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Understanding collaboration equity and hybrid work: Part 1

Definitions and best practices for getting started in your organization

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Author photo: Christina Scannapiego

Christina Scannapiego

Director, Content Marketing

Consider this: How many great questions and brilliant ideas go unheard when remote workers don’t have the same meeting access as onsite participants? And how many valued employees are frustrated, even discouraged by everyday barriers to effective communication?

These are just two of the concerns that demand attention in our new, more complex business landscape. And in response, organizations are rethinking the way people work together.

Google is addressing this challenge with solution strategies that focus on “collaboration equity” — a concept that has emerged and evolved over the past year. As part of our ongoing discussion around the future of work and hybrid/distributed work, we’re doing a deeper dive into the whole subject, with a series of articles exploring collaboration from different angles, including its benefits, challenges and the tactics you need to know about.

Beginning with some definitions.

What is “collaboration equity?”

Google raised the subject of collaboration equity this past Spring (2020) at the same time that it rolled out enhancements to its Google Workspace productivity suite. The brand described it as, “the ability to contribute equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, and device preference.”

In 2020, working remotely seemed like a temporary, emergency situation. Just something to cope with until everyone could get back to the office. But as we’ve chatted about before, it’s now clear that many organizations — including Copper — will never go back to a purely onsite model. Some plan to be fully remote, while others are developing a hybrid approach, mixing in-person and virtual workspaces. Among our own customers, we found in a recent survey that nearly 35% plan to follow a hybrid work model next year, while almost 25% plan to stay remote permanently.

As business leaders began to think seriously about the ongoing need for collaboration equity, the conversation evolved.

Javier Soltero (Vice President and General Manager for Google Workspace) wrote, "Let’s admit it: the challenges that business leaders face in this new and ever-evolving hybrid era of work cannot be remedied with technology alone. While technology can help bridge gaps in new working models, we also need solutions beyond technology for the personal and cultural gaps in physical and virtual contexts to make collaboration more inclusive and human. The changes in dynamics of the new modern workplace go well beyond what wifi connectivity and videoconferencing can solve, with far-reaching effects on workers’ sense of value and belonging in a company."

Looking at the whole picture

Collaboration equity will look and feel different for every organization. From the size of your company, to the breakdown of in-person vs. remote workers, the type of work you’re doing, the geographical distribution of employees and company goals and values — there are numerous factors to consider. It’s important for individual companies to create their own framework for collaboration equity.

Here’s one way of viewing individual components related to collaboration equity:

  • Situational equity is achieved by balancing onsite and remote access, as well as making it easier to collaborate across different time zones and work schedules.
  • Technical equity ensures that everyone has the same opportunity to participate in collaboration processes — which means giving employees the right tools, the necessary skills and plenty of support.
  • Participation equity derives from communication and interaction structures that work for everyone, accommodating different roles and different levels of experience.

Taken together, these aspects touch on nearly every part of the typical organization, from IT to HR. And while there’s no single path to achieving collaboration equity, and no silver bullet that will bring about an instant transformation, there is a growing body of insight and advice to help guide your efforts.

Collaboration equity best practices for a remote or hybrid work landscape

Javier Soltero describes three fundamental lessons, drawn from Google’s own transformation efforts and from the experience of companies implementing Google Workspace.

  1. Human connection is more important than ever, but achieving this in the hybrid workplace requires the adoption of new norms. For many organizations, according to Soltero, the emphasis should be on rethinking meeting structures from the ground up, rather than just changing platforms or tinkering around the edges. That’s true for other types of communication as well.
  2. Flexibility is the key to managing time and attention. Soltero advises companies to create a “social contract” that acknowledges employees’ unique working circumstances. For this to succeed, however, leaders at all levels must embrace new norms and lead by example. (More on flexibility at work here)
  3. Work is no longer defined by a physical space; company security shouldn’t be defined by physical barriers either. Although security hasn’t been talked about a lot in terms of collaboration equity, Soltero believes that security concerns are often a barrier to creating new ways of working. And since establishing new security norms requires getting rid of the old ones, outdated procedures (like installing applications on local devices and emailing files for collaboration) need to go.

The theme that cuts across all those lessons is stepping out of the old familiar, and into a new, better way of working — which basically means leaving our collective comfort zone. And since that’s never easy, there has to be a good reason for the effort.

In our next article, we’ll dive into some strategic benefits of collaboration equity, as well as a few issues to consider.

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