As Covid-19 tightens its stranglehold on the global economy, we must remember that isolation does not prevent communication. There are many ways that technology can break the silence and keep us working together effectively.

Digital solutions are global and pervasive. Gartner predicts further growth in 2020, leading to an IT market that is quickly approaching $4 trillion. Advances in mobile and cloud technologies mean we have access to the services we need, no matter where we are or when we need them. People can communicate instantly, even from opposite sides of the planet. Admittedly, this usually means interrupting sleep patterns for some of us.

The ability to deliver digital solutions depends on secure communication and close collaboration. Efficiency relies on well-defined success criteria and a way to share progress — early and often.

Tele-conferencing, video-conferencing and instant messaging all have a part to play. Still, the need to look beyond these tools is essential if we are to continue working together — while being apart.

Homework isn’t just for the kids anymore

Working from home is no longer restricted to activities that can be started, and completed, by a single person. Small and large teams can collaborate, in real-time, from home, the office or anywhere with a reliable internet connection. Current challenges are putting this to the test like never before.

People in organisations that work from one or more social hubs are having to change their daily patterns. With coronavirus reaching pandemic proportions, the need for isolation is becoming a necessity rather than a recommended option.

Working in isolation is difficult in a single organisation. This challenge increases when working with clients. Distances feel extended due to cultural differences, imbalance in domain knowledge and a limited understanding of business practises and objectives.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a large shell (the conch) was used to regulate who was allowed to speak. It was a symbol of democracy that ultimately failed to accomplish what it set out to achieve. There is a fine line between mediation and control. Balance is especially important when working apart. Even the strongest business relationships are continually looking for better ways of working together.

Minding your own business

Nothing is more important than the health of ourselves and our families. The sudden and exponential growth of this silent, potential killer must attract full attention from all of us if we are to limit the lives it is affecting.

While health remains a primary focus — there is a secondary threat with consequences that are likely to outlast Covid-19. As the diagram shows, FTSE, Dow Jones and Nikkei are all suffering significantly. The strain on small and large businesses is staggering.

A graph showing the decline in global stock markets since the start of the coronavirus outbreak
Source: Bloomberg, 16 March 2020, 08:35 GMT

With more than 100 countries imposing travel restrictions, US flight bookings reflect a global decline. Reports state that US flight reservations are down 37% when compared to the same time last year.

Coronavirus is throwing our economy around like a rag doll as the need to avoid non-essential travel increases. Working in isolation is not possible in many scenarios. For those of us who have experience in ‘working at a distance’, we need to be on our A-game. We need to share our experiences with others, to understand what works and what doesn’t work. In this way, we can help each other to overcome the natural constraints of separation.

Health & Wellbeing, a two-pronged attack

A person’s Wellbeing is more than the absence of illness or disease. It includes living a healthy lifestyle. It links closely to happiness and general satisfaction with yourself and the life you are living. Factors that influence your Wellbeing include:

  • optimism and self-esteem
  • a sense of purpose and meaning
  • enjoying a challenging and fulfilling career
  • a network of friends and colleagues, allowing you to benefit from social interactions
  • the comfort of relative security and sufficient money to take care of you and your family

Ironically, these are the very things that the Covid-19 outbreak is threatening. This small, virulent intruder is targetting our health and Wellbeing — and we need to defend against both of these attacks.

Increased isolation reduces the chance of infection. While doing this, we must also find ways to continue collaborating and delivering business value in our working lives. We must strive to reduce the damage to our organisations, working partnerships and personal careers.

The more we can do now, the easier recovery will be. We should not underestimate the challenge. Thinking creatively and leveraging new and emerging technologies will help.

Working at a distance

There are many ways to enhance communication and collaboration when working remotely. Of course, many of the approaches described here apply equally to face to face meetings where everyone gathers in the same room. It may just be a while before this becomes the default way of working again.

There are many ways to implement a ‘work at a distance’ strategy — involving both software and hardware components. The common theme for the ideas presented here is that they are all possible with a relatively small investment. And often with devices that already exist in many of our homes.

AI and audio recording

Tele-conferencing has been around for a long time, along with the ability to record conversations. AI now provides a way to transcribe discussions in real-time and overlay the corresponding text onto a video stream, a shared screen or a virtual whiteboard.

Audio can be searched simply by selecting a saved bookmark or a key topic. AI algorithms can translate recordings into a multitude of different languages for scenarios that require it.

There is no longer a need to continually fast-forward and rewind through a recording, desperately trying to find your area of interest. With a little effort, audio excerpts can be separated and attached to specific diagrams, charts or other information. In this way, information hunters have additional descriptions where they need it.

AI & video indexing

Video-conferencing is the visual equivalent of teleconferencing. And, in the same way, a video stream can be recorded and accessed later.

AI can bookmark audio and video content in the same way as above — creating an index of critical topics and phrases. Simply clicking on any keyword will transport you to the corresponding part of the recorded video.

Video streaming also allows any participant to share their screen with other participants of the meeting. The AI can identify everyday objects and label them, marking the places where they appear. Other features that AI video insights offer include:

  • generation of subtitles for video captioning
  • tagging positive and negative sentiments
  • scene detection in terms of close-ups, wide-angle shots and keyframes
  • the ability to train the AI to recognise specific faces
  • marking the occurrence of speech, applause and also silence

These features enrich the information that a video recording provides. There is no substitute for being there, either in person or virtually. Still, reviewing a recorded video can create insights that are not immediately obvious, even from the most comprehensive meeting notes.

Sharing a whiteboard — The greatest of all collaboration tools

People often ask me which tool helps most when addressing core business problems. There is no doubt that my desert island tool would be a whiteboard — of course, surrounded by a team of eager contributors.

A whiteboard focuses people away from their laptop screens. Technical problems are best solved away from a keyboard. The best results come from a group of people that are sharing, reviewing and addressing issues with nothing more than sharp minds and creative ideas.

An ‘all in one room’ experience is perhaps the hardest experience to emulate. I’ve found the best way of doing this is with a tablet where a pen/pencil is far easier to operate, in this context than a mouse and keyboard.

It’s possible to share & annotate whiteboards and images in real-time. Emphasising and signposting specific points aids comprehension. People that could not attend a workshop can benefit significantly from this approach. Recording the session provides all of the features of AI and video/audio analysis.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Team experience is possible when working remotely, although stumbling into a routine can often lead to a flawed and frustrating process. This article is focused purely on the act of collaboration & communication. There are other factors to consider, especially when considering working relationships:

  • protecting your data & data security
  • sharing information carefully and appropriately
  • avoiding a culture of anxiety (and constant refactoring) before pressing the Send Button
  • understanding how to interact when visual cues are limited or absent
  • nominating a moderator to help with the natural flow of a meeting or workshop
  • choosing the right tools to support us in these challenging times and beyond
  • making sense of information storage and retrieval so we can locate what we need, whenever we need it
  • maintaining a healthy & positive attitude when separated from our colleagues

Every problem, at its core, is a people problem. While technology can help, it is ideas, interaction and creativity that will prevail. The things we learn now will help us through this crisis — and make us better prepared for the next one.

I’d be happy to share my thoughts and experiences with anyone if it helps. Equally, I’d love to hear how you are keeping in touch with your colleagues & clients as well as family and friends. After all, it’s good to talk…even at a distance.