Modern Life

The new collaboration: How teams can connect while working apart

Teams can rise to the challenge of remote work with tools and strategies to better communicate and create from home.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — July 31, 2020

With offices on the East and West coasts, design and concept firm Atelier Cho Thompson had a head start on remote work before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Employees already had work-issued laptops and second monitors. But to work effectively, they still relied on in-person collaboration to design buildings, parks, and interior spaces. When stay-at-home orders went into effect, co-founder and principal Christina Cho was forced to find new ways to foster teamwork without the ability to jump into a conference room together. 

In a given day, Cho might find herself reviewing a building design tweak with colleagues in Google Chat, marking up drawings in Conceptboard, and assigning tasks to team members in Asana. Cho and her team also create project boards in Pinterest, which help inspire designs, and have daily video meetings over Zoom.

“Sitting side-by-side, talking, and sketching through ideas and riffing off of each other is critical to our process,” says Cho, who works out of the firm’s San Francisco office. “Now that none of us can be together, we’ve stepped up our distributed workforce game.”

Although some offices are now reopening after months of COVID-related closures, many employees will continue to work from home, creating an ongoing challenge — and new opportunities — for teams like Cho’s. In a recent HP survey, about 20% of workers surveyed said they’re more creative when they can see their co-workers, but more than 70% of workers said they’ve been able to collaborate effectively while working from home. 

Tips and tools to help teams working remotely.

Ellice Weaver

Companies found that working from home has given employees the opportunity to brainstorm ideas at their own pace.

“In some ways, the pandemic is accelerating trends that were already in the works for distributed teams who need to collaborate,” says Josh St. John, head of creators for Z by HP, a portfolio of products for graphic-intensive creative work in media and entertainment, product design, and architecture. “Whereas before people might have thought, ‘this would be nice,’ now it’s more like, ‘we need this tomorrow.’” 

Here’s a look at some of the tools and tactics that are transforming remote collaboration.

Together, on your own time

Pilar Orti, director of the remote work coaching and consulting firm Virtual not Distant, says that one way to foster remote collaboration is to find ways for team members to contribute ideas on their own terms and time — not just during meetings. “We’ve come to understand that we can be location independent,” she says, “but we also need to understand that we can be time independent.”

Instead of waiting for an online meeting to share ideas, team members can post thoughts in project collaboration tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams whenever they like, while project management tools like Trello ensure everyone stays on schedule. “We can be capturing creativity throughout the day,” she says.

Orti believes that collaborating virtually can level the playing field by letting team members who benefit from quiet thinking time contribute when they’re ready. When one company Orti works with asked for feedback during in-person meetings, “it was crickets,” she says. Then, the company introduced Q&A and polling platform Slido.

“They found people couldn’t get enough of sending comments with the app,” Orti says. “When some people are given private space, they just go.”

Breakthroughs in brainstorming

Brainstorming traditionally happens in a conference room or communal space, where employees can connect and bounce ideas off each other face to face while capturing them on a whiteboard or sticky notes.

Now, virtual whiteboard tools have become especially popular as teams seek to replicate group brainstorming online. David Fraga, president of digital product design and development platform InVision, says interest in InVision’s digital whiteboard tool, Freehand, has exploded in the last few months, with 130% growth in weekly active users since March. Along with design teams, new users include teams in human resources, marketing, and IT teams across industries.

“When team members successfully collaborate online, it unlocks talent in a way that’s really exciting for teams and businesses,” he says.

InVision recently added new features like sticky notes in multiple colors and templates — brainstorming and ice breakers — to keep up with demand. Team members can add thoughts to the board before, during, or after a meeting.

“It lets you knock down the barriers of space and time,” says Fraga, “and invites a diverse set of voices and perspectives to collaborate.”

“In some ways, the pandemic is accelerating trends that were already in the works for distributed teams who need to collaborate.”

—Josh St. John, head of creators for Z by HP

Making space for spontaneity

Moments of spontaneity are still important for collaboration, creating in-the-moment opportunities to generate fresh insights and to get to know each other in new ways. 

“It’s all about finding the space online where you can bump into each other,” Orti says.

For example, team members may chat and joke around in the comments of a Google Doc, or use a digital whiteboard tool to play games or doodle with each other. One tool called Donut randomly pairs team members for virtual coffees through Slack. “It’s about getting juices flowing,” says Fraga, “and it’s important to continue to invest in relationships and create the right environment for creativity.”

In work sessions with her colleagues, Denise Lee, an associate partner at McKinsey & Company, starts each session with a warm up she calls “brain writing.” Team members get a prompt, then jot down ideas for one minute. When time is up, each member sends their list to a colleague who adds to the ideas for two minutes. They move on to a third round after that, and then share all ideas. The process helps ensure “everyone is contributing,” she says, “and that we start with the full slate of collective wisdom before refinement and further detailing.”

When face-to-face isn’t the default, exercises like these are crucial to helping everyone be more intentional about communicating, cultivate good relationships with colleagues, and take more ownership for the entire team’s success.

Ellice Weaver

With the right communication tools, remote co-workers are able to stay connected and work closer than ever.

Reworking workflows for real-time collaboration

In fields like movie production, where multiple creatives with specialized skill sets need to collaborate, the need to distance during COVID-19 is advancing entirely new ways of working and creating.

“Because of the lockdown, very few productions have gone back to set,” says Matt Workman, a virtual production cinematographer. “Now, remote workflows are extremely important. Everything has to be on the cloud.”

Instead of going to a production studio, Workman plans short films and music videos along with producers, directors, actors, musicians, and animators over Zoom. After receiving files of parts of scenes filmed remotely, he uses Unreal Engine, a 3D creation tool originally developed for gaming, to manipulate the scenes’ lighting, adjust camera angles, and even move specific objects on his home computer. The tool allows multiple people working on a production — including the director of photography, cinematographer and 3D specialists — to make changes to a virtual set in real time, unlike the longer, more linear workflow of the past. 

HP’s St. John says working remotely can be especially challenging for creators like Workman, who need top-of-the-line computing power and graphics capabilities. He says HP’s ZCentral Remote Boost helps people working in media, architecture, and design create and collaborate from home by tapping into the computing power of their office PCs remotely. “People who have high-end workstations can’t go to their desks now, but they still need to work,” he says. “In just 30 days, we saw a 10x increase in users.”

HP’s partner NVIDIA aims to take remote collaboration even further with NVIDIA’s Omniverse, which enables people to work together on 3D designs and renderings in real time, integrating different applications into a shared virtual space.

“We’re designing our Omniverse platform from the ground up to be about collaboration, from across the room to across the globe and with tight connectivity with our software partners such as Epic with Unreal Engine,” said Richard Kerris, general manager for media and entertainment at NVIDIA. “We’re thrilled to be working with our longtime partner HP with ZCentral Remote Boost and their customers doing groundbreaking work with our GPU products and technologies.”

Collaboration tools like Omniverse and ZCentral Remote Boost, coupled with ones like Slack or Unreal Engine, promise to bring team members closer, even if they’re physically apart, perhaps forming new and exciting connections as they navigate the world of remote work together.

“This implicit contract for everyone to engage more deeply and actively in many ways helps to catalyze more thinking, team building, and progress despite the distance,” McKinsey’s Lee says. “In many ways, we spend more time together in this new way of working.”


See how a musical composition comes together when the musicians can’t.