Opinion: Virtual collaboration: It’s not just for pandemic times

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At first, it was a novelty; then, it became a necessity. It was a lifeline during a time when so many were fighting for their lives. It allowed us to see our family, friends, students and co-workers. It gave us hope and showed us despite the lockdown, we were not alone. It connected society in a way we had never experienced before.

And as pandemic restrictions eased, many thought its usefulness would wane and the technology we had grown to rely on would fade back into the shadows.

But, like it or not, videoconferencing is here to stay.

While the platforms vary, Zoom is by far the most widely used. Counting both free and paid users, Zoom has 300 million daily meeting participants, according to stat tracker Backlingo. That’s an increase of 2,900% since late 2019, when 10 million daily meeting participants logged on to Zoom.

For educators, platforms such as Google Classroom became essential in the blink of an eye. As schools and universities moved online, educators had to pivot in real time. As we did, we discovered something valuable. As Robert Fulghum famously wrote, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten,” we in academia learned all we needed to know about team building in the virtual classroom.

To top it off, we learned it doesn’t just apply to us – the creative nature of maintaining educational settings in the virtual world also can be transferred to the business world.

Much like educators keeping students engaged, business leaders also had to make this transition to keep employees on task, motivated and productive. These innovative ideas for teamwork and connecting helped business owners cater to specific employee needs. And it turns out, employees liked it.

A summer CNBC survey of executives at major U.S. companies found the hybrid work model is here to stay. At 45%, nearly half of companies expect to maintain a hybrid model at least through 2021.

Here’s a scenario: We’ve all experienced an email chain miles long as participants attempt to settle on a meeting time. It’s finally decided, but at the last minute, someone can’t make it because of a sick child. In the before times – BC, or before COVID-19 – the meeting would most likely have been postponed, but AC – after COVID – it simply moved to Zoom. Even though Zoom was widely available BC, it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it stands now. This embracing by those previously less than enthusiastic about videoconferencing is just one key component in increased team communication.

While videoconferencing was the most visible form of change, the move allowed for more  flexibility in other ways as well. In the classroom, we found ideas to increase engagement through providing written materials early for students to read before class meetings. We were more flexible with due dates to accommodate all types of schedules.

Zoom breakout rooms were available to provide collaborative learning within the virtual classroom. This element of interaction is crucial for peer learning in the seated environment; the ability to continue this type of learning was paramount for maintaining engagement.

Screen sharing also allowed students to share their projects and portfolios in the virtual world, and platforms like Padlet allowed for online cumulation of work in lieu of tangible notebooks.

Although a lot of our businesses have moved back to the physical environment, there are innovative ideas in the virtual world and beyond that business owners can adapt to their specific needs. Teamwork and collaboration can still be achieved through creative emails or virtual correspondence for positive team building. Business leaders can encourage employees to work together virtually for collaboration on writing assignments and project building. Teams can co-lead virtual meetings to share responsibilities of screen sharing and presenting.

Connecting is still a big piece of teambuilding that can occur in the virtual world. Keep team birthdays, anniversaries, etc. on your calendar to make sure you are celebrating your employees with a quick group email on their special days. Send out emails of encouragement that focus on positive productivity to keep team members engaged and motivated. If a personal note is needed, much like an educator recording a lecture, business leaders can prerecord welcome messages and informative presentations.

Virtual communication isn’t new. If you’re reading this, you most likely also read Springfield Business Journal’s Daily Update e-newsletter as soon as it hits your inbox during lunch. That newsletter moved digital from daily fax decades ago and has thrived. But the way in which we embrace virtual collaboration and video conferencing platforms has the ability to not only maintain or increase our productivity in the classroom and office, but also to showcase our ability to fundamentally connect as humans.

Zoom isn’t going anywhere, but our communication skills are on the rise

Natalie Precise is dean of the Drury University School of Education and Child Development and an associate professor of education. She can be reached at nprecise@drury.edu.