COVID-19 Brought Band-Aid Solutions for Collaboration; Now It Is Time for Long-Term Strategies


Because of COVID-19, many companies rushed to implement remote collaboration solutions as a quick win. Remote work quick fixes initially helped businesses power through the crisis. However, they eventually exposed cracks and caused a backlash among users. Ian Tien, CEO and co-founder, Mattermost, discusses how companies can implement thoughtful, long-term strategies. 

Our company was built to be fully remote from day one and has always had a long-term view of collaboration. We have learned a great deal on our journey about the differences between band-aid solutions and long-term strategies. By sharing our approach, I hope that I can help other companies complete their journeys to lasting remote collaboration.

Do Not Take Informal Interactions for Granted

When in the office together with colleagues, it is easy to take a lot of the brief in-person conversations we have for granted. Activities that are as simple as popping by someone’s desk or discussing a meeting in the hallway are essential for sharing ideas and feedback. Those in-person moments happen on the fly. The quick fix when switching to remote activity is, effectively, to forget about them. To remind us instead of taking those moments, we built repeatability into our actions with templates. These templates allow us to hone and refine what it means to collaborate and meet remotely.

Our remote-work template to emulate in-person conversations is a feedback-ready meeting: we add in an extra five minutes at the end of our big meetings. During these moments, team members provide meeting feedback on a shared document and discuss those items.

A template like this can empower teams to share feedback and be heard by the entire meeting room. Moreover, these five minutes end up being more powerful than hallway conversations. They are dedicated specifically to becoming a more cohesive team that prioritizes sharing feedback with one another.

These five-minute check-ins have saved us from making mistakes and running into blind spots that arise when feedback is sparse.

Learn More: Can ESM Close the Productivity Gap of Collaboration Tools?

Integrate Systems, Apps, and People so That They Work Together

The overnight remote-work phenomenon turned collaboration processes into ad hoc meetings. This switch also left companies functionally vulnerable. If an alert arose while people were in the same building, teams could walk down the hall, meet, and rapidly collaborate on a solution. With distributed teams, that approach is impossible. Instead, people are left with a fragmented array of phone calls, instant messages, and video calls. The quick fix is easy enough: lean into collaboration platforms and video conferencing.

But this approach creates challenges, especially when escalation is necessary and when information sharing encounters bottlenecks. Collaboration platforms and video conferencing are not by themselves an adequate replacement for in-person collaboration when service outages or other disruptions occur. Those tools do not offer ways to respond to disruptions or show teammates what precisely went wrong.

To create a long-term remote collaboration strategy, companies can focus on better integrating tools, processes, and people. On the functional end of integration, companies can connect business systems to their collaboration platform. This will help remediate problems that arise when file sharing, permissions, and simultaneous data pulls go awry.

On occasion, escalation is necessary when an issue cannot be easily resolved. Ad hoc escalation methods in distributed environments can feel clumsy, error-prone, and not scalable. Over time our team has learned to establish very clear processes for when and how escalations happen. These processes help get all your people on the same page as an integrated unit. The cornerstone of these processes is a retrospective from the last escalation. During a retrospective, your team might ask itself questions, such as:

  • What could we have done better?
  • What tools and templates could we have had in place?
  • Who should have been in the conversation, and at what point?
  • Where did we over- or under-communicate?

When applications or systems fail, or people encounter challenges, these retrospectives have been transformational for our ability to meet and exceed what we could have done in physical offices. Retrospectives have helped us be deliberate and explicit about what we need to change and how we should prepare for potential problems the next time around.

It is crucial to document the insights from retrospectives. Implementing rigorous processes and documenting is the only way to understand why a system or application failed and to align the entire team around a solution.

Learn More: Collaboration is Key to Improving Efficiency in Your Organization

Seek Customizability and Scalability in Your Tools

With mechanisms to replace some in-person functions and collaboration processes in place, the next step is to establish control and customization of tools. When remote work became the norm, many companies assumed regular video conferencing and collaboration apps could handle all their needs. That has not necessarily been the case. A PagerDuty alert may show up in a collaboration tool. But someone still needs to assign responsibility for reviewing the alert, connect it to a ticket in Jira, let other team members know, and periodically send status updates. It is unlikely the collaboration tools organizations have employed enable that sort of functionality without a drawn-out process.

A collaboration platform is an excellent foundation for centralizing all of these new tools. But if a team has to vet each new integration for security and permissions manually, scaling becomes too time-consuming. What will really drive remote collaboration is a platform that can be extended, customized, and tailored to line-of-business, product, or other goals. Platforms that offer data control and transparency that can be applied to any product type are also helpful.

Transparency Is King

We are in the early days of remote work. The potential for collaboration and productivity is enormously high, and we are excited to see organizations start to take more scalable approaches to support a distributed employee base. As company postures change and collaboration workflows become mission-critical, it is vital to prioritize transparency. The goal of replacing band-aid solutions with longer-term strategies is, ultimately, to ensure ongoing transparency for the entire organization. We have been a fully remote company from day one, and I hope our experiences can support and inspire the next generation of fully remote and remote-friendly companies. 

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