The need for knowledge workers to work remotely due to COVID-19 has created serious operational challenges for teams. In a recent survey conducted by Lucid of 1,000 full-time employees in the U.S., 43% of C-suite respondents indicated that their companies were forced to delay major launches, campaigns, or initiatives as a result of employees working from home. Clearly, teams and managers need help bringing projects to completion on time. Two issues deserve attention: avoiding team-level silos and effectively managing self-directed teams when they’re no longer near their colleagues in an office.
WHY SILOS GROW
With dispersed workforces, silos can grow up around teams and even individuals. Time zones, business approaches, and team structures all play a role in creating these silos, but the most significant cause is functional specialization. Software development offers a particularly clear example of how specialization creates silos, although similar examples could be drawn from any industrial sector.
The typical software development team consists of business representatives who understand the customer needs, developers to write the code, testers who verify performance, and deployment members who deploy the code within the enterprise. There often exists a “toss it over the wall” mentality among these roles. The business members define the problem and throw it to the coders, who in turn toss the code to QA members, where it’s then released to production where ops is responsible for monitoring it.
The result is a collection of de-facto silos. What should happen is constant communication and collaboration so that, to give one example, the developer can suggest alternate approaches that don’t compromise customer needs but that greatly speed up the coding process. A culture of collaboration like this is difficult to achieve even when all the team members are under one roof; when everyone is working remotely, it’s even more difficult.
MANAGING SELF-DIRECTED TEAMS
The second COVID-connected challenge relates to management. Today’s teams are often self-directed. They own small parts of a project, and because of their isolation they may never get the full strategic picture. Keeping them aligned on strategy is important, and not necessarily easy.
Managing teams is further complicated by Agile principles that are increasingly popular beyond the realm of software development. Working within an Agile framework, teams are formed as needed; their composition often changes over time, with individuals belonging to multiple teams, and once a project is completed, teams may dissolve.
All three of these challenges—eliminating silos, keeping teams aligned on strategy, and tracking them as they evolve and morph over time—require new applications to help people effectively collaborate and easily synthesize complexity. Collaboration and complexity are at the heart of these problems and they aren’t going away any time soon.
ENHANCING COLLABORATION WITH TECHNOLOGY
Knowledge workers clearly value collaboration and miss this when it isn’t possible. In the Lucid survey, 75% of employees who responded ranked team collaboration as the aspect of their work that’s suffered the most from working at home. Unfortunately, the collaboration platforms now available aren’t meeting all their needs. Less than half (41%) said that cloud collaboration platforms actually helped them and their remote teammates collaborate, and 37% said that the constant notifications from collaboration software actually disrupted their ability to be creative.
One solution for filling in collaboration gaps that received high marks in the survey (93% approval) was virtual whiteboarding, which allows team members with widely differing views of a project to express their ideas and brainstorm using visuals, sticky notes, live chats, tagging and more, bridging gaps in communication that might otherwise occur. Another solution that promotes team interaction is virtual conferencing. Taken together, these two visual solutions go a long way towards re-creating the natural camaraderie and exchange of ideas that occur when team members gather in a conference room with a whiteboard.
Visuals also help managers communicate strategies and manage the formation, composition, and dissolution of teams as a project moves from beginning to end. In a business world where rapid change has become the norm, visuals serve as a point of focus to help teams stay in touch with the bigger strategic vision. They also help managers maintain a clear picture of how team structures are evolving as requirements change.
The need to tear down silos, support collaboration among remote teams, and make sure that they stay aligned on strategy is critical, because problems in these areas can quickly lead to competitive disadvantage. This need will not disappear any time soon. Working from home is a trend that was already gaining traction, and the pandemic has only accelerated it. Numerous major firms—Google and Facebook among them—have indicated that remote work will extend through next summer, and perhaps indefinitely. For this reason, products like virtual whiteboards that help teams synthesize complexity and enhance collaboration are likely to become a fixture as familiar as the physical whiteboards they replace.
The author is the cofounder & CEO of Lucid.