The Secret to Virtual Teams that Thrive

In today's hyper-connected world, keeping employees connected and informed is the key to maintaining an engaged and thriving workforce.
Employee Engagement

This isn't your grandfather's workplace. The days when employees worked in the same office or building are long gone. Today, it's not uncommon for employees to work remotely and only occasionally interact with their colleagues in person.

Simply put, the digital economy is forcing organizations to transform into digital workplaces. The rise of digital workplaces requires balancing the needs of the organization and the employees business leaders want to engage and motivate.

Increasingly, companies are turning to digital collaborative tools to smooth the transition to a unified, digital workplace where even remote employees remain connected and productive.

Collaborating the Neo Way
Employee collaboration is an essential part of business but it can be a challenging endeavor, particularly for large organizations that span the globe. Pearson PLC, the British multinational publishing and education company, employs approximately 36,000 people in 60 countries. At such a large company, it was difficult for employees to communicate or even find the right person to speak with, notes Dina Vekaria, a community manager at Pearson.

"Everyone worked in their own area without talking to each other globally, partly because you wouldn't know where to start if you wanted to find colleagues with certain skills," Vekaria says. "It was difficult to feel like we were a unified company."

The idea for an internal collaboration tool emerged from then-CEO Marjorie Scardino, who requested a virtual environment where employees could connect and collaborate within Pearson. Six years ago, the company selected Jive Software, an enterprise collaboration solutions provider, to help it develop the Neo platform.

Launched in 2011, Neo is a social media platform and global directory that allows employees to connect with each other to share ideas, expertise, and information. Users can search for colleagues by criteria like job type, experience, or region. It also includes gamification features where users earn points and badges as they carry out tasks within the community, like reaching out to someone new or answering a question.

Each employee completes a profile on Neo with their name, job title, photo, biography, interests, and skills. Once a profile is created, users can join or create groups to connect and communicate. Employees can join both business and personal groups based on similar interests where they can post information such as status updates, documents, articles, and blogs. Each user also has a customized homepage with information that's relevant to that person's business unit as well as company-wide news.

An introduction to the Neo platform is included during orientation and more than 25,000 employees use Neo on a daily or weekly basis. "We've gotten great feedback from employees who enjoy Neo and are asking for new features, like images and charts that they can include with their blog posts," Vekaria says.
And with so many users, it's possible to find answers or get assistance quickly. "For example, I needed something translated into Spanish. I posted the document and asked if someone could translate it for me," she says. "Within four hours a colleague in Mexico sent the translated document back to me."

For business leaders that are introducing a collaboration tool to their organization, Vekaria's advice is to "emphasize the value of the platform." Not everyone is incentivized by badges or points, for example, but "demonstrating how they can help you get your job done and get your name out in the company resonates with many people."

Happy Family Brands stays Nimble
Even smaller teams within large organizations are leveraging collaboration tools. Happy Family Brands is an organic baby-and-toddler food company that was acquired by yogurt giant Groupe Danone in 2013. Although it's owned by a huge conglomerate,Happy Family Brands-which has about 100 employees-still largely operates as a start-up. That means collaboration and communication are critical, particularly when it comes to managing complex tasks like introducing a new product.

Furthermore, because it sells organic products, the company is subject to numerous regulatory, food safety, and quality assurance requirements that must be tracked and satisfied from the ideation stage to the delivery of the product.

Previously, employees communicated about projects mainly through email, phone calls, and Excel spreadsheets, which quickly became untenable. "What we ended up with was a long stream of emails with no easy way to see what the status on a project was," explains Pete Soyer, senior R&D manager at Happy Family Brands.

The packaging team used Basecamp to review and approve art but it wasn't enough to support all of the company's needs, Soyer adds. In 2013, Happy Family Brands selected Redbooth's project management solution. The tool's Timeline view automatically builds and updates charts that display due dates, project statuses, and other information with color codes so that team members can quickly tell which projects are on time or delayed.

One of the solution's strengths is that it's "flexible enough to use across a number of types of projects," Soyer says. "My team in Idaho can use it to manage a product from ideation through post-launch activities," he notes. "But we can also use it to manage package design with the marketing team in New York."

The solution is also beneficial for tracking outside requests and managing internal repeated tasks that are "touched" numerous times by various people, Soyer adds. "When we're developing a new pouch for example, we have a lot of repeated tasks that everyone from regulatory to marketing and art needs to review," Soyer explains. "Now we have a specific place where the master text is posted and everyone can read it and leave comments before we create the finished document and reduce the chances of mistakes."

The company now uses the Redbooth solution to handle updates for internal projects as well as manage relationships with outside partners. In addition to streamlining data updates, Redbooth simplifies collaboration across departments. In fact, most of the organization uses it as a centralized meeting place. "We just upgraded to more seats on Redbooth, because we were over what we had originally contracted for," Soyer says. "Everyone has really gotten on board with this [collaboration solution]. It's integrated as part of the daily workflow, like checking email - the window is open all day, every day."

But just because a product works well for one company, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right fit for other companies. Technology options should be explored only after there is clarity and agreement on the purpose for the digital workplace, write Gartner analysts Carol Rozwell andAchint Aggarwal in a report about digital workplace initiatives. "The question is not "Should we buy SharePoint or Google Apps?" but "How can we employ technology that allows us to better engage with our employees and that makes them more effective?" they note.

Furthermore, the enterprise collaboration market has grown highly competitive with numerous solutions to choose from. Large vendors like Salesforce, Google, IBM, SAP, and Microsoft offer enterprise-focused social platforms. Facebook is also rolling out its own enterprise tool: Facebook at Work. Additionally, startups such as Slack, Prysm, Hipchat, Officevibe, and CoTap are competing with agile and feature-rich solutions aimed at digital workplaces.

In fact, in an earnings call, Jive Software CEO Elisa Steele attributed the company's recent decision to restructure and lay off 14 percent of its workforce as a response to "the constantly changing" enterprise collaboration market.

Indeed, business leaders should take their time when selecting a collaborative solution or any other technology, Soyer advises. "Do a lot of test drives and consider whether the platform has a strong partner ecosystem," he says. "You want something that will help your team today and also in the future so it has to be scalable."