Collaborating Remotely – Because of Or In Spite of Communication Technology?

May 11, 2016 Katharina Lochner

image remote collaboration

How We Use the Technology We Have

Organisations are becoming more and more global, which means that their employees collaborate remotely to an increasing extent. Modern technology makes communicating (e.g., video conferencing) and file sharing (e.g., Dropbox and the likes) easy. However, can collaborating remotely work as well as working in the same office, can it replace meetings, and if we use it, what do we need to keep in mind?

In an article in Harvard Business Review Mark Mortensen, associate professor at INSEAD, says it can under certain circumstances. As he puts it: “it’s not what technology you’ve got, but how you use it”.

First he takes a look at video conferencing. This technology might give us the feeling that we are sitting in the same room with the other person, but we have to keep in mind that in fact we are not. The issue is that we can only see what the camera allows us to see, but we might not realise that for example there is someone else in the room. Professor Mortensen points out that of course it is not beneficial for mutual trust if one conversation partner realizes at some point during the conversation that the other was not by him- or herself as expected. Moreover, and certainly all of our readers know this, background noise can be really disturbing and might distract both conversation partners. So the authors suggests to take the conversation partner on a “virtual tour” of the room one is in for the video call before starting the actual call and to point out what interruptions or background noise might be there during the call.

Something else that makes video conferencing different from sitting in the same room with the other person is the fact that the connection might break down at some point, forcing us or the other person to repeat what we just said. What then often happens is that we feel frustrated and take out this frustration on the other person, although it is absolutely not their fault. Professor Mortensen suggests keeping this in mind when technology fails and we become frustrated so that we don’t fall for this misattribution. His very practical advice is: “take a deep breath, count to five, and remind yourself exactly what it is you’re mad about”.

Second he looks at knowledge sharing technology and points out that is more of a social than an IT problem. So it is not crucial which knowledge management system (KMS) is chosen, but it is important to socialise employees so that they make use of the system. The key here seems to be to introduce a system that reflects how employees work and interact already. It might sound simple, however, most organisations are likely to just pick something based on functionalities or price rather than diagnosing how employees collaborate and then choosing a system that reflects this.

Thus, communication technology can facilitate collaborating remotely if we consider a few points: introducing a video conferencing partner to our surroundings, not blaming them when the connection drops, and choosing KMS that reflect how employees work and collaborate.

References:

Mortensen, M. (2015). Technology Alone Won’t Solve Our Collaboration Problems [online]. URL:

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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