Why employees hate virtual collaboration and what to do about it

This post was adapted from APQC’s report "Preparing for the Future of Work." Download an overview or view a webinar highlighting the findings.

This post was written by Lauren Trees, a principal research lead at member-based nonprofit APQC (www.apqc.org), the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.

It’s hard to achieve efficient, effective collaboration in the workplace. And employees have noticed.

In a global survey of more than 1,000 professionals, APQC asked about respondents’ current collaboration habits and the changes that would make them happier and more productive. The results suggest that employees want to improve how they communicate and work together, but they need updated technology, clearer policies to guide interactions, and more targeted and consistent leadership support.

The continued allure of face-to-face contact

Today’s employees are confronted with a dizzying array of virtual communication and collaboration tools. But when you ask them how they prefer to innovate and solve problems, they almost invariably point to in-person challenges. Scheduled face-to-face meetings top the list of favored methods on APQC’s survey, followed by spontaneous in-person interactions and face-to-face conferences/working sessions (Figure 1).

APQC Figure 1
Figure 1

And despite the stereotypes about millennials preferring to text or Snapchat than talk to people, these trends are relatively consistent across the three main generations that comprise today’s workforce.

Creating face-to-face collaboration opportunities -- much less spontaneous ones -- is challenging in a world of globally dispersed teams, full-time remote workers, and shrinking travel budgets. But the desire for contact is hardwired into the human psyche, and organizations benefit when they take steps to accommodate employees’ need for in-person interaction.

With a centralized or co-located workforce, this can be accomplished by providing ample meeting rooms, designating spaces for socializing and networking, and designing offices to maximize impromptu encounters among people from different teams and functions. The barriers are obviously greater when colleagues are far-flung, but it is still worth the investment to bring virtual teams and networks together (at least occasionally).

At first glance, managers may hesitate to incur travel expenses when a virtual meeting could achieve similar objectives. But research suggests that even infrequent in-person meetings can build trust among virtual team members and improve their interactions when they return to their respective offices.

On the flip side, however, employees’ preference for face-to-face collaboration may reveal a degree of discomfort with virtual encounters. And where this is so, organizations need to address the problem head on. In-person meetings can foster collegial relationships, but global teams and all-virtual jobs are becoming more mainstream, and people must learn to communicate effectively regardless of location.

What’s the problem with virtual collaboration?

Based on the data, employee attitudes toward virtual collaboration have not evolved as quickly as the enabling technology. Despite the constant influx of new tools, most workplace communication still occurs through face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and email.

Admittedly, some newer options have gained traction. For example, 61% of survey respondents reported using work instant messaging daily, and 53% said they participate in virtual meetings more than once a week. However, these media simply replicate the private, one-on-one and small-group conversations enabled by previous technologies while doing little to bring new voices into mix, increase traceability, and facilitate knowledge reuse.

To improve the efficiency and quality of workplace collaboration, employees need to transition at least some of the interactions taking place privately in meetings, phone calls, and email to open forums such as communities of practice, enterprise social networks, and collaboration spaces. These platforms for “working out loud” allow people to canvass a wide range of colleagues (including ones they do not know personally) while creating a searchable record of any knowledge exchanged. They can also improve collaboration efficiency by, for example, allowing experts to post publicly accessible answers to common questions and thus cut down on duplicate expertise requests.

But adoption of enterprise communities and networks is not happening as rapidly as one might expect, given the speed with which people have embraced Facebook and Twitter in their personal interactions.

The good news is that most survey respondents have at least experimented with social collaboration in the workplace. For example, 77% have used a community message board or discussion forum at some point, and 70% have posted to an enterprise social network.

However, true adoption rates are much lower: Only one-quarter of respondents report using either of these platforms at least once a week. And when asked how they prefer to innovate and solve problems at work, fewer than 7% listed communities or enterprise social networks among their top three modes of collaboration (Figure 2).

APQC Figure 2
Figure 2

Millennials were slightly more likely than older colleagues to favor social collaboration tools. But even among this group, preference for communities and networks was dwarfed by partiality for established channels such as phone calls and email.

It’s clear that, although enterprise communities and social networks are out there, they are not fully integrated into most organizations’ work patterns and processes. Use is infrequent and limited to very particular types of exchanges. And that does not bode well for the future of virtual collaboration.

Getting employees to adopt new collaboration habits

Despite the challenges, there is an appetite to integrate new collaboration tools more extensively into day-to-day work.

According to the survey results, a majority of employees recognize the need to streamline their communications and shift more conversations into one-to-many channels. With employees often drowning in emails, nearly half said they would be more productive with fewer email exchanges and other direct messages (Figure 3). Yet 64% believe more activity in strategic or purpose-based communities of practice would boost their productivity, and 43% believe their workplaces would be more productive with more activity in enterprise social networks and virtual forums.

APQC Figure 3
Figure 3

So what can organizations do to shift people toward leveraging one-to-many virtual collaboration tools, at least in those situations where they are appropriate?

Part of the equation involves enhancing the underlying technology so that it works better and replicates more of the vibrancy, spontaneity, and fun of talking to someone directly. The survey results reflect this need, with 69% of respondents indicating that more advanced technology to enable virtual collaboration would make them and their colleagues more productive (Figure 4).

An even larger majority -- 79% -- believe productivity would rise if they had better tools to find and connect with experts and potential collaboration partners (this was the highest rate of consensus across all 24 proposed changes APQC asked about on the survey). Leaders should keep these perceived connections between technology upgrades and productivity in mind when considering the potential return on IT investments.

APQC
Figure 4

However, putting the right technology in place is only half the battle; organizations must also address the underlying policy, process and change management issues. A majority of respondents to APQC’s survey acknowledged this, saying that improvements in the policies and processes that guide virtual collaboration would make their workplaces more productive.

As a baseline, organizations must do more to make employees aware of the collaboration tools available to them and how to use them effectively. In many cases, technology rollouts are left in the hands of IT, whose guidance tends to focus on how-to tutorials, rather than the broader context of why a new tool is being introduced or the benefits it provides.

Employees may need more comprehensive onboarding that builds their confidence in the tools while conveying the purpose, ground rules, and expected outcomes of each type of collaborative exchange.

Such guidance can also improve efficiency by directing employees to the best option for a given scenario. Often, dislike of virtual collaboration stems from people being overwhelmed by the array of available alternatives or from using the wrong tool for the job (e.g., inserting a complex, multi-part expertise request into a casual social networking conversation). APQC suspects that, if employees receive better information about how to incorporate new modes of collaboration into their daily work, adoption rates would improve significantly.

In addition, leaders must do a better job of conveying the value of one-to-many communication via communities and networks, both from an enterprise perspective and for the individual employees involved. People already know what they like about calling a colleague or sending an email, and convincing them to instead post their ideas and questions in an open forum requires a significant shift in mindset.

However, consistent messaging from the top -- especially if executives actually use the platforms they endorse -- can reinforce how social collaboration can save employees time, give them access to richer insights feedback than they could ever acquire by reaching out to their limited private contacts, and allow future knowledge seekers to benefit from the answers they receive.

 

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