common among these IT tools is that they typically don’t reflect a presence around joint tasks in the automatically apparent way that they do when we physically engage with colleagues and collaborators. Extra initiative is required from individual employees to update colleagues about what they are working on from home.
This can be difficult in the long run, according to Professor Pernille Bjørn of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Computer Science. Professor Bjørn has been researching the use of collaborative work technologies for a number of years, and currently serves as both the Deputy Head of Department for Research and as a researcher in the section for 'Human-Centred Computing’.
"When we no longer come into the same office, it’s easy for us to lose track of what's going on in the workplace and what our colleagues are doing — unless we explicitly express our activities to one another virtually. Doing so requires a bit of extra effort and takes time away from our core tasks. This is because our technologies do not produce a presence on their own, as we do when sharing knowledge in a physical workplace, where we share without even thinking about it," explains Pernille Bjørn.
Risk of poorer results
The professor refers to some of her own studies (see below) of how global software developers and engineers collaborate on long-distance projects using various IT platforms that reduce the hassle of knowledge sharing and coordinating. Here it turned out, among other things, that the greatest achievements by way of remote collaboration were primarily the result of close collaborations where people spent time and energy communicating about what they were working on.
"It is highly likely that you won't go through the additional hassle of making your work apparent to colleagues unless you are directly dependent on them in relation to your individual work. This increases the risk that a group or department will lose its sense of a common understanding, and begin to work in different directions, and thereby suffer poorer long-term results," says Pernille Bjørn.
In particular, she points to larger, more complex tasks or projects as being a challenge in terms of creating a sufficient presence for people when they are working individually.
"There are many examples of large global software development projects that have gone awry due to employees not investing enough time in making their work apparent, and of colleagues who were thereby unable to perform," explains Bjørn.
Four tips for virtual collaboration
While working independently, one needs quick and ongoing feedback from colleagues and contacts. Here, email is one of the worst tools, as email technology does not create a presence around work, e.g., there is no way to know if a recipient has seen the mail, forgotten about it, or does not want to reply.
Find ways to share knowledge on an ongoing basis
Knowledge sharing need not take place during meetings where everyone is online at the same time. There are several asynchronous digital platforms and channels where people can organise their own work by checking in and sharing knowledge when it suits them.
Use technologies that suit your needs
A slew of digital collaboration tools are available (e.g. Slack, Drive, Zoom, etc), so find out which ones are best suited for your workplace needs.
Be present, be focused and limit yourself
Have a clear agenda, conduct short meetings and be present during meetings. Don't hold unnecessary meetings. At times, phone calls and text messages are fine for quick messages. Some platforms contribute to presence by indicating when messages have been read or not, thereby reducing the hassle of knowledge sharing and coordination work.
Sneaking in snacks and multitasking are not sustainable
But neither are endless meetings and an excessive work presence. Ultimately, time is needed to complete core tasks. Therefore, the key is to balance the number of meetings and find technologies and IT platforms that are best suited to a group’s needs.
"The other day, I had meetings from 9 in the morning until to 7 in the evening. To get things done, I had to eat and work at the same time, which is unsustainable in the long term," says Professor Bjørn, who adds:
"You need to think about what you can do in order for people to have the chance to follow along and share knowledge about what they are doing, while also being able to get their own work done. Here, technologies that allow individuals to decide for themselves when they have the time and surplus energy to keep up with colleagues' updates can be a good option," she says.
Furthermore, fixed weekly interactions are often needed, for both smaller teams and larger groups alike, including meetings for entire departments or units. Professor Bjørn is convinced that the Corona crisis will precipitate a future in which we collaborate online more than ever before.
"I anticipate far more online meetings once the shutdown is over, because in some situations, it is an easier and faster way to interact, one that does not involve transportation – which lets us save time and resources. At the same time, physical interaction remains important to us as humans and as a society. Therefore, decisions about physical rather than virtual meetings must focus not only on resources, but on who we are as humans," she concludes.
Bjørn, P., M. Esbensen, R. E. Jensen and S. Matthiesen (2014). "Does distance still matter? Revisiting the CSCW fundamentals on distributed collaboration." ACM Transaction Computer Human Interaction (ToChi) 21(5): 1-27.
Department of Computer Science
Michael Skov Jensen
Faculty of SCIENCE
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