In the media

The three biggest challenges of virtual collaboration

Stefan Knapp

By Stefan Knapp


19 March 2020

Read the full article in Danish

When COVID-19 one day, hopefully, is history, we will have become much wiser. Not least on how we can work together in an efficient and value-adding way when we are 'socially distanced' as we are now.

A simulation of the effect of 'social distancing' in the Washington Post has been shared widely on social media. The simulation shows the real impact of limiting and delaying the spread of the coronavirus - an effect that the government, with its historically unprecedented measures, is currently trying to achieve.

And the impact on ordinary Danes and our labour market is enormous. Many have already been dismissed or told to work at home - and for both of these it involves major changes in daily life. Let's focus on the last group: the people who have been sent home.

There are a number of practical things that need to be in place to make homeworking effective. Just to mention a few of the details, employees must have the equipment in place at home, the ability to access the company remotely with appropriate licences and  processes for collaboration and communication, all of which must be clearly described and explained.

For the employee, it's about using the tools provided by the company and following workflows and procedures, paying extra attention to fake emails and text messages, and checking if updates happen automatically or require action. But that’s the practical side - are you, as a manager, aware of the three biggest challenges of virtual collaboration in your teams?

Challenge 1: Isolation

On a normal day, we have a great deal of physical interaction with our colleagues, partners and customers. However, in the virtual world that is severely limited and social interaction should be intensified. Arrange shorter meetings more frequently, schedule virtual lunches with your colleagues and staff, and take an interest in what your colleagues and staff are doing during the day and how they are handling the situation. Seek out opportunities to create interaction and collaboration, and don't be afraid to ask for advice and feedback. 

Challenge 2: Burn out

When we work on our own, we can become (too) focused on completing all our tasks. This can lead to great momentum to get things done, but at the same time mean that we do not have the necessary breaks during the day and also make us miss meals and opportunities to clear our heads. Ask your employees to go to their virtual workplace in the same way they usually go to the office, and create a clear structure for when they work, and when they take breaks, take a walk, eat lunch, etc. Also try - if possible - to encourage them to create an office space in their home, so they can move physically away from it. 

Challenge 3: Assumptions

When we work together physically, we can understand each other to a much greater extent through body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. When we work virtually, we simply do not have access to these important signals, which means that we increase the risk of miscommunication and misunderstandings. Be clear and specific in your communication and make sure to 'meta' communicate, where you outline the background of why you say as you do. And make sure you listen actively so that you constantly seek to understand what is actually said and meant when we cannot use our normal signals such as body language and facial expressions.

If you can manage these three challenges, you will be in a really good place to make sure you and your returning staff get through the crisis as well as possible - and the extent of how much we actually learn about virtual work in this time of crisis, will greatly strengthen the foundations of the virtual collaboration after the corona pandemic has subsided. 

Stefan Knapp is a transformation expert at PA Consulting

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