“No matter how many shiny tools we have, we can’t get things done without other people.” So says Harbrinder Kang, Senior Director of Corporate Affairs at Cisco. It’s an excellent point; collaboration is defined by personal interaction, and despite technology’s ever-expanding advances, nothing can fully replace or perfectly replicate in-person conversations. But is face-to-face collaboration more effective? What would that mean for the remote workforce?
Human Behavior: Not Afraid of a Little Technology
In a recent study by Cisco on human behavior and effective collaboration barriers, it was proven “without question” that “collaboration is grounded in human interaction and relationships.” Not to denounce the data, but that’s not news; even the dictionary definition phrases it “the act of working with another or others.” Researchers drilled down the results and came up with what they call the four key ingredients of successful collaboration, all of which rely on human behavior:
- Build relationships and networks that lead to trust
- Turn human interactions into results
- Balance decision-making and consensus building
- Evolve the culture for productive collaboration
I’d say these are less ‘ingredients’ and more ‘objectives’, but the point is the result: innovation. And while collaborating may be slightly different when the platform is virtual — digital collaboration is subject to internet hiccups, and the ability to identify full visual or physical expressions is weakened — the fundamentals of human behavior, and the ways we connect with others, don’t evaporate. If anything, today’s in-person meetings are less productive than they’ve ever been. No one has time. Meetings kill multitasking (a controversial act in itself). They’re littered with collaboration barriers like gadgets and laptops, and even trying to fix that by restricting access to technology during the meeting makes for some very distracted attendees.
Despite the catch-22 — collaborate in-person and risk a wandering focus, or collaborate virtually and miss out on the full impact of human communication — there are some hard statistics proving that mostly-virtual employees are actually more engaged and committed than their cube-dwelling counterparts. That’s an important distinction to acknowledge for today’s remote workforce, a legion of over 3.1 million people, and one that’s reflected in the way all of us work.
It’s About Going Global
To those of us that rely heavily on technology and who consider it integral to our work, the idea that in-person collaboration is more effective, or that it leads to smarter innovation, is highly debatable. The line between the virtual and physical world is blurred. We collaborate because we’re trying to achieve something greater, something that isn’t doable by a single person or organization. We collaborate to be time and cost-effective, or to unearth fresh perspectives, more resources, and new markets. Willfully narrowing the pool of talent and access to restore intimacy seems counterproductive.
The exceptional benefits of global collaboration in business — something that wouldn’t even be possible without virtual communication — are evidence enough to show that the goal of working together should be only ever be about bringing the best ideas to market, answering customer needs, and driving innovation.
Consider examples like Ekso Bionics, a developer and manufacturer of bionic exoskeletons that allows people who’ve lost their ability to walk the chance to do so once again. Since their inception in 2005, they’ve built partnerships with universities, the Department of Defense and the Lockheed Martin Corporation, not to mention mechanical engineers and doctors. Or Water for People, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve clean water and sanitation access in developing countries, and whose mission would literally be impossible without virtual collaboration.
If innovation is suffering at the hands of modern collaboration, it’s not the tools — it’s the team. Identify goals, unite the right people, encourage unexpected interactions, and give people the tools and motivation to work effectively. Human interaction isn’t something that should be stifled by a screen.