The 7 Ingredients for Working Collaboratively Online

 In Collaboration, Designing Solutions, Innovation, Leadership, Teamwork

With a massive shift to working from home, how do you ensure your teams work collaboratively and avoid drifting apart?

Surely technology is the answer? Tech tools help to some extent, but success depends on how they are used, which is all about human behaviours and group dynamics.

Collaboration is hard at the best of times and online setups increase the degree of difficulty many times over. Your colleagues may be dealing with issues in their private life and struggle to focus on work; working remotely may leave them feeling left out, alone or not grasping the bigger picture; they could become unproductive, misinterpret the meaning of emails or get stuck in a cycle of second guessing what others are doing or thinking.

More things can go wrong and when they do they will be magnified.

In this environment, managers and leaders need to step up and play an acutely skilful role, one that will push their people skills to the limit. If they can navigate through it they will have Ninja-level qualifications for future success!

The online task requires the following 7 ingredients:

1. Setting Mindsets & Skills

Good collaboration is underpinned positive and proactive mindsets, along with essential skills or training for the people involved. The sudden shift to remote working means that even more focus on the individual and team dynamic is required.

Your first priority in this environment is to be checking in on people’s physical and mental health, as they could be impacted by issues with family, friends or finances. Some will need extra flexibility while others may find being busy a welcome distraction.

You are taking the first steps in a crisis situation and need to focus on what’s being said, and also what is not being said. They’ll need compassion as it’s hard being an effective team member when life is overwhelming.

If they are okay, the next step is to make sure they have the right skills, tools and equipment. A mentor / buddy system could be beneficial on a personal and / or professional level.

2. Building Trust

By far the most challenging element of collaborative teams and work cultures is building and maintaining trust, because every team is a confluence of attributes, values and behaviours.

Trust has many facets, such as honesty, transparency, respect, timeliness, equity, fairness, contribution, consistency, sharing, inclusion and other qualities. High trust levels break down barriers, reduce frictions / costs and increase innovation and creativity. How do you build it online?

For starters, ask your colleagues what they see as being the most important factor in building trust in an online world so your actions will be focused. Jeffrey Polzer found that vulnerability builds trust, not the other way around, so leaders must understand that vulnerability isn’t about awkwardly disclosing personal issues, it’s about signalling that you don’t know it all and need your team’s help. Managers and leaders need to manufacture opportunities for expressing vulnerability.

Create a set of protocols or charter that describes how you all want to work together in this virtual environment. For example, when connecting by video link your group may agree that being fully present and resisting the temptation to flick over to your emails is important.

3. Being Intentional

Groups struggle to unite if the purpose of their work is neither valued nor clear, and if communications carry mixed messages. There’s so much going on right now, your messaging needs to cut through and that’s achieved by clarity of intention. Ie. what is the overarching human response I am seeking from this interaction?

For example, when sending an email to a colleague your intention might be to understand why they made a certain decision. As you’d appreciate, typing “EXPLAIN your thinking please???” has an aggressive tone and doesn’t align with the intention. A better approach would be to say “That must have been a challenging decision – I’m interested know how you came to it?”

In this article my intention is to transform fear into focus and the tone and language I use should reflect that.

Emojis can be really effective at conveying your intention – just don’t overdo them in professional communications! 😀

4. Curating and Coaching

Command and control leadership works to a point before performance tops out – a group can only be so effective using this style. As Pippa Malmgren and Chris Lewis point out in The Leadership Lab: leaders once excelled by arming themselves with data and facts, today they excel by understanding feelings.

I liken their role to that of a sheepdog, constantly circling the pack to make sure they’re okay, knowing when to intervene and when to let them run. This means they curate group interactions in the right way and become more of a coach to their staff rather than an impenetrable authority figure. When teams develop a culture of collaboration they all take on the sheepdog persona, collectively looking out for each other and protecting the precious structure they have created.

In virtual contexts there is more of this circling work to do because information is harder to observe.

5. Hyper-Communicating

Following on from the previous point, you will miss the immediate, in-person cues and body language feedback, so you need to step up the frequency and style of communications. According to a HBR article by Dhawan & Chamorro-Premuzic, without it you may find:

misinterpretations create and anxiety that can become costly, affecting morale, engagement, productivity and innovation.

Daily virtual water-cooler meetings are popular too, although they need to be punchy. An associate told me about his team’s move to staggered shifts – half the workforce in the office one day and the other half the next. They did the sensible thing of having a daily link up together, however he found it to be arduous, way too long and lacking structure, leading to pent up frustration. Small things can make a big difference.

Video technologies like Zoom have virtual breakout room features which can be used to great effect in managing sub-group discussions within larger virtual teams.

6. Prioritising Processes

Clarify tasks and processes, not just roles and goals because without in-person contact you’ll find it’s harder designing tasks and the processes that go with them. Leaders should always have their antennae highly tuned to process improvements.

The things you are working on are visible to you but not always to everyone else – there may be gaps that go unnoticed in remote working. Utilising technology such as internal wikis, online forums and project tools will help immensely.

Be kind to yourself and others. You won’t get everything right straight away as you shift online. As they say, you will either succeed or learn. Get firsthand accounts of challenges where possible to avoid presuppositions and second guessing about the sources of problems.

7. Bringing Your Best

Celebrate your wins just like you would in-person and it’s good if team members formulate how they want to do it. Personally, I give bonus points to wins that come from reviewing and refining processes because they make a lot of difference in the long run.

Last but not least, it’s not all about you – the things you do everyday impact colleagues, customers, business partners and communities. With our world grappling with untold hardship, how can you make an impact? What assets and strengths can you share or put to work for a greater good? For example, could your team be supporting a not-for-profit organisation with expertise or resources in making the same shift?

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The foundations for great collaboration are the same regardless of the context, you just have to ‘pedal faster’ when working remotely and focus on the 7 ingredients above to bring the focus you need to succeed in working collaboratively online.

Feel free to share this with your friends or associates, and contact me if you’d like a 15-minute chat on how this might work in your organisation.


Phil Preston is a collaboration expert and more information about this topic as a webinar offering can be found on his website. He can be contacted via or +61 408 259 633.

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