Virtual Collaboration a Key Remnant of the COVID Disruption

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Virtual collaboration and team building are essential to support the workforce management evolution companies are going through to cope with remote-first operations.

COVID forced changes in the way companies operated. Many adopted technology fixes to help their developers, data scientists, data engineer, and others at home workforce carry out their work. Chief among those technologies was the increased use of virtual collaboration to keep businesses afloat. The question remains: Will companies stick to using such methodologies and tools as the impact of the pandemic is abated with vaccines?

Siddharth Rao

RTInsights recently had a chance to talk with Siddharth Rao is a Staff Software Engineer and a Technical Lead in the Revenue Product Organization at Twitter, Inc. He’s led several teams at Twitter that work across their ads stack. As a technical lead, Siddharth’s job is to define the technical strategy of the teams he’s leading, mentor and grow engineers, and engineer and design products used by advertisers across the globe. During our conversations, we had a chance to discuss his many thoughts on this topic area.

So, will the fixes that companies employed for COVID-19 stick?

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“For the most part, yes,” he said. He notes we’re unlikely to see us ending up with one end of the spectrum where either the whole workforce is remote, or the whole workforce is in the office. “We’re much more likely to see a hybrid model where employees have the choice to either work remotely or go back to the office,” said Rao.

Given that situation, he believes most companies will stick with the adopted technologies to get through the pandemic. However, the company leaders will have to iron out which technologies will be kept when some of the workforce members are remote, and others are not.

A common topic of discussion throughout the pandemic has been what are the top tools to increase communication and collaboration for a remote team. “One of the most essential things that everyone is trying to do is emulate the physical world with the least amount of friction possible,” said Rao.

A good example where technology has helped is in managing talent acquisition. “As soon as you remove the city filter for job postings, you get a lot more inbound requests because there are people all across the globe who want to work for your company,” said Rao. “This creates a need for tools and technologies to be able to handle these kinds of incoming requests.”

He noted that many companies are thinking about building better infrastructures to handle these many inbound requests. “How do you filter for the right candidate? How do you give equitable resume reviews to the plethora of candidates that are coming in?”

In most companies, the hiring process is collaborative. A candidate would likely be interviewed by someone in human resources and several other people. Those involved need a way to collaboratively discuss and evaluate each candidate.

Once a hiring decision is made, onboarding is yet another collaborative process that does not have a simple analog in the work-from-home world. Pre-pandemic, new hires who would be working remotely still had to come into the office for orientation and training. If the new hire is, for example, right out of college, there may be a need for mentoring and handholding when they first start. And even the most experienced new hire may need training on the company systems and processes.

During the pandemic, these functions had to be replicated online. Companies had to buy or build tools to emulate these activities in a remote-first world.

Virtual collaboration metrics needed

Technology use to adapt to the remote-first world is fine. But how do you gauge effectiveness? What are the metrics to measure?

What’s needed are key performance indicators (KPIs) to be applied, measured, and monitored. “At the most fundamental level, they allow you to measure things,” said Rao. “And unless you’re measuring things, there’s no way to improve them.”

Selecting the right KPIs is critical. Rao believes two important areas that should guide the development of KPIs are relevancy and achievability. “The world around us is drastically changing, and it continues to do so,” said Rao. “It is extremely important that leaders holistically evaluate the relevancy of their KPIs.”

It is also important whether the selected KPIs are the right ones that tell you if the company is heading in the right direction. It’s essential to reevaluate KPIs given what’s happening in the world.

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“Once you figure relevancy, the second step is to be able to understand achievability,” said Rao. It’s no surprise that things – people, supply chains, the whole world – have been impacted by the pandemic. Given these changes, what’s achievable? Throughout the system of any product development cycle, understand where the biggest bottlenecks are and set expectations with your employees in the right way.

Rao notes that another extremely important facet is understanding how your team and people are doing. Before winning companies invest in products, they are investing in people. So, understanding from a team perspective how your team is feeling through these times. Certain employees need more help. Having metrics and keeping a temperature check of how your workforce is doing will pay dividends over the long run, said Rao.

Keeping up with today’s dynamic work world environment

The pandemic has accelerated change in most companies. Adoption of new development technologies like low code/no code platforms skyrocketed in the last year. Many companies automated more processes. Digital transformation efforts become higher priorities. It is a very face-paced and dynamic marketplace.

“The thing that excites me the most is that everyone’s learning things from scratch,” said Rao. “It’s an unprecedented time where every playbook, anything that you have learned before, is not relevant today.”

He notes that one of the things he spends a lot of my time is mentoring junior engineers. Now entire playbooks of how you used to do that just are not relevant today. “I’m spending a lot of my days thinking about how you train those employees to thrive in today’s workforce?” said Rao.

“Think about day one. Day one as an employee in a new company is generally filled with hundreds of questions, said Rao. “Previously, this was extremely easy to handle because you had ten people sitting next to you.” Employees could easily ask questions. “Hey, I cannot access my email. Could you please help?’”

Today that’s not possible. “One of the things that we have learned is that it’s great to have the team be available on day one of every employee,” said Rao. That might include having the employee’s manager sitting in a virtual meeting room for the whole day. Even if the employee has no questions, the presence of people there to help drastically reduces the amount of time it takes to figure things out. It gives them a sense of belonging.

After day one, the next big issue is how do companies cultivate and build culture? “One of the reasons you can retain employees for the long-term is because they feel a sense of belonging to the team, and they understand the vision,” said Rao. “They’re able to associate themselves with a larger picture that you have set out.” In a remote-first world, that’s extremely hard to do. Making matters even more challenging, new hires do not know the coworkers they’re working with.

“How do you set the tone and the right amount of cadence for integrating someone into a team?” asked Rao. “A key factor here is inclusivity.”

It is obviously easier for small companies to adopt new tools and methodologies for the remote-first world. “What we’re seeing is that startups are a lot healthier in terms of being able to quickly change the ways of onboarding engineers and creating that culture training engineers, as opposed to larger companies,” said Rao.

Regardless of the company’s size, “I think it’s important that any leader running a team or a product can create an environment where all people feel included,” said Rao.

One suggestion is to have everyone partake in a virtual team bonding activity. He notes it is especially important that these things do not take a backseat.

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Previously, if you were to have a team bonding exercise, the entire staff would go someplace. Companies cannot do that anymore.

Now, they must figure out some creative way where their entire workforce feels included. He notes it could be any activity like making a tool or building a robot together and that there are many virtual options online. “The key is to make it accessible and make everyone come in at once and talk to their teammates,” said Rao.

He notes that these virtual activities may seem awkward at first. But they mustn’t take a backseat. Because being able to connect employees with the other employees will pay dividends over the long term. One of the key reasons people join companies is to be able to grow their professional network. And with individuals sitting at home and not being able to communicate with their sister teams and understanding what other people in the company are up to, it’s going to be extremely hard for them to find a personal reason for them to stay. “The more leaders think about building the right culture and bringing the new folks along the journey of creating culture is going to be super important,” said Rao.

The bottom line is that companies today need to be using collaboration tools that help them with creating the right culture, mentoring engineers, and training engineers.

Salvatore Salamone

About Salvatore Salamone

Salvatore Salamone is a physicist by training who has been writing about science and information technology for more than 30 years. During that time, he has been a senior or executive editor at many industry-leading publications including High Technology, Network World, Byte Magazine, Data Communications, LAN Times, InternetWeek, Bio-IT World, and Lightwave, The Journal of Fiber Optics. He also is the author of three business technology books.

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