Socially Distanced, Collaboratively Close

Socially Distanced, Collaboratively Close

The coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we work together, but it’s still possible to virtually co-create in remote settings and build team energy.

  • min read


Socially Distanced, Collaboratively Close

Three months into 2020, the world is a very different place. For some, the personal and professional turmoil caused by Covid-19 has been ongoing for several months, for others, weeks or perhaps just days. It’s uncertain how long this challenging moment will last, so how can we all continue to collaborate and work together?

Not long ago, if there were a five-year strategic plan to rally around, two merged companies to integrate, or new contingency plans to design, the appropriate experts from different parts of an organization would all gather together. Around a conference table or in a hotel ballroom, they’d get to work. Run right, these meetings could foster the collaboration to produce some truly inspired results. They served a critical second purpose as well, a human one. People in the room felt included, part of the process, heard. The best meetings didn’t produce just great solutions, but also the energy and enthusiasm to go out and make them happen.

Without these conversations, thousands of projects and programs can easily get stuck. Teams need answers, ideas and direction. They need to co-create now, but with far-flung participants, to connect, talk, agree and generate the momentum to move forward. The search for solutions—and forward movement—hasn’t paused for a second. Urgency has only increased with Covid-19 and the uncertainty of the economic outlook.

So how do we successfully co-create, virtually?

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How virtual co-creation differs from in-person conversations

 Virtual collaboration faces several challenges:

  • Maintaining the group’s focus and energy. There are more distractions to manage (background noise, incoming emails, deliveries) and more barriers to good conversation (audio delays, buffering, a bad line). Traditional tactics to maintain focus such as physical movement or shifting spaces aren’t available when participants are dialing in from a makeshift home office.
  • Building intimacy. The widely cited psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that nonverbal messages conveyed more than 90% of feelings and attitudes. In virtual collaboration, the body language we use to read the room, correct course and build energy (the nodding heads, the folded arms, the restlessness) are gone. Making do with a stamp-sized image of a colleague on a computer screen can leave us feeling exposed.
  • Managing complex technical logistics. Our tools have to change, and there will be a learning curve for both facilitators and participants with these new virtual, collaborative tools and technologies.

So we cannot simply shift an in-person meeting online. As we rethink how we collaborate, it’s helpful to keep in mind these four guidelines: 

1. Defining the dual intent  

Co-creation has two overarching goals: a content objective (new product ideas, the five-year plan) and a relational objective (aligning a leadership team, establishing trust). When the group achieves both, it leaves with a positive energy that then accelerates successful change. 

  • Design for both objectives. Your product is more than output. It shifts people’s understanding, mindset and energy so that everyone is headed in the same direction and excited about what’s ahead. It helps to be clear about what you hope your colleagues will think, do and feel as a result of the session. Once you have a good picture of those dimensions, they can become the compass guiding the design of the meeting. 
  • Emphasize inclusion. Effective virtual collaborators put significant up-front effort into understanding whom they’ll be working with; knowing the connections that exist among participants and, ideally, who among them should develop new connections; and building a relationship map and plan to maximize participation and promote good results. Through this they demonstrate how important inclusion is and help their colleagues be better heard. 
  • Manage the energy. Try mapping the flow of energy across the workshop or meeting ahead of time. What’s likely to cause excitement? What will cause frustration? Shifting energy is different in virtual settings; the highs are higher, the lows lower, and the transition between them can be longer. Knowing when you can expect these emotional shifts helps you prepare. 

2. Embracing simplicity

The shift in medium changes how people interact. Especially effective leaders of virtual collaboration simplify their design by streamlining their approach, content, participant list and duration. By prioritizing topics, they tighten the time, achieving more by doing less. 

  • Modularize. Fortunately, many of the constraints of in-person meetings (time, travel, cost and logistics) have disappeared. This provides the time, energy and also the motivation to do things differently, an opportunity to rethink the broad parameters of meeting design. Helpful questions to consider include: Where are the new boundaries between sessions? When will we benefit from additional thinking time? 
  • Plan fewer but larger steps. The masters of virtual collaboration aren’t afraid to combine modules into bigger, simpler steps. With a clear map of the journey, participants know where they are and where they’re going. A virtual whiteboard can be used to map the flow in the workspace itself. The journey and destination become one, a visible path keeping people together. 
  • Get a running start and quickly follow up. Participants can engage before they get in the room, doing prework (not just prereading), and coming to the table with something already created. They hit the ground running and with more confidence. A better start always makes for a more productive workshop, and a quicker one. After the session, they can continue to connect using virtual collaboration spaces that allow participants to add ideas, leave questions or open up new lines of conversation. 

3. Building a virtual session fit for this new moment 

Attention is a precious commodity, and in virtual gatherings, time runs out faster than normal. Organizers will want to reduce the duration and increase the number of facilitators; utilize tools and virtual collaboration platforms; and set aside time to do a dry run beforehand. An effective way to hold attention is to create energy and move more quickly—less is more. 

  • Design within tighter constraints and different rules. The most effective virtual meetings last under four hours, and individual activities under 45 minutes. Three core facilitators can harmoniously keep this on track. The first manages overall facilitation, leading the conversation and guiding the participants; the second manages the energy and corrects course as needed; and the third “curates” the virtual collaboration space. These whiteboards can get quite messy and important content erased, so it needs constant caretaking. You may want to add one facilitator for every additional virtual breakout. 
  • Cautiously experiment with interactivity. Numerous digital tools are available. Conduct virtual breakouts on Zoom; use virtual whiteboards with movable “stickies” and voting dots on Miro, Mural or Stormboard; engage in conversations with the organization by listening to employees with Waggl or Remesh. Veterans advocate designing the session first, then picking the tools that will best deliver your design, and avoid overcomplicating the technology; it will take time to get up to speed. 
  • Rehearse the flow. A detailed facilitation map clarifies who does what and when, and rehearsals identify potential trouble spots. For every hour you would have spent planning a live event, expect to spend two preparing for a virtual session.
  • Welcome experimentation. In the current circumstances, people are willing to experiment with little fear of failure or embarrassment. There are very few experts in this new mode of working, so we’re all prone to mistakes and therefore much more willing to accept something less than perfect. That may mean we need to lower expectations a bit, but everyone’s willingness to make it work is very positive and something worth leaning into. The results can be surprising.

4. Humanizing the experience

In traditional settings, nonverbal cues and moments on the margins make it easier to establish human connections. Designers of virtual collaboration look for opportunities to add a human touch. Interactive features like polling and chat stimulate discussion, and encouraging humor helps. 

  • Acknowledge what’s different. This is new for most of us, and everyone will benefit from establishing clear ground rules such as using mute when not speaking, introducing yourself before contributing and not multitasking. Celebrate kids, dogs, deliveries and other unexpected interruptions. 
  • Encourage visibility. The ability to observe cues from facial expressions and posture heightens engagement and team connectivity, so keep your computer cameras on. It also limits multitasking. A grid view connects the whole group, and it’s worth asking yourself whether each slide really needs to be presented. 
  • Cultivate intimacy. There are ways to create opportunities for small group interactions to open up the dialogue, including virtual breakouts like Zoom’s built-in breakout functionality. This can be a great way to manage energy and foster inclusion, while helping individuals be heard.

Deeply challenging, uncertain and worrying, these times require flexibility and new thinking, which includes reimagining how we collaborate virtually. While far from easy, this process will almost certainly lead to a tremendous amount of innovation and new behavior.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

Related Insights


The global Covid-19 pandemic has extracted a terrible human toll and spurred sweeping changes in the world economy. Across industries, executives have begun reassessing their strategies and repositioning their companies to thrive now and in the world beyond coronavirus.

Kevin Murphy is a Bain & Company partner in the Results Delivery® practice. Tim Leonard is an expert principal in Results Delivery and Bain’s Co-creation Approach. Pete Gerend is an expert vice president focused on leadership and teams. All are based in Bain’s office in Washington, D.C.