Traditionally, business leaders have held the belief that to be innovative and to collaborate effectively, employees must be in the office, working together in person. As such, it’s no surprise that business leaders are now considering recalling employees back to the workplace. But does this make business sense? Recalling staff back to the office is not without its challenges, there are a significant number of considerations to take and are we doing it just because that’s the way it has always been and we don’t know any better?
Perhaps there’s a better approach, one that sees employees as people and only requires leaders to have better understanding of how employees collaborate, regardless of whether your business has a remote, office or hybrid working environment.
If we look more closely, most in-person innovation has traditionally happened by accident. That great idea during a coffee break chat and so on. This is not a reflection of leaders sparking innovation, but more something that happened by chance. Whatsmore, remote working throughout the pandemic has shown us that employees are just as effective if not more so when working from home, but only when there is design and structure to how individuals work together.
In other words, leaders need to understand how employees collaborate and intentionally create scenarios where innovation has a higher chance of happening.
How Employees Work & Collaborate
Understanding how each employee works and collaborate with colleagues is critical in everyday business. According to Gartner, collaboration occurs either Asynchronously or Synchronously and how employees work together can be grouped into 4 modes of collaboration depending on whether they are colocated (Together Together & Alone Together) or dispersed (Together Apart & Alone Apart).
What’s required in today’s remote and hybrid working environments is the knowledge of how and when to use each mode to strike the right balance to provide the best conditions for effective collaboration.
Understanding Asynchronous vs Synchronous Collaboration
Regardless of the working environment, all businesses utilise some form of Asynchronous and Synchronous collaboration. Recently, business leaders have placed great emphasis on synchronous collaboration, but effective collaboration requires both. How much of both will depend on the employee and how they work best - do they respond to team meetings or are they more effective as a lone wolf.
What is Asynchronous Collaboration?
Asynchronous communication and collaboration refers to people working together but independently of one another and often at different times and locations. Often this is due to geographical locations, time zones or the communication channel. Typical examples of asynchronous collaboration include e-mail and working with enterprise project management software platforms. We write e-mails, leave comments and upload documents to project tickets, but we usually do not actively work together at the same time.
What is Synchronous Collaboration?
Synchronous collaboration refers to people working on the same project at the same time. In the workplace, synchronous collaboration will see employees working in project teams together in the form of in-person brainstorming, team meetings and huddle room sessions.
In the world of digital communication, examples can be seen with phone calls, video conferences, web meetings and screen sharing sessions. In each scenario, employees communicate and collaborate at the same time.
4 Modes of Collaboration
As mentioned above, remote working and hybrid working environments will utilise both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration practices. Especially over the last 12 to 18 months, the tendency has been shifting towards synchronous collaboration as we strive to replace the lost in-person face-to-face aspects.
This is perhaps the mode of collaboration that business leaders instantly envision when they think of employees working together and that’s colocated, all in the office taking part in meetings and working together within a shared space.
Another traditional mode of collaboration, Alone Together sees all employees co-located in a shared space but not necessarily working together at the same time. This could be performing their daily tasks independently of colleagues or in the form of “office days”, as may have been the case over the past 12 to 18 months.
While not new, Together Apart became a standard mode of collaboration throughout 2020 and remains so in 2021. Together Apart describes working in distributed teams but taking part in virtual meetings and collaboration sessions. Tools such as video conferencing, web meetings and screen sharing rose to prominence as businesses worldwide looked to keep their teams together despite the physical separation that home office working created.
Again, nothing new here as it has been the standard operating mode for many an IT field salesperson or technical support engineer for quite a long time. In essence, this mode of collaboration describes a widely dispersed team with members working independently from the team. Due to the nature of this mode of collaboration, there is little synchronous communication between team members.
Which Mode Is Best?
The short answer is none and all. Pre-pandemic, Together Together and Alone Together were probably the standard for a large number of employees. From a pure collaboration standpoint, requiring employees to come back to the office full-time just because that is how we’ve always done it, will likely cause resentment and not have much of a positive impact on collaboration. Likewise, staying fully remote and focusing solely on synchronous collaboration such as video meetings will create fatigue and hinder collaboration as employees end up going from virtual meeting to virtual meeting.
What’s needed is a measured approach that combines all modes of collaboration. That means analysing how, when and where individual employees work best and adopting a strategy that incorporates individual personal and technological needs. For example, The lone wolf will like Alone Apart. Meanwhile, the Team Player craves Together Together. Therefore, leaders must identify which methods and tools work best for their workforce and build a strategy based on these factors. But remember, to get the best results, leaders have to strike the right balance encompassing all modes of collaboration.
In my opinion, adopting a hybrid working environment for most of your workforce will likely make the most business sense as hybrid working enables the best of both worlds for both the employee and the employer.
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