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How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote or Hybrid

Don't assume that the more employees collaborate, the better. Understand when it makes senses to collaborate or not.

By Gustavo Razzetti

August 11, 2021

Six modes of work for remote collaboration – define when it makes sense to collaborate, or not.

Collaboration is not always the answer.

This might sound odd coming from someone who helps companies build agile and innovative cultures – improving team collaboration is at the core of my work.

Conventional wisdom assumes that the more employees collaborate, the better. However, the obsession with hyper-collaboration can quickly undermine performance, as research by Morten T Hansen shows.

Sometimes the cost of collaboration is not worth the time and effort, slowing down teams and projects.

As Hansen explains, “Too often a business leader asks, 'How can we get people to collaborate more?' That’s the wrong question. It should be, 'Will collaboration on this project create or destroy value?'”

The key to successful collaboration is knowing when it’s not necessary to collaborate. Discover the six modes of work for distributed teams and when it makes sense to work together or alone.

Hybrid Collaboration: Balancing Synchronous And Asynchronous Work

Remote work is just work.

The conversation about remote technology and the perils and benefits of working from home or in the office makes us focus on the wrong thing – leaders can’t see the forest for the trees.

Collaboration means “to work with another person or group to achieve or do something.” That sounds simple, right? But doing it effectively is a different story.

When we talk about collaboration, many people think about working together. While that’s one aspect of it, collaboration goes beyond that.

Three elements define successful collaboration:

What we do: the activities, tasks, and actions – including the roles each team member fulfills.

How we do it: the process, methods, and rules – including how we meet and make decisions.

Why we do it: the impact we want to achieve together – the team purpose and goals.

This third element is the most critical component of collaboration.

Having a shared purpose and goals drive effective collaboration even if each team member is working on their own. However, a team that is not aligned is not really collaborating regardless of if they’re sharing a task, space, or process.

Collaboration is what we want to achieve together – it unites around a shared purpose. However, it doesn’t always require that team members are working together.

Teams need to be more intentional – collaboration happens by design, not chance.

As Alexia Cambon, research director at Gartner, says, “Our research shows that teams of knowledge workers who collaborate intentionally are nearly three times more likely to achieve high team innovation than teams that do not use an intentional approach.”

You can’t understand real hybrid collaboration without first understanding the difference between synchronous and asynchronous work.

Synchronous is where everyone interacts in real-time in online or in-person meetings, instant messaging, or via Zoom.

Asynchronous is where the interaction can be time-shifted, as when uploading documents or annotations to shared workspaces or making contributions to a wiki.

One of the biggest mistakes most companies make is carrying old habits into a new way of working. They think collaboration needs to happen synchronously – everyone reviewing information, making decisions, or brainstorming together at the same time.

That’s why leaders resist distributed teams: if they don’t see people interacting with each other – and in the same place – they think the team is not collaborating.

However, the key to succeeding in a hybrid work environment is to default to asynchronous work and communication.  

Overall, distributed teams have four ways to do work, as captured in the Hybrid Team Canvas. A work from anywhere, anytime culture allows people to choose when to work together and when at their own pace – or from the same place or distributed.

The image below captures the four alternatives.

collaboration in a hybrid workplace synchronous and asynchronous modes

This framework helps teams decide how they want to work – and whether/ when to collaborate or not.

Hybrid collaboration is harder than you think. Many companies weren’t all that great at collaboration to begin with. They sucked at it. Remote and hybrid collaboration is making things more difficult.

On the one hand, there’s an imbalance between in-person employees and remote ones – the latter usually feel left out. On the other, companies tend to approach all types of work with a one-size-fits-all approach. They don’t strategize which types of work should happen when and how.

Effective hybrid teamwork requires much more than understanding personal preferences (working from home or not) or installing expensive tech in the conference rooms. Instead, rethink the work your team does and what’s the best approach to collaborate effectively.

Team-driven flexibility is critical, as Gartner's research shows; employees should be able to define when, where, and how they work.  

The 6 Different Modes of Work – And When to Collaborate (Or Not)

Work has never just been one thing. The hybrid workplace has made it even more critical to clarify the different types of work and collaboration, encouraging people to switch from one to another.

A 2012 study by Herman Miller uncovered 11 modes of work.

The first seven Modes of Work are done together and consist of collaborative activities between two or more people: The last three Modes of Work are done alone and consist of focused, individual activities.

Chat, converse, co-create, huddle, show and tell, and warm-up/ cool-down are “together” work modes. While process and respond, create, and contemplate are “alone” modes of work.

Gensler’s workplace research uncovered a simpler model. The architecture and design consulting firm identified four modes of working: focus, collaboration, learning, and socialization.

Building on those two models, I developed a new version that we apply at Fearless Culture to help teams design effective, remote collaboration.

This approach is based on two different axes:

• “Me Time” versus “We Time” – activities we perform at our own pace and time versus those that we do together.

• “Deep Work” versus “Shallow Work” – activities that require more concentration, quality time, and focus versus those that require less.

Deep work is about pushing your cognitive skills to their limit in a distraction-free environment, while shallow work encompasses less challenging tasks often performed while distracted.

the 6 work modes for effective collaboration in remote and hybrid teams

Let's break down the six different work modes your team can adopt.

Work Mode 1: Focus

This is heads-down deep work. In order to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of, you need to commit to focus and do your job without distractions – no emails, no Slack, no meetings.

Focus work – what we typically think of as heads down or solo work; it encompasses tasks such as strategizing, planning, research, idea generation, or content creation.

The ability to perform focus work is a critical, yet rare skill in the knowledge economy. Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, calls it “a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy.”

If you spend most of your time in a distractive, frenetic environment – doing shallow work – you reduce your critical thinking capacity. Create zones for distraction-free work by designing your routine, habits, and rituals.

Status: Unavailable and unreachable.

Work Mode 2: Deep Collaboration

Similar to focus work, but in a team setting. Unlike most meetings and team interactions, there’s no room for distractions or multi-tasking. Whether the team is co-creating or making a decision, everyone is focused on accomplishing one single task together.

Deep collaboration is vital to advance new ideas and projects – it’s the more complex, yet rewarding type of collaboration.

Unfortunately, very few teams realize the importance of creating the right space to do focus work as a team. That’s why design sprints have gained momentum: they are purposefully immersive and collaborative – a team is locked ‘in a room’ for a week to work on just one project.

The benefits of deep collaboration include: fostering creativity, aligning team members, accelerating decision-making, increasing big-picture thinking, and integrating diverse perspectives.

Status: Unavailable and unreachable – except for those who are part of the experience

Work Mode 3: Regular Collaboration

This is where the team magic goes to waste. Regular collaboration is necessary, but it cannot be the driving force. This mode of work includes regular meetings, team huddles, and process and respond – the work generated by work.

Regular collaboration involves the feedback loop of emails, chat messages, calls, quick chats, and other interactions that drive work – and dysfunctionality – forward. It generally doesn’t require too much deep work or attention, but can steal a lot of energy and time.

This type of collaboration can quickly get your team stuck in the mud.

In regular collaboration mode, you are (expected to be) in continuous interaction with others. The opportunity is to default to asynchronous for regular collaboration – let people respond at their own pace. Also, set clear rules of engagement: what’s the right medium for which type of issue and the expected response time for each.

Status: Available at your own pace or discretion

Work Mode 4: Learning

This work mode is about acquiring new knowledge of a subject or skills via education, experience, or observation. It’s vital to acquire, transfer, and apply new ideas. Learning expands not just knowledge, but also horizons and possibilities

The learning mode requires a mid-level of work and can happen at both an individual and collective level.

Learning is more than just acquiring new skills. It also includes mentorship, show-and-tell, experimentation, book clubs, and role-switching.

Just like sports teams spend most of their time practicing, teams in the workplace need to spend time together to experiment with new behaviors, learn from feedback, and prepare to deal with new challenges. Make space to encourage and reward learning.

Status: Always open to learning; formal training must be scheduled

Work Mode 5: Shallow Collaboration

This mode of work includes small, impromptu interactions that help build interpersonal relationships and spark new ideas. Although it plays a significant role in most teams, the benefits of serendipitous encounters are exaggerated – there’s no evidence that they boost innovation.

Shallow collaboration includes incidental and impromptu interactions with colleagues. It strengthens social bonds and shared values that enable trust and teamwork. Shallow collaboration often begins with a social focus that then sparks an idea or uncovers issues to be addressed.

Well-designed shallow collaboration plays a more significant role than simply bringing people together. It’s the foundation of substantial social capital, building the base for deep collaboration.

Status: Spontaneous availability

Work Mode 6: Unplugged

This mode of work is when your mind, brain, and body take a break. It might be pausing to recharge or stopping work altogether.

The unplugged mode is about designing a space to relax and let your mind wander. It could be talking a walk in the middle of the day, exercising, meditating, playing with your colleagues, or simply not working.

Taking a break is vital to relax, reflect, and recharge, so you have the right energy and focus for tackling focus work or deep collaboration. Unplugging doesn’t mean just taking a break but making sure you’re disconnected from distractions such as email, chat, or social media.

Status: Unavailable and unreachable.

The above six ways of work will help you build a stronger workplace culture. However, hybrid collaboration is not easy – watch out for the following mistakes.

Hybrid Work Collaboration: Mistakes to Avoid

Not realizing which work mode is best for what

Use the six modes of work to help your team understand the different needs members have as they move through their working day.

Different types of projects and activities require different approaches. Choose the work modes that work best for each need. Clarify expectations and align your team on how they want to work.

Collaborating when you don’t need to

Working together is not always the solution. Distributed teams have discovered the power of asynchronous work – and having more time to focus.

Staying in collaboration mode all the time is bad. You get tired, your work isn't as good, and collaboration suffers. Collaboration mode – whether it’s deep, regular, or shallow –  has its purposes, but we are not meant to be there all the time.

Is the cost of collaboration worth it? Determine when it makes sense and when it doesn’t.

Not transitioning from one work mode to another

Transitioning from one mode of work to the other is just as important as transitioning from one meeting to the next.

As leadership coach Katia Verresen said, “People go from meeting to meeting without thinking that one influences their performance or responses in another. Maybe they saw some discouraging data, or had a rough call. We give ourselves zero transition time, and the result is emotional transference.”

Not protecting “me-time” modes

Constant interruptions push us back into the comfort zone of asynchronous work. Even tools like Slack have created bigger problems; rather than eliminating email, they’re constantly distracting us.

As neuroscientist Lucas Miller explains, “Technology advances usually supplant what has come before but Slack hasn’t; it’s just doubled the pain.” He sees Slack as a “scary offender” in stopping people from getting their work done.

The same way you block your calendar for meetings, protect your unplugged or focus time from others.

Hyper-collaboration is masking lack of action

If busyness was a badge of honor, working from home has made it even worse. Leaders reward presentism and visibility, encouraging employees to show up to unnecessary, mandatory meetings.  

However, in most cases, excessive virtual collaboration is not leading to better outcomes. It actually hides how ineffective and unproductive teams have become. Rather than making decisions or taking action, they get stuck in fruitless meetings.

Collaboration makes things worse

Differentiating between “good” and “bad” collaboration. When is it really needed? And when does collaboration become more expensive or slow than people working on their own?

The outcome of collaboration should always be higher than the cost of collaboration.

The collaboration burnout

An always-on workplace culture created a collaboration overload long before the pandemic disruption, as I wrote here.

Choosing the right work mode will not only achieve a better outcome, but reduce unnecessary interruptions and communication overload.

As Cal Newport wrote, "The future of office work won’t be found in continuing to reduce the friction involved in messaging but, instead, in figuring out how to avoid the need to send so many messages in the first place.”

Intentionally Design Remote Collaboration

Effective collaboration happens by design, not chance.

Organizations that intentionally adopt the six work modes — focus, deep collaboration, regular collaboration, learning, shallow collaboration, and unplugged — can achieve greater results, innovation, and teamwork.

Collaboration is not the only answer. Discuss the different work modes with your hybrid team. Make sure they choose the right one.

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