In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry explains why it’s time to move beyond email as your primary collaboration tool.
When collaborating with other companies on a project, too many businesses rely on email and other outdated practices. Complications, headaches and frustrations ensue. Roadblocks can stem from anything from a lack of trust between organizations, a lack of clarity on tools and processes to key differences in culture.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Over the past two years, businesses have learned a great deal about asynchronous work and the tools that make it possible. Okta’s 2022 Businesses At Work Report found that, for the first time, five collaboration tools topped the list of fastest-growing apps.
It’s time to take the lessons learned about remote work, and the tools that make remote work seamless,
Step 1: Agree to The Rules of Engagement
Phil Simon, workplace technology expert and author of “Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and the Post-Covid World of Work,” recently wrote a blog post describing the common roadblocks of inter-organizational projects: “Sadly and despite my best efforts, the short project had quickly devolved into a morass of misunderstandings, scheduling snafus and duplicate work.”
In other words, a lack of clarity on the way to accomplish work and by whom led to major issues.
The solution: Begin every inter-organizational endeavor with a project charter designed to smooth the way for efficient, effective collaboration. The charter should address:
- What are the goals, business outcomes, guiding principles and deliverables?
- Who will own what piece of the project?
- What are basic communication norms?
- What collaboration tool will you use to accomplish all this?
By creating a project charter, you’ll cut down on inefficiency, leaving team members to focus on important work (instead of wasting time coordinating tasks, searching for documents, requesting status updates and the like).
Step 2: Put Appropriate Controls in Place
Choosing a collaboration tool isn’t as simple as saying “We’ll use our Microsoft Teams channel, here’s a login and password.” You must consider a number of important details.
Modern collaboration tools allow for tight control of what guests can and can’t see and do. First, you’ll need to decide what exactly you’ll be sharing and what you’ll allow access to within the tool. A non-disclosure agreement may be necessary.
It’s also prudent to establish processes to ensure you’re not granting a guest access and then never turning that access off. Once a project wraps up, it’s easy to lose sight of those external relationships. For instance, Slack allows users to create guest accounts with ticking clocks. Their access automatically lapses on a certain date. Many tools allow you to set up notifications to check if you’re still using a specific channel.
Finally, you’ll need to decide what is considered appropriate use within the tool. Does your external partner need to sign the same kind of HR agreement you require of employees? How tightly does this need to be controlled? Are there any applicable regulatory or corporate compliance requirements?
Step 3: Invest in Time for Learning
Whenever two organizations collaborate for the first time, there’s going to be a learning curve. Identify any gaps up front, then take the time to educate one another where needed.
One team may need to learn a new collaboration tool. Formal training is invaluable. Simon points out that many organizations mistakenly assume people will “just pick it up.” And while they may be able to independently figure out how to navigate the tool’s basic functions, they’ll end up missing out on a ton of useful capabilities to make collaboration more seamless.
Another area of potential learning involves remote work. If one team is more adept at working remotely and asynchronously, it may be a worthwhile investment to communicate some basic norms.
- When do people need to be available?
- What’s the expected response time on chat?
- Where do you save documents so everyone can easily access them without needing to ping a team member?
Although training may feel like it slows a project down, the efficiency gains down the road more than make up for it. Especially training around a collaboration tool. “If you don’t figure this stuff out, at some point people say ‘Screw it, I’m going to give up and use email,’” Simon says. Reverting to e-mail, by the way, is the last thing you want to do. Studies have shown that nearly two-thirds of employees ignore their inboxes.
No One Size Fits All
Of course, not every inter-organizational project will call for a charter or an investment in learning a new collaboration platform. Email is perfectly sufficient for simple tasks that people can accomplish with a few exchanges over a short period of time.
That rule doesn’t apply to longer-term, more complex endeavors or relationships involving two or more organizations. In these cases, it’s worth the initial investment in agreeing to how you’re going to work together and completing any necessary training on the selected collaboration tool and work norms.