Patricia Hume, CEO, Canvas GFX, looks at the evolution of collaboration software in the era of remote work.
The pandemic has forced businesses around the world to adapt the way they work and embrace the benefits of a hybrid or fully remote working model. According to the World Economic Forum, the pandemic has led to 84% of employers making plans to rapidly digitalise working processes, including the potential transition of 44% of the workforce to remote working.
This is an acceleration of an existing trend. Over the past decade, we have seen a gradual shift towards hybrid working practices, motivated by efficiency and recognition of the need for work-life balance and powered initially by developments in communications technology. Globalisation, environmental concerns, and pressure on office space – and now the effects of the pandemic, including migration out of urban centres – mean the trend is unlikely to reverse; hybrid and remote working are here to stay. Some projections suggest as much as 70% of the workforce will remain working remotely five days per week by 2025. Although there are many benefits to working remotely for employees and businesses alike, it creates fundamental and serious challenges when it comes to collaboration – so often the most fruitful component of working life.
Much has been made of the explosion in usage of applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams during the pandemic. This is evidence, we are told, of technology meeting the challenge of remote collaboration head-on. These are great solutions, and I use them both, but there is a good deal more to collaboration than simply face to face discussion, particularly in certain industries. For example, video calling isn’t always feasible in some industrial environments – and may not solve the collaborative challenge being faced.
The Remote Work Challenge
Many of our customers are part of manufacturing and engineering ecosystems in which designers, suppliers, fabricators, customers, installation teams, maintenance teams, marketing departments and executive leadership all need to be able to share views of critical information and check key details are communicated and understood. These ecosystems are often distributed, so we have gained some insight into some of the challenges of remote collaboration, which are now being more widely felt. These include:
- Communication – There is often a great deal of complexity to be communicated around products and processes. Video calling may be superior to a voice call but watching somebody explain something complicated is only fractionally more effective than listening to them. And screen sharing offers little to an audience that often needs to control their own data consumption to understand it properly.
- Visualisation – when teams can interact in person, they will often stand side by side and share the same view of a product, model, or process. Distributed teams still need to share precisely what they see, and what they want one another to see.
- Feedback – Typically, someone needing to seek clarification wants to do so when the question arises. Scheduling a call (voice or video) with every stakeholder introduces delays and risks key questions or lost comments.
- Fragmentation – Different teams have access to different data in a range of formats, different software applications, and varied skill sets. This introduces barriers in the effective exchange of information. A mechanical engineer might be able to see the 3D CAD model, for example. A downstream team member may be reliant on a flat rendering or a photograph.
While distributed and remote working is not new, the acceleration caused by the pandemic can be a shock to the organisational system – and the challenges we have seen are not limited to the industrial sector. , In a recent survey of computer design businesses, 70% of respondents said they had not experienced working remotely before.
Communication was cited as the top challenge (cited by 43% of respondents), followed by delayed feedback and unsatisfactory tools. The findings on feedback were particularly interesting. Inadequate tools and processes for gathering feedback, combined with the isolation of remote working, was found to lead to a loss of confidence in team members required to actually provide feedback, a vicious circle if ever there was one.
To help their distributed workforces, businesses need to adopt only those tools which most effectively break down the collaboration and communication barriers employees face when working remotely. That may well mean reducing the overall number of software applications in use. It means focusing on those solutions which address the key requirements of better communication, in particular visual communication, easier and faster understanding, efficient collection and recording of feedback, and rapid implementation of that feedback into whatever process is being managed. Crucially, these systems have to be accessible to everyone, no matter their level of technical expertise. Distributed working can require greater team members to work with greater autonomy, which can be empowering, so long as the ability to interact with others is ever-present.
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Clearly, the distributed working paradigm is here to stay across a wide range of sectors and roles. Organisations now need to decide how best to empower everyone on their teams to be productive, efficient, and connected with their colleagues, wherever they are physically located.