Offices remain one of the most powerful collaboration tools because they allow for real-time, in-person communications with your peers. However, with access to Wi-Fi and the cloud, the traditional office environment is changing. Now, employees can choose to connect and collaborate wherever and whenever they need, regardless of physical location.

Essentially, digital tools make physical location obsolete. This new workplace reality is at the core of the “collaboration paradox.”

As our physical proximity grows apart, we still need to connect back together. Collaboration in non-face-to-face situations isn’t necessarily easy in some cases. There’s still a feeling that ‘face time’ needs to be physical for organizations to collaborate effectively.

Today technology has forced us to adapt to a new work environment where connectivity and bandwidth are the fundamental enabling factors for successful collaboration. At its most basic level, successful collaboration outside of the office means employees cannot feel isolated. Collaboration is about the people, and unless those people are willing, able and motivated to use collaboration tools, they won’t work. There are six key factors that determine whether collaboration technologies will be successful or not:

  1. Comfort Level: Education and reassurance of technology are key to getting employees on-board for technology adoption. If employees do not feel confident that the technology will help them reach their goal, improve productivity or be easy to use, they will not use it. Many employees are uncomfortable with change, so it is important to give them time to get smart and feel comfortable with a technology. This also means planning for people first – not just implementing tools for the sake of tools. Choose technologies that are similar to what employees use today to encourage adoption.
  1. Ease of Use: The harder the technology is to use, the less likely it will be adopted in the workplace. People tend to use collaboration tools based on the expectation that they’ll be easy to set up, easy to access and will allow them to complete the task at hand immediately. Collaboration technologies need to make it easy for people to participate and accomplish goals, provide feedback about how things are going and recognize contribution. They should also enable teams to coalesce around a task and remove the need for rigid structures. Effectively, the technology should become invisible.
  1. Human Connections: The level of familiarity between employees will inevitably have a bearing on how well they collaborate and how rich the collaboration technologies need to be for them to establish ways of working. Teams that know each other well are more likely to ‘fill in the gaps’ even in less rich collaboration technologies. Remote collaboration often gets more effective if the group has come together face-to-face at least once. In situations where the team doesn’t meet face-to-face or know each other well, more sophisticated collaboration technologies like video conferencing can help foster better collaboration and camaraderie.
  1. Demographics: Age, engagement and personality type may also influence attitudes to using collaboration technologies. The most obvious example is the contrast between Generation Y employees (typically considered “digital natives” who are very open collaborators that enjoy using social media and chat to share) and Baby Boomers (who tend to rely on more traditional channels of communication like email and phone as primary collaboration tools). At the same time, introverts and extroverts also have distinct collaboration preferences – the former often prefer the anonymity of more text-based tools while the latter like a good chat on the phone or by video conference. Companies should consider what the make-up of their workforce and find ways to meet these varying needs.
  1. Work Tasks: If the technology fits the needs of the task, then using collaboration technology can produce better decisions and more ideas. However, if the technology is a poor fit, employees will not be as productive. For instance, if the team is working on an innovative task with less clear goals and no clear outcome, the collaboration tools need to be able to support a less structured, knowledge-sharing, multiple-angled approach. But, if it is a decision-making task that requires shared understanding of issues, discussion and consensus-building, technologies that enable more synchronous communication and coordination are more effective. In the same way workers perform different devices for different tasks, there is no one-size-fits-all tool for the collaboration task at hand.
  1. Social influence: The value of technology is rooted in how people use it. If management and the rest of the team are collaborating through a particular set of tools, there will be peer pressure to conform. If virtualized meetings become normal, there will be less pressure to default to face-to-face. Any collaboration technology deployment should have the proper support from management and senior executives to encourage adoption.

Although technology underpins this new world of work, it’s the people and culture of communication that makes collaboration successful. As we move into the future, the tools we use to collaborate are likely to become more and more integrated across multiple technologies. Companies need to acknowledge that face-to-face is important and valuable, while also enabling and encouraging other methods for collaboration.

The traditional office environment will never go away completely. However, as worker expectations and demands shift, companies need to have the right tools in place to establish common ground in the virtual world as well as the physical office.