How to Work Collaboratively Online

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In any business setting, there’s a big difference between simply working together and collaborating. However, creating a truly collaborative environment can be even more challenging in a virtual workplace, especially when team members don’t know each other or have different cultural backgrounds. Despite this, with a little know-how and the right tools, there’s really no challenge a virtual team can’t overcome.

Create a Shared Understanding

Clear up any misconceptions that team members may have about what online collaboration is and what it involves. This is especially important with people not accustomed to working together online. The goal is to meet and work together in real-time, not to send a barrage of emails -- and email attachments -- back and forth. Although email and other asynchronous tools, including a shared workspace and calendar, document libraries and discussion boards are important, a truly collaborative environment requires real-time, synchronous interactions.

Define Roles, Not Tasks

Define roles and clarify output expectations but don’t define the steps required to achieve project goals in advance. Keith Ferrazzi, an author and the CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a research-based consulting and training company, says that task uncertainty is the key to working collaboratively online. Ferrazzi cites research that found online collaboration increases when team members have clearly defined roles but must work together to decide how to achieve the team’s goals.

Establish a Collaborative Mindset

Step down and give others -- who may be more qualified but who are not the normal team lead -- a chance to provide guidance or give instructions. Every member must be willing to sacrifice personal interests and do what’s best for the team. Ferrazzi suggests playing a few games, such as an online, team-based scavenger hunt or role-playing games, at the onset of a project, not only to create a collaborative mindset, but also to build leadership and teamwork skills.

Use the Right Tools

Audio and video-conferencing, interactive white-boards, document collaboration software and instant messaging are vital tools for meeting in real-time and interacting with team members throughout the day. For example, interactive whiteboards provide options for drawing, writing text and pasting images, making them a good choice for brainstorming and fine-tuning presentations. When combined with audio conferencing, team members can both see who’s participating and talk to each other. Document collaboration tools enable real time co-authoring and co-editing with one or several other people.