Digital technologies have fundamentally changed the way we communicate and collaborate. And the transformation is continuing. Thanks to the new forms of digital communication, we’re becoming increasingly flexible, agile, and networked. At the same time, however, personal contact still provides tremendous benefits today. So, what does the ideal approach to collaboration look like in the future working world?
Most companies today cannot imagine doing without videoconferences, chat programs, and document storage in the cloud. Early on, digitalization started playing a very strong role in these areas.
Sharing information and collaborating better keep getting easier, even across continents. However, some people also lament the loss of the slower, less complicated times when they still had to be brief on long-distance calls and letters took days to be delivered. The criticism that we’ve all heard is that the new communication tools are too impersonal, too much information is being communicated, and too often outside of working hours.
As a company with global sites, we at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany use many modern communication options and always take a close look at where and how we can use them sensibly. We’re basically curious about everything that helps our employees work together better. However, not every new thing is good.
Collaborating regardless of location
We have launched the “mywork” initiative to create a framework for the new options that is supported by the employee representatives. With “mywork” we have replaced the pure presence culture of earlier days. For employees whose jobs permit working from home or working remotely, we have created a flexible option for results-oriented working. The respective departments have the freedom to organize themselves. Four out of five employees who are eligible to take part in the working model are using “MyWork” today.
The trend towards home offices and remote working is simply a logical step because the digital possibilities make physical separation less relevant. Wherever Internet access is available, our employees can collaborate independently of their location. Since digital information can be duplicated as desired, it can also be shared. When communication is possible regardless of an employee’s location, it is easier to build interdisciplinary teams and bring the relevant experts together depending on the project. However, collaboration goes far beyond that. Today we can also involve customers, suppliers, and partners as we wish.
Not only is communication possible, but physical steps can also be made independent of location with new digital technologies. The keywords in this case are robotics, virtual reality, and 3D printing. With these technologies, experts on one side of the world can combine their skills with colleagues on the other side. For example, when a developer in Germany designs a computer model, with just a few mouse clicks he or she can send it to China, where someone else sends it to a 3D printer and further develops the idea.
Most new forms of collaboration combine a few significant benefits for the work process. They are agile and flexible, mobile, and independent of location, and they promote networking and improve the work-life balance, provided that they are used properly. Thanks to these benefits, new forms of collaboration, interdisciplinary teams, and external expertise offer tremendous opportunities for boosting our innovative power.
Personal interaction is irreplaceable
In critical situations, such as contract negotiations or delicate performance reviews, I would nevertheless still give preference to the classic face-to-face meeting. Direct personal interaction is irreplaceable. The other parties’ perceptions are less “filtered” as a result. Even if videoconferencing were used, not being in the same location means that all involved persons have a more difficult time assessing the gestures, facial expressions, and thus the mood of the other parties because the information “between the lines” is lost.
So how should we handle the various new forms of collaboration? In my opinion, the ideal solution is to combine the best of both worlds. The communication tools must always fit the requirements of the specific situation and the current project. If I cannot personally travel to China, then I must do more than just arrange the best possible videoconference; before and after the videoconference takes place, I must also ensure that the personal elements of communication that are so important are not neglected.
Oftentimes, it’s not necessarily true that digital media are impersonal. After all, a videoconference is still more personal than a phone call. And the digital collaboration tool used by our company can lead to contacts with colleagues that would never come about via the department’s bulletin board.
One example of successful interaction between traditional and new options for collaboration is our Innovation Center in Darmstadt. We have created the Innovation Center to be a place of encounter that is open, inclusive, and functional. We want to offer our researchers the ideal conditions for further developing ideas, no matter whether in face-to-face meetings or using our collaboration tools.
As is so often the case, the new digital possibilities are neither good nor bad per se, but it depends on how sensibly we use them.