set  from Lord of the  Rings  - hobbiton
PHOTO: Robin Noguier

There's been no lack of articles over the last few months about the effects of the sudden shift to remote work. And to be honest, while some lessons have undoubtedly been learned (or relearned), a lot of good practice literature was already available. Anyone looking for information on how to manage remote teams, how to promote your corporate culture via Zoom or Go To Meeting, how to support remote or isolated colleagues effectively, or how to ensure a widely distributed team can work effectively and productively can readily find it.

For some of us, none of this was new, but the focus may have subtly shifted.

What Works for One Business May Not Work for Yours

Where previously you may have been happily typing away into your enterprise social networking platforms forums and discussion threads, you now have to make sure you have clean shirt on because the focus shifted to using video calls so everyone can “feel connected.” In my last two roles for large Canadian banks, working from home was seen as a standard element of work-life balance, part of a broader flexible working scheme. In my current role I am a fully remote worker, with Corporate HQ and many colleagues in the US, many in Europe (including the majority of the developers for my product portfolio) and others in Australia. Some of us were very used to adding a Go To Meeting to every meeting invite.

This was a new experience for other colleagues and potentially one outside of their comfort zone. For everyone one of us who is used to having two different chat applications running, our own Go to Meeting accounts and actually speaking with people on the phone (it's not only the sales team who use phones!), there were others who were discombobulated by not being able to talk to their teammates face-to-face over the cubicle dividers when something came up.

Our management team has been superb at communicating with the workforce during the pandemic, and they did it using tools that may be considered old fashioned, but they work for us in our context. Our CEO does regular “all hands meetings” via video-based webinar software. Our Head of HR is now legendary for her weekly email updates. Yes, email. Not a Slack channel, not via our own collaboration software, but by email. Lowest common denominator? Maybe, but it’s a great case of the medium fighting the message. I have no doubt it allows her to draft, edit and consider her wording. For those of us reading, it allows us to read on our preferred device, when we feel like it, to keep hold of it and read it again later.

Bigger, more sophisticated enterprises will have probably had similar success. For smaller organizations, with a less techie workforce, and business processes that did not lend themselves to remote working, the transition has no doubt been more fraught.

What I think some organizations will have found, is that for every well-meaning blog post or LinkedIn article, espousing the virtues of working a particular way with a particular tool, trying to put that advice into practice word for word just didn't work for them.

Related Article: The Pandemic Popped These Closely Held Digital Workplace Beliefs

Collaboration Fellowship

Have you taken to binge watching TV and revisiting your favorite movies? Because what else do you have to do during lockdown? It might be worthwhile to revisit the highly popular movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings." Because they share a simple lesson when it comes to collaboration platforms and productivity suites: there truly is no "one ring to rule them all."  

The Elves of Rivendell, the Dwarves of the Misty Mountains, The Riders of Rohan, the men of Gondor, and of course the Hobbits of the Shire. All very different cultures, with very different ways of doing things including different ways of collaborating and working together, both across their own races and groupings, and across great divides. If we dragged them into the current world, do you think they would all agree on what the best collaboration platform is? I don’t either.

Sauron, on the other hand, is not going to brook any arguing among Orcs, Trolls, Wargs and men. I am pretty sure he would be rolling out a single standardized platform, with a highly prescriptive set of rules about what his underlings could use if for, and how.

I am not saying that if your organization is big on enterprise standards and somewhat prescriptive, that you are working for the eponymous Lord of the Rings himself. I'm only saying that no organization is the same, and a focus on standards, tools and procedures will work better for some than others.

Related Article: Providing Employees Flexibility in Workplace Tools Doesn't Mean It's a Free-for-All

The Wild West of Consumer IT

The small business sector is often viewed as the wild west of consumer IT — any tools goes, whether designed for a particular purpose or not. That has not been my experience. A smaller group of people normally find it easier to reach consensus on what tools best meet the needs of their business, and once a tool or tools are chosen, it is easier to implement them.

In my experience it is often the larger enterprises, where you find a relentless push for standards, that the wild west moniker applies. And this can go two ways. If we can accept that perfection is often the enemy of the good enough, then a tool that is at least configurable to the extent that it can be made good enough for everyone has a greater chance of good adoption and enhancing productivity. This is the domain of the monolithic productivity suite and collaboration platform. The obvious example here is Microsoft Office 365 and its broad set of offerings. You may be able to make Teams work as a collaboration platform for your thousands of employees across 10 different divisions, five languages and three continents. The suite provides options, so whether you use Teams and Yammer or SharePoint and OneDrive, it depends on your business context and what you are trying to achieve.

On the other hand, while your customer-facing teams may be happily collaborating away in Microsoft land, your IT department is all about JIRA, Slack and ServiceNow. It works for them, they are doing what they need to do and don’t let a COVID-19 based push to "transform" and "improve remote collaboration" lead to a misguided effort to drag them kicking and screaming from Slack into Teams.

Related Article: Don't Know What Microsoft Collaboration Tool to Use? You're Not Alone

The Moral of Our Collaboration Story?

To quote my fellow Yorkshireman Sean Bean playing Boromir, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.”

Or to say it another way: one shouldn't use the pandemic-driven rush to enable remote working as the defining factor in what might become your new normal. Analysis of pre-pandemic working and the use of the tools, analysis of the way your teams have coped with their tools when thrust into remote working on short notice, evaluation of what others in your industry have learned — all of these can and should be taken into account. You may decide that although one toolset got you through the initial bad months, your colleagues were using it because they literally had no choice.

Engage in user research and take the time to get specialist input from industry analysts and other sources. You may find that to facilitate long-term improvements to collaboration, which may include a much larger number of remote workers, you could be swapping your monolithic suite for a collection of best of breed tools — or vice versa.

I will finish with Frodo quoting Bilbo Baggins: "'It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'"