The next generation of employee collaboration

By Ed Boyd, Vice President, Experience Design Group at Dell

We hear the term ‘Digital Nomad’ all the time, and technology is certainly making it possible for people to do their job anywhere in the world.  But it isn’t just freelancers that are working remotely, its all of us.  According to a recent Global Workplace Analytics study, 50% of the US workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least partial telework and approximately 20-25% of the workforce teleworks frequently.

The question every employer is asking is if this remote work has the same quality or creativity as that done in an office, where people have more defined rules of behavior, work etiquette, and supervision?  Many think the answer is no.  Take projects that require close collaboration, especially things like creative problem solving and complex project management.   “Nothing beats putting a group of smart, motivated people in the same room,” says Brett Martin, founder and CEO of Sonar, a location-based mobile app company. When people work face-to-face they are able to be more spontaneous, pick up on non-verbal clues, and feel the vibe of the room which by definition promotes creativity.

In spite of the perceived advantages of on-premise collaboration, remote work teams are here to stay.  The challenge for any company then becomes how to improve online collaboration to make it as effective, or even more effective, than physical collaboration.  Email and texting have become the platforms for simple communications, and different forms of telepresence (Skype Yammer and Slack) are filling some of the need.  But the challenge is to find ways to break through the anonymity and trust barrier inherent in remote collaboration.

At the Dell Experience Lab we’re addressing this paradox by innovating to make collaboration more integrated into the thought process, more natural and more realistic. We know that typing LOL isn’t the same as hearing people laugh.  Things like facial expressions (a nod of agreement or rolling of the eyes or not paying attention) are important in building the success and trust necessary for successful virtual collaboration.

Interestingly, much of the technology already exists, but the quality of collaboration still isn’t as good as face-to-face.  This is why we’re innovating on the next generation of digital collaboration platforms, as you can see in this video.

By seamlessly integrating three critical components we hope to transform virtual collaboration to make it vastly more productive:

Personal digital agents:  In the video the project manager has an idea, which she talks through as she drives.  When she reaches her office her digital agent throws the idea up on the screen and contacts her team for a jam session to make it better. The innovation is that the agent is embedded into her thought process, becoming an intelligent extension of how she thinks.  It also enables her productivity by automatically taking on some of the manual, time-consuming tasks.

Getting off the small screen:  Speaking of screens, you’ll be seeing them embedded in walls, smart desks, the backs of chairs, or wherever the collaboration needs to take place.  The traditional white board becomes a window to the entire team.  PCs are good for collaborating, but our research has shown that the experience is entirely different and much better when it is closer to full size and in real time.  The feeling of being in the room with others recaptures something that we’re losing in this remote world – the trust generated by being in close proximity.  So you can get all the benefits without the travel.

High-level connectivity:  At work my internet speed is about 15 megabytes per second, so I can live stream videos and live meetings all I want. But your brilliant freelancer in Kansas might have only a fraction of this from his or her ISP or, worse yet, a wireless carrier.  Today the global internet download speed average is 6.3Mbps according to Akamai.  But true real-time, unencumbered collaboration will be possible when, as Cisco predicts, connectivity speeds reach the 25 – 50Mbps.  They say that by 2020, 82% of all internet traffic will be video, which proves the point.

Technology-assisted collaboration might not ever replace face-to-face collaboration, but we can make it a lot more natural and personal. In our labs, we’re working on digital collaboration tools that integrate more seamlessly with our physical world in ways simple telepresence or computer screens can’t.

Solving these issues will unlock the next giant boost in productivity. Workers everywhere will get more done and produce higher quality work, all due to more effective collaboration. The workforce will be liberated to work wherever they want and have the flexibility they demand.  But the biggest benefit will be for companies.  You’ll be able to get the best talent, no matter where they live, and work with them just as if they were in the same room with you.