How to avoid 'collaboration overload' while working from home


By Jonathan Nally
Friday, 02 October, 2020

How to avoid 'collaboration overload' while working from home

With the COVID-19 ‘working from home’ trend seemingly set to continue for many workers, it’s important for businesses to ensure they help smooth the process for themselves and their staff, and to ensure that staff satisfaction and wellbeing are taken into account.

Applying technological solutions to these challenges is only part of the answer. Providing flexible working arrangements, resisting the temptation to have too many online meetings — which can be very tiring and frustrating — and, most importantly, avoiding ‘collaboration overload,’ are vital considerations for making sure that the new working arrangements are successful.

To get some tips and tricks, and to find out what ‘collaboration overload’ is, we spoke with Andy Hurt, Managing Director of Poly ANZ.


Do you see the ‘working from home’ trend continuing?

We’ve seen massive interest in continued remote working and also hybrid working, where people swap between WFH and the office, teams alternate days, and so on.

A report we’ve released into hybrid working shows that 70% of people have worked from home for at least some of the time during the outbreak and a massive 91% of global organisations now support work from home — compared to only 63% from before the pandemic, which is a really significant rise. Gartner research has found that three-quarters (74%) of CFOs intend to shift at least some employees to work from home permanently.

Australia has been ahead of the curve on flexible working compared to some of its regional counterparts. This has meant many are already prepared for some remote working capability, however, not necessarily across an entire team or with the technology capability for long periods at a time.

How hard or easy is it for businesses to introduce such flexibility?

If management has been very resistant to remote working, there will first be a need for a cultural shift in mindset to enable it and support it. The success of WFH has challenged a lot of deep-founded beliefs and management practices about requiring set hours and physical presence.

Most office-style businesses should be able to transition fairly easily to flexible and hybrid working. The difficulty is in doing it well. Employees need more support to grapple with new platforms and technologies, they need to be provided with professional-grade equipment, and so on. This is obviously more challenging for smaller businesses with limited budgets and no full-time in-house IT support.

Hybrid working is more than just buying a fleet of laptops. Employees aren’t just editing a Word document or spreadsheet and emailing it at the end of the day. They will be holding meetings, doing audio and videoconferencing, collaborating virtually with other colleagues. All this requires investment in audiovisual technology and training.

For example, headsets with noise cancellation technology, which allows employees to focus on collaboration and filter out noise at home. Or cameras with speaker framing technology so employees can naturally talk to remote parties instead of having to be conscious of where the camera is pointing.

What are some of the pitfalls that businesses should watch out for?

It’s vital that remote workers aren’t overlooked and sidelined. When there are several people physically present in a meeting with and others ‘down the line’, it can create an uneven experience.

Providing the remote participant with high-quality video access is important, and using a large screen in the conference room to display them, not someone’s laptop screen.

Some businesses may even want to consider having everyone dial-in/conference in, so it’s more equal.

Another potential pitfall is a loss of collaboration, with home-based workers left feeling isolated. It’s important to ensure that collaboration is at the heart of a hybrid working solution, which means junior staff members still get the critical career development they need and teams can still work together even when they’re not face to face.

For this, it’s imperative to deploy the right technologies to allow them to do this. This includes more dynamic collaboration platforms, such as messaging instead of emailing.

Connectivity challenges may remain an issue in Australia. Not everyone has the nbn (or the fastest nbn plan) and with multiple household members potentially sharing a connection, this can create disruption, reduced quality and dropouts in videoconferences. For people with very unreliable connections, using a telephone to dial-in to meetings may be an option, but it’s not ideal if everyone else is using video.

Other options may include providing staff with mobile data or helping them optimise their home network, eg, with Wi-Fi boosters or powerline adaptors.

Tell us about collaboration overload. What is it and why is it bad?

Collaboration overload refers to when too much of employees’ time is spent on collaborative tasks or ad hoc requests, negatively impacting their own work.

Many of us spend the majority of our day in meetings and on email, leaving little time to actually complete our work. This is made worse by the rise of digital tools that result in staff being pulled in multiple directions and expected to be available at all times — as well as across multiple platforms.

Related to this is a new phenomenon that has sprung out of the pandemic: ‘Zoom fatigue’. People have discovered that endless videoconferencing can be very tiring. It’s also worse with poor-quality video and audio because the brain has to struggle so much more to compensate for a lack of physical and visual clues.

Improving the quality of videoconferencing is vital, with professional equipment, as well as scheduling shorter meetings and having better time management.

Change management is always hard — what advice do you have?

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to hybrid working. Some people have struggled to work remotely and want to be back in the office full time — this includes staff and managers. Others thrive with the peace and fewer distractions in a home office.

Workplace flexibility should be able to accommodate different needs and preferences. CIOs and CTOs need to truly understand the end user and implement user adoption and change management.

Not everyone will have the same work style and requirements. For instance, one employee might need noise-cancelling technology to filter out their dog on calls, another might not want earphones but prefer a home speaker for calls.

It’s about working with each individual employee and tailoring their tech to suit their needs. Listening to the end user and working out what’s the best solution for each individual is a great way to get the users to embrace the changes.

Pictured: Andy Hurt, Managing Director, Poly ANZ

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