All people work from home (WFH) now. That’s a fact. Whether you’re somebody who faithfully slogs into the office each day and has a strong in-office culture, or you’re a member of a company that operates completely remotely, you spend some part of your working week, month, or year attending meetings from your couch through the lens of a video camera, connecting to your Slack channels from your mobile phone, or answering a slew of emails propped on pillows in bed. In the US knowledge economy, we have successfully blurred the lines of our professional and personal lives, especially with respect to working hours. I won’t pass judgment about whether this is bad or good. I’m happy to have the freedom to occasionally work from the serenity of my camp in the Adirondacks and for that not just to be acceptable, but normal. But, our hours are ridiculous. My Boston-based colleagues and I joke that, between the early risers and night owls, we can cover almost the entire 24-hour day.
At Riff Learning Inc, we focus on teams and collaboration. We work with organizations to figure out how to help people work better together, whether in the context of online learning, team self-management, or professional development. We have focused our initial commercial efforts on instrumenting and modeling online interactions because we see both hazard and potential in the WFH phenomenon. With remote work comes a breakdown in communications, especially with the formation of new projects or teams, within groups taking on challenging large-scale projects, and in organizations responding to disruption and change. Coordination is one thing; collaboration is entirely something else. What tools do people really have to effectively collaborate on work, especially activities with a high degree of uncertainty and substantial demand for creativity, which require inspired collective thinking?
In-person meetings are always best — they just are, and research confirms it. But, augmented video conferences can be used as an effective proxy. Augmentation means providing more than just the video tool itself, but additional feedback and insights that enhance the experience in real-time, reveal new information immediately after the fact, and help monitor and improve online interactions over time. Interventions to correct ineffective or undesirable interpersonal behaviors need not be heavy-handed, punitive, or driven by formal processes. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that such negative feedback, often uncomfortably delivered by a manager, has the opposite effect. Even positive feedback can seem overly opinionated. Managers — young and old, experienced and newbies — struggle with even this simple and fundamental responsibility. An augmented team working with tools that regular and objectively measure how they work together and relate to each other can break down these barriers by providing data to back up human observations. When delivered directly to individuals and teams, rather than through managers, they empower people to self-manage, in flat or hierarchical organizations alike.
Though productivity and performance management are common ways to measure employee work rates and efficacy at the individual level, it is communication, collaboration, interpersonal awareness, and other soft skills that are more indicative of successful organizations than any other measure, as I’ve explored in other posts. Augmenting teams with simple communication tools that passively collect information can provide another approach to becoming a data-driven organization.