Working together, apart

Five ways to get the most from virtual collaboration.

We can’t collaborate the way we did only a few short months ago. But we know that collaboration - whether it’s co-creation, idea generation, decision making or prototyping -  is crucial at every stage of innovation. So in this new world of work, how can we get the most out of being together when we’re apart? 


"Women’s core temperatures need to be 2 degrees higher than men’s, JON. If you touch that thermostat…"

"Why won’t he wear shoes?" 

"Just because it’s on a post-it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it." 

Office banter is comforting. We all know how to do it really well. It reflects what we have in common and makes us feel connected: an unspoken social lubricant. Or maybe glue. Whatever the viscosity of the metaphor, our need for it hasn’t gone away with remote working.

Banter was, however, one of the first things to change when we all set up at home. From Julie with three terriers and a Nutribullet habit who still hasn’t figured out how to turn her mic off to the lags that make you repeatedly interrupt your favourite client -  these are the new office gripes. Because when far more important things are happening in the world, it’s grounding to have a little whinge about things that aren’t. 

Except that they are. 

Where we work, how we work, and who we are when we’re together has never been so important. The new office difficulties centre around being together. How can we adapt to be at our best together, while we’re apart? 

It’s not as easy as having good intentions. It’s hard, and there’s no use pretending otherwise. Beyond the obvious technical pains, we lose subtle behaviour cues that tell us how well what we’re saying is landing. We can’t catch someone’s eye to back us up on an important point. We can’t see someone’s understanding drop off. Our passion for the subject matter is masked by a frozen screen or jumpy audio. The quietest voices in the room can’t show you with a glance that they need a way in. 

So what do you do? 

You adapt. As quickly as possible. 

To adapt means to make suitable for a new purpose; or adjust to new conditions. In the unlikely case a year 8 homeschooling is reading this, adaptation is also a biology term classed by how genetic changes are expressed. There are three basic types: structural, physiological and behavioural. Just as most organisms have combinations of these, so do most businesses. At this exact moment, some businesses are making decisions that will determine their survival. Others are using creativity and scenario modelling to come out even stronger. All are assessing their structures, their physiology (functions) and behaviour, and adapting as quickly and as best they can to a changed audience, market and operational context. 

They can’t do any of this to the best of their ability in silos.

Keep these 5 principles in mind, and your ability to adapt to effective collaboration practices may surprise you.


1. Make it intentional.

Design collaboration into your systems with care, including when not to use them. The exhaustion is real - save collaborative sessions for when they are most useful. Be selective; only invite those who are important to the work, or influential in the process.


2. Invest in tried and tested platforms and methods.

Find and trial the tools that will make it feel if not fun, at least pain-free. There are a whole host of options out there, and good sources comparing them. Speak to your industry peers and partners about which platforms work well for them.


3. Choose your medium carefully.
Don’t try to come up with ideas on a Zoom call, make a decision over a screen-shared presentation, or use an online whiteboard platform to get sign off on finished work. Find the right medium for each collaborative activity.


4. Roll with it.
It’s going to go wrong. Someone will have a firewall that doesn’t let you in, someone else will have shoddy wifi. Be ready to improvise and compromise to make it work. Stay focussed on where you need to get to, rather than the ideal way the session should run.

5. Persevere.

For the sake of your professional relationships, the work, the urgency in making the best decision possible, stick it out. Hone it like any new skill.


This is a time of significant challenge and opportunity, with a lot of moving parts that need experts from many different areas to pick them up, turn them over, and put them together in the smartest way. This is not the time to pull back from collaborative working. Those that succeed here will come out the other side ahead of those that don’t.