Sonata Notes: Beyond “Virtual Teams” – Promoting Remote Collaboration at Scale

Young Black businesswoman works on laptop in home office

A recent study found that, while virtual teams are 5-8% more productive, remote workers spend 25% less time communicating with peers outside their immediate group.   This has some leaders worried that remote work will undermine the kind of cross-functional collaboration that drives innovation.  For instance, an internal study by Microsoft concluded that, “firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.” 

So is cross-functional collaboration really that essential for innovation?  And is there any way for remote workers to overcome barriers?

While it is difficult to quantify “innovation”, here are a few things we know:

  • Interactions across teams can drive innovation by exposing people to new ideas and different ways of thinking.  For instance, tech giant CISCO encourages engineers to collaborate with people in customer-facing roles to gain insights into user experience.  

  • Collaboration makes people more responsive to the needs of others. For example, when finance communicates regularly with other departments, they will likely feel empathy rather than irritation when colleagues get confused about budget codes.

  • Working across teams can accelerate new initiatives, bringing together top performers from multiple teams to tackle strategic challenges. And involving key stakeholders in the early design/planning stage can save time securing their approval later on.

So, if cross-functional communication and collaboration are the bedrock of innovation, how can organizations support this dynamic in a virtual workforce?

  • Create virtual spaces and set aside time for cross-functional collaboration and knowledge sharing.  When designing their remote work processes and platforms, most organizations focus on how individual teams communicate (via tools like Teams, Slack, Zoom, or Google Chat.)   Rarely do they reach the point of considering when, where, and how people from different virtual teams will connect, outside of scheduled meetings.

    The best solutions will vary by organization, but – to give some examples:

    • Cross-functional project teams should definitely have their own Slack/Teams channels, though you want to avoid over-proliferation of instant messaging.
    • Social media style platforms like Yammer, Open Social, or Facebook Workplace are a good option for communities of practice/interest (e.g., your Women’s Leadership Group or Human-Centered Design Academy), so long as people understand the relationship between these platforms and day-to-day collaboration apps like Slack/Teams.
    • A well-designed intranet can help serve as a hub for organization-wide knowledge and resource sharing, whether it’s used for document libraries, blog posts, or directories of in-house subject matter experts.

    In addition to setting up these virtual spaces, you also need to set expectations for how much time people can/should spend engaging with them throughout the week.

  • Consider an “X-Team” model.  X-Teams are an organizational model popularized by MIT professor Deborah Ancona and embraced by organizations like BP, Citibank, and Southwest Airlines.  

    The “X” stands for “externally focused”: rather than fixating on their own internal goals and operations, they proactively seek out new ideas, information, and feedback from outside stakeholders (“scouting”), advocate for their priorities and secure resources from senior decision makers (“ambassadorship”), and negotiate/coordinate with other teams for mutual benefit (“task coordination”).  

    In practice, the X-Team model is challenging as it requires radical transparency, assumes teams will be able to resolve conflict peaceably, and requires managers to juggle internal and external priorities.  As such, it’s not appropriate for every team (if your quality assurance team is working just fine without radical innovation, then it might be best for them to stay focused on internal processes).  But, applied properly, it’s a great way to vaporize silos in a large remote workforce.

  • Make sure cross-functional teams have a clear purpose.  While there are many success stories about how cross-functional teams spawned innovations like Apple’s iPhone, a Harvard study found that 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional and fail to achieve their hoped-for results.  So, if you’re pulling people away from their teams to collaborate on cross-functional projects, make sure the problem/opportunity they are meant to address is clear, and check up regularly to ensure strategic alignment.

  • Introduce a random element.  While organizations can create the conditions for innovation, there is a certain, serendipitous, lightning-in-a-bottle aspect to innovation that cannot be planned or forced.  Sometimes, finding time for colleagues from different teams to mix and mingle with no predetermined agenda can spark innovative ideas.  Apps like Donut and Hallway can randomly connect colleagues for “virtual coffee” meetings, and have been used by organizations like Netflix and Okta to support innovation, DE&I, and culture building activities.

Innovation is another area where things that occur spontaneously in an on-site setting are possible remotely, with some thoughtful planning and effort.  But the upside is that doing the things that are good for innovation in a remote workplace are good for innovation, generally.


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