Can remote collaboration ever be as good as the real thing?
Nothing beats close personal collaboration when you've got a thorny new problem to solve. In today's connected age, it's more possible than ever to bounce ideas around without being even remotely close to your colleagues, but for a lot of people, there is still something missing. Perhaps there is something intangible about working together in the same physical room that just can't be replicated digitally.
As this year has progressed, we've had to adapt to being remote and find ways to imitate this close in-person collaboration. At my job, we've been using an ever-increasing number of tools to help us collaborate and share knowledge (things like Notion, Slack, Zoom, Miro, and Whimsical). While these tools are great for the most part, there is still something missing for me when it comes to working through new ideas.
This week I set aside a little time to think about how we use digital tools to explore ideas together. Maybe, nothing can beat the feeling of exploring a new space in person, but can we make it better?
How do we collaborate in existing tools?
I wanted to start my little exploration but looking at the tools that I'm working with regularly. After a bit of list-making, each product can be (more or less) put into one of two groups: synchronous and asynchronous.
While synchronous tools are more focused on recreating the physical world through things like video chat, I was more drawn towards how we're using the asynchronous products to imitate the workplace. As teams become more physically distanced, we rely more and more on asynchronous ways of working. When you're working in distant timezones, finding time to overlap and work "in-person" becomes nearly tricky, so how do you collaborate engagingly?
So again, I jumped into the tools that I use daily and started to think a little more. This led me to explore the world of messaging interfaces, from text editors to forums to instant messaging.
Commenting on documents
Let's start with text editors or more specifically, Notion. Notion is a fantastic tool for collaborating on long-form content (and a lot of other things). It allows you to feedback on something through comments at various levels (document, block, phrases, and even individual words).
As the document changes based on feedback and comments get marked as resolved, things can become hidden or lose their context (and subsequently, the meaning).
Depending on how you use Notion, this might not be too much of an issue. However, when you're using it to explore something new, you may lose an essential piece of the puzzle that was discussed in the comments and later lost.
Group messaging apps have become a massive part of our modern-day work lives. We spent hours every day trying to keep up-to-date with what's going on with our jobs and maintaining some sense of social normality.
As we've lost a lot of our in-person communication, we've turned more and more to exploring ideas through tools like Slack. It becomes more apparent that while it's an excellent tool for chatting, it's not the most ideal place to follow and understand how an idea develops. As we explore an idea, we tend to wander off and split up conversations.
Slack's support for threads helps with this as you can split off into a separate space to discuss any particular point. However, it's limited to a single level deep (although there are workarounds). This leads to threads becoming split and challenging to follow.
Another potential issue is that Slack can be remarkably distracting. As you try to stay up-to-date with everything that is going on in your organisation. If you're not a participant in a thread, you don't receive notifications.
Notifications are distracting, but this can actually lead to you spending time checking to see if you've missed any threads. If you're not watching, you can lose some critical context about a decision.
A little idea
After that admittedly shallow exploration, a little idea sprung to mind. What if there was a mechanism that allowed us to take conversations and turn them into something more succinct and permanent.
This tool should allow people to split out a conversation in as many directions as the participants want. When we talk in person, it's so easy to go off on tangents, bouncing from idea to idea, until we get lost from the original point of a conversation and struggle to find out way back.
Often tangents while interesting lead to dead ends and wasted time, which is why they are seen negatively in the workplace. Personally, I think they are an essential part of problem-solving and a sort of superpower that non-linear thinkers possess.
Although they are seen as unfavourable in the physical workplace, tangents should be embraced in asynchronous collaboration. The nature of delayed responses means that you're able to pick and choose the parts of a conversation that you spend your time exploring. Allowing you to revisit any tangent in the future without worrying if you're going off subject.
But what happens when you're in a deeply threaded conversation and want to reference another thread? How do you leave those breadcrumbs? Well, I'm glad you asked because the answer is my favourite thing recently, backlinks.
I love the idea of being able to create references between messages within a tool like Slack and having that information easily accessible. Being able to quickly give some piece of information that additional context for whoever needs it in the future. Imagine a graph visualisation of a conversation with multi-threading and bidirectional links, that could be beautiful.
Let's pretend you've had an interesting conversation around a new problem and you've come up with a solution or some next action. How do you take this mess of information and turn it into something useful for others?
Well, you could just write it up as some kind of scoping document, but what if there was a way to talk that conversation and use it as a historical context for decisions? I really like the idea of being able to write up a synopsis of a session and use pointers to a read-only version of the conversation. This would allow those that are interested in going back in time and to see how you came up with X or Y.
What if you could then create jump off conversations from those historical conversations? I think there could be some exciting ways of encouraging more open asynchronous collaboration, but would it be better than in person?