4 Keys to Unlocking Digital Collaboration

Social connections, having the right tools, and mental and physical health all boost employees’ ability to work collaboratively. What could that mean for digital meetings?

Author: Barbara Palmer       

The now months-long shift to virtual work, which happened almost overnight for millions worldwide in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, has created what the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has called the “world’s biggest-ever workplace experiment.” The BCG used the opportunity to survey workers in India, Germany, and the United States on a range of topics, including productivity, well-being, social connectivity, culture, and work tools.

One of their expectations, the survey’s authors wrote in the report, “What 12,000 Employees Have to Say About the Future of Remote Work,” was that respondents would report declines in productivity. Instead, most employees reported no drops or gains in productivity — especially when it comes to working solo. Approximately 75 percent of employees reported that they have been able to remain productive and even have become more productive on tasks where they worked alone.

But fewer respondents — 51 percent — reported equal or greater productivity when it came to collaborative tasks, which included working in teams and interacting with clients. That’s significant, the survey authors noted, because collaboration is essential to accelerating skills acquisition and harnessing innovation — both of which are of critical importance right now.

One of the key findings of the survey, its authors highlighted, was that there were dramatic differences in productive collaboration and that they were linked to four areas: social connectivity, mental health, physical health, and workplace tools. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents who said they were satisfied on all four factors reported that they have maintained or improved productivity on collaborative tasks. Of those respondents who are dissatisfied or doing worse on at least three factors, only 16 percent said they have been able to maintain or improve productivity. That’s a difference, researchers pointed out, of almost 400 percent.

It’s imperative, the study’s authors concluded, for organizations to support environments that enable digital collaboration. It is also crucial for digital meetings, which share many of the goals of remote workplaces, including acquiring new skills and developing innovative responses to challenges.

Here’s how those four factors could be understood in digital meeting settings:

Social Connectivity. The biggest surprise in the survey results is the “outsized impact” that social connections have on productivity. “Social connectivity, it turns out, is what enables us to be collaboratively productive,” the authors wrote. Employees who are satisfied with their connections with their colleagues “are two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks than those who are dissatisfied with their connections,” the survey found. “Given what our data reveals on this, all companies should be urgently investing in building their virtual social-intimacy muscles.”

One meeting professional responding to Convene’s COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard Survey said that developing skills to engage participants in digital events “was top of mind,” and more than seven in 10 said that designing digital event experiences was a skill they needed in order to prepare for success in the business events industry during the recovery. In her experience, said Xiaoyin Qu, co-founder of the event tech startup Run the World, “event organizers are finding that people value the connections they make even more than content from online presentations.”

Digital tools. According to the survey, employees who are satisfied with the digital tools they have at their disposal to work with are about twice as likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks as those not satisfied with their tools. When Convene asked respondents to the Aug. 17-20 Recovery Dashboard Survey if they were satisfied with tech solutions for digital meetings, more than half — 61 percent — said yes.

Multiple respondents expressed the need for improvements in technology that will help create connections between event participants, as well as between attendees and exhibitors. “We haven’t been able,” one respondent said, “to replace the social aspect of our in-person events in a virtual format.” Some meeting organizers have begun to incorporate collaborative tools like Mural, a digital whiteboard, into meeting sessions, and a number of new technology tools meant to support online connections are becoming available, including Gatherly, a “spatial video chat” platform that allows participants to move an icon representing themselves online and chat with individuals and groups.

Mental and physical health. Those employees who have been able to maintain or improve their mental and physical health also were twice as likely to report being able to collaborate productively.

Employers, who can offer mental health services to employees and write policies that support physical health, may be able to exert more day-to-day influence than event organizers. But planners can design digital events that take emotional and physical health into account. That could include adding musical or meditation breaks into the schedule and adjusting the program so that participants don’t spend too many hours in front of a screen.

It also includes designing events that are inclusive and accessible, using technology that can be adapted for participants with hearing and visual disabilities, and finding speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds.

This pandemic has presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent the workplace, according to BCG report: “Things that might once have seemed impossible have proved surprisingly workable.” By keeping in mind what work-from-home employees need in order to collaborate with their colleagues, planners can design digital events that accomplish that same goal.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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