Virtual collaboration

Collaboration is a skill required in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where artificial intelligence will replace menial tasks. It is where two or more people or organizations work together to achieve or realize a goal or project successfully.

Collaboration in the workplace has been found to drive workplace performance, according to a Stanford study in 2017. Higher employee engagement levels, lower fatigue levels and higher success rates are just some of the benefits of collaboration in the workplace; the impact persisted for several weeks!

Even collaborating with customers is an exceptionally powerful force behind the success of many top sellers. In fact, “according to 731 corporate decision-makers, ‘Collaborated with me’ was the number two factor of the forty-two studied, most separating sales winners of major sales from second-place finishers (second only to ‘Educated me on new ideas and perspectives’),” John Doerr and Mike Schultz wrote in their 2014 book Insight Selling.

But with the pandemic, collaboration with organization members and customers has moved to the virtual world, which presents challenges to all participants.

Face-to-face collaboration is so much simpler to execute and richer in insights. It is natural and the ability to collaborate and engage in back-and-forth communication is organic. It has low physical and psychological barriers; for example, standing up at a real whiteboard and grabbing a marker is not difficult for most people.

But virtual collaboration (i.e., the use of communication technology, such as messaging and videoconferencing platforms), has become the norm in these times, and not all are adapting effectively.

One reason for this is that virtual collaboration requires significant mental energy, as there is much more friction in using the technology to interact. For example, most people would find it much more difficult to use a virtual versus a real whiteboard. This is especially true for the older generations of employees.

In addition, salespeople and customers tend to think of virtual communication as a medium that is more one-way and presentation-oriented than conversation-oriented, resulting in less interaction and collaboration.

But virtual collaboration has more benefits than previously thought of. As noted in the Harvard Business Review online article “Collaborating Online is Sometimes Better than Face-to-Face,” online collaboration has several benefits, including solving time, distance and communication problems.

To reap these benefits, we need to master the virtual medium, as I have written in previous articles. This includes “the conversation setup, which involves having the right bandwidth and videocall link, among others; the choice of platform; video and lighting setups; background; the position of the head and face in the video; and color contrast.”

Before moving to online collaboration, one has to build rapport in the virtual setting. I wrote previously that there are four principles involved in building rapport virtually: cultivating empathy, showing authenticity, finding similarities and shared experiences with the other person.

“We cultivate empathy by asking the right questions and listening intently; we show authenticity by using a real background that reflects your personality, rather than a digital one; we find similarities by mirroring the online behavior of the customer; and we develop a shared experience by using collaboration tools to find solutions with the customer,” I wrote then.

Once rapport is established in the virtual setting, collaboration can follow. Employees can jointly solve problems, and sellers and customer can collaborate on a business solution. “By using online tools such as virtual whiteboarding, screensharing, PowerPoint and spreadsheet sharing, sellers can collaborate with clients to uncovers needs, prepare and review contract and presentations, and present and discuss business cases.” The same tools can be used by employees to collaborate across the organization.

But we need to follow key principles to make virtual collaboration effective. One is to keep is simple by using familiar tools to all parties. Another is to make virtual collaboration natural by making it conversational, with technology and tools only playing a supporting role.

The author is the chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is an institute fellow at the US-Based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University. The author may be reached at