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Collaboration for Challenging Times

Tech Tools for Remote Collaboration

Team collaboration has never been more important than it is in today’s COVID-19 world. Six months into this global pandemic one of the many lessons we are (re)learning is the necessity of enabling smart people to connect with one another, exchange ideas and build on each other’s expertise. This ability to collaborate and learn together has been one of the primary factors of human flourishing. If we are to innovate and grow our way out of this current crisis, continued creative collaboration will be essential.

There are many aspects of the human collaboration conversation, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on a few of the technical platforms that have supported our team collaboration during this time.

What we Learned from Adopting MS Teams

A few years back Microsoft developed Teams to compete with chat-based collaboration tools like Slack and BaseCamp, and provide organizations with a hub for information sharing, every day Q/A and video conferencing as part of its Office 365 suite. In essence, a one-stop-shop for employee engagement.

Adopting new technology platforms can be risky. Investment, implementation, security, and ease of use are factors team must consider before deploying a new platform. This is a review of what happened when our technology change management company decided to deploy Microsoft Teams.

Lessons Learned

Adopting and adapting to Teams wasn’t quick and it required work. We learned a great deal during the transition. We captured all those lessons in the following interview with our colleagues who led the transition, Maripat Hinders and Kathi Scott.

Could you give a brief overview of what Microsoft Teams is – and the difference between ‘Teams’ and ‘Channels’?

Hinders: Teams is the name of the chat-based collaboration tool. In the tool, work is organized around Teams. A Team might be created for a project or for a collection of people with a shared role or interest. For our implementation we created a Team for the whole company, then a Team for each internal project or department, and finally each client project has its own Team.

Scott: Then, within each Team your work is categorized into Channels. A Channel might be a task or a sub-project (Virtual Events, for example, is one of our Channels). Channels are where files are stored, and the chatting happens! They can be public Channels, where everybody within the Team can access, or private Channels with restricted access for a subset of the Team.

Tech adoption takes some planning. How did you approach the rollout of Teams?

Hinders: As a firm specializing in the people side of technology adoption projects, we knew we needed to follow our own advice. We identified our stakeholders and developed messages that would both prepare our people for the change and guide them through the transition. Throughout the process, we checked in with staff regularly to learn about their experiences, their likes and their frustrations—and adjusted as needed.

Scott: We created a pilot team of Champions – colleagues who agreed to adopt and use the tool pre-launch – to help us figure out how to leverage the system effectively in a way that aligned with our unique business model and company culture.

Each week we’d give our Champions new tasks and use cases to try out – for example, create Channels in a Team organized around key deliverables, scheduling meetings, collaborating on documents, and hosting video meetings. In effect, our Champions “kicked the tires” and reported back each week on their results. We took their insights and recommendations and cascaded communications to the stakeholder groups starting with leadership and flowing down to our project directors and their teams. We backed up the digital communications with topical brown bag learning sessions that included plenty of time to ask questions.

What did you think worked well with the rollout?

Hinders: We have quite a few project teams, and meeting with each of them was key. We learned early on that setting up the Channels to fit how each team operates was perhaps the most important task we needed to support. Since Channels are where files are stored and where most team collaboration and chatting happens, it is important to organize them in a way that aligns with your work. Through a bit of trial and error, we realized the best approach for our organization was to organize our Channels around tasks aligned to client contracts. That way we’d have all the files and related work products for each task easily accessible.

Another really important consideration was teaching everyone how to set up and manage their notifications. We had to make using the platform an org-wide habit; setting up notifications really helped build that habit. Many of us now use Teams more than Microsoft Outlook!

Scott: Each project and team have their own Team(s) to manage their day-to-day work. We also set up a company-wide informal channel we call The Watercooler. It’s been a great virtual space for staff and leaders to share insights, ask questions, communicate client wins, and even celebrate birthdays and share funny GIFs and emojis. We also post regular tips to support each other in our client work and maintain a Teams “Frequently Asked Questions” cheat-sheet library in that channel. For a company like ours, with team members distributed all over the country, it has been a huge win to have this virtual watercooler to keep us connected.

Anything you’d do differently? Something that didn’t work as you’d hoped?

Hinders: We initially used our Employee Handbook to provide staff with information on Teams but realized that a more hands-on “Introduction” to the platform for new hires worked best.

Scott: Because Teams is a relatively recent addition to the Microsoft family of applications some of our new colleagues are unfamiliar with it, and it is a tool that really lends itself to a live walk-through.

Were there any surprises as the company transitioned to teams?

Scott: It can actually replace the need for internal email! Though we still use email with our clients and partners, the internal volume has dropped significantly. I now send less than a handful of internal emails a month! We no longer add attachments to emails that we later misplace in our email folders; we use Teams to share files, provide updates on projects and to-dos, and connect on both project- and company-related content.

Hinders: I’m kind of a tyrant about pushing folks to Teams – if I get an email with an attachment that could have been shared in Teams, I’ll often respond via Teams. In the first few months I was especially dogmatic with my colleagues about using Teams, but even a year into using the app I still send gentle reminders to transition conversations and collaboration to the platforms. With everything living in the platform, you don’t have to search multiple places to find what you’re looking for!

Do you have a favorite Teams feature or tip?

Scott: Document collaboration. It cuts down on version control issues – gone are the days when we edited the old version of a proposal! We’re able to execute our client deliverables in much less time than it took to email a document around to all the team members, tagging the next reviewer each step of the way.

Hinders: Download the mobile app and take the time to set your notifications appropriately for each Team and Channel so that you don’t miss any important content.

How would you encourage a firm that’s just getting started? 

Scott: Create a cross-functional Champions pilot team to help you avoid a number of potential pitfalls before rolling it out and then work closely with them to get the most from the solution. Make sure you have identified your stakeholders, know what their challenges and issues are, and prepare targeted messages to engage them in the benefits of the transition. It was so satisfying to see our colleagues really embracing the tool, sharing their success and encouraging others to try new things.

Hinders: Engage leadership at the start of the transition to ensure a consistent roll-out and enthusiastic adoption of the tool in a way that adapts to your company’s culture. When they walk the talk by posting, sharing and engaging on the platform it really sets the tone for the rest of the company, showing the tool is beneficial and the new – and better! – way of working.

Other Great Tools We Use

Getting Face to Face with Zoom

Like virtually everyone else in the virtual world, we have become experts in the use of Zoom for large online team meetings. We especially like the breakout rooms, screen sharing capability and polling functions. The platform is encrypted, stable and teams love to see each other’s faces and reconnect after months in relative isolation.

Visual Learning and Collaboration with MURAL

Mural is a web-based collaboration tool created by software developers FOR software developers. We’re finding it to be a terrific tool for facilitating large group conversations. We’ve had many clients tell us they find these sessions surprisingly productive. We find that we are able to help our clients move more efficiently toward informed decision making – and we are able to engage more of the team in the process – resulting in greater buy-in.

Progress in Crisis

The challenges of COVID-19 are persistent and ongoing. We all have work to do to ensure we emerge on the other side of this challenge smarter and wiser than when we started. Team collaboration and good collaboration tools are an important part of making sure that happens.

Devin Boyle, Maripat Hinders and Kathi Scott, Senior Consultants at Wheelhouse Group, contributed to this article.

Loretta Cooper is a Senior Consultant at Wheelhouse Group. She is an ICF Certified Executive and Team Coach (PCC) and an accomplished consulting professional with more than 12 years of private and public sector experience. Loretta comes to consulting after nearly two decades in network broadcasting. As an award-winning, Washington-based, National Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, Loretta (aka Lauren Rogers) had the opportunity to observe leaders in every sphere of influence – political, government, corporate, activist – and learn from their strategy successes and failures. She is married, the mother to two fabulous young men (just ask!), and enjoys long walks, jet skis, good books, and knitting.

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