3 Essentials for Effective Teams in a Digital World

Categories leadership

Once upon a time, working on a team meant you worked in the same building, bumped into one other in the hallway, and swapped ideas while fighting for the last good donut at the coffee machine. However, the way we work has fundamentally changed. Our working environment is defined by shared digital space more than a physical one.

Even if you and your colleagues officially work in the same building, as often as not, you are sitting in a cafe or logging in from the road. And, even when you are in fact working down the hall from one another, communication and collaboration are conducted through that ethereal reality we call “the cloud.” So, how does a team set itself up to work effectively and collaboratively in a digital and distributed working environment?

I don’t know what your team is like, but let me tell you about mine and what we have put into place. I lead an executive team of highly gifted people who live in five different states. We are responsible to give leadership to 15 teams and more than 150 staff and volunteers who are spread across the USA and Europe and who travel worldwide.

In the past year, I believe we have cracked the code. We are still refining and adapting our work styles, but I think we have discovered the way. What I found is that, in order to thrive, every team working in a digital space–and I think that’s pretty much everybody–needs three types of collaborative space.

1. A Watercooler ………..

WatercoolerThat informal unstructured place where random conversations and ideation can take place.

When people share a common workspace, the Watercooler or coffee machine or break room becomes one of the most important pieces of productivity real estate in your entire enterprise.

The water cooler represents that gathering place for spontaneous connection, for relationship building, and for catalytic ideation. You know the conversations. “Hey Marie, can I run a wild idea by you?” “Jason, I’m working on that city project and I wondered if you could put your eyes on the latest design concept.” “Tricia, how is that funding effort going? Is there anything my team can do to support you?”

At the Watercooler, 2-3 minute conversations catapult hair-brained schemes into breakthrough ideas. They build relational conduits across which collaborative horsepower travels. They build shared ownership in projects and progress beyond your immediate portfolio of responsibilities.

A digital working world needs an alternative to the traditional Watercooler. Some teams have used private Facebook pages. Everyone uses email and text. However, these linear conversations reduce every contribution to the same volume. Everything lands on our screen in a way that is not easily sorted or referenced.

Enter the world of Apps. My team has used a couple products over time, but we needed something more. We needed the ability to curate and create threaded conversations as well as direct personal messaging. And we needed it in a simple format. Our solution has been to use Slack and it is outstanding. We use it on our mobile devices as well as our desktops. Slack allows us to curate threaded conversations around multiple themes as well as direct messaging. We can embed and add links to anything digital right in the app.

But this isn’t a commercial for Slack or anything else, the real question is whether you have discovered and begun using a Watercooler for your team?

2. A Filing Cabinet ………..

Filing CabinetEvery member of your team needs real-time access to the files, resources, and “tools” that support the work you do together. And, they need that access 24/7 regardless of where they happen to be working.

Some of what your team needs access to are documents or projects currently in motion; operational, financial, and historical records; customer focused resources; artwork; communication and marketing tools; and more.

In a former era, that kind of stuff was stored as hardcopy in hanging file folders spread across large banks of filing cabinets. When needed you would walk down the hallway search through large file drawers and pull it out.

The physical filing cabinet has been replaced with a digital one. The question is, is it set up and accessible to your team? Can anyone get to those resources at any time from any location?

Cloud-based options are growing every week. The list is too long to worry about here. I actually use more than one. But, for the work of my team, we have chosen to use Evernote as our preferred filing cabinet. For the work we do, Evernote gives us the flexibility, searchability, and multi-platform accessibility that best fits the work we do.

What matters is not only choosing one that will work well for you but then helping your people develop mastery with it.

3. A Scoreboard ………..


Every team needs a vehicle that helps them track and even celebrate progress on goals, projects, and core tasks–aka. “keep score.” Executed well, your scoreboard will help your team stay focused on what actually needs to get done.

In the old world of the shared hallway version of project management, companies posted sales charts, project management timelines, even the old “thermometer” of progress. Everyone could see where you were at in a glance. Or, people could simply lean into someone’s office and ask how things were going.

But, when people are working remotely via laptop or smartphone as often as they are at their desk, how do you help them stay on point, solve problems collaboratively, or even celebrate small victories?

At a baseball game, anyone in the stands can look up at the scoreboard and in a flash find a boatload of information. What inning? How many outs? Batting average, RBIs, and current count on the batter? Status of the game in hits, runs, errors for each team? and more. The digital equivalent of a scoreboard gives your team the ability to find the status of multiple crucial factors in one place and at any time.

There are scads of digital tools designed to help your team work effectively in a digital space. You actually need to experiment to find what works with your team culture and the nature of your work. Some are more robust than others, but robust capacity usually means a steeper learning curve. Some are visually dynamic than others. Some offer better collaboration and access than others. What matters is not which one you choose, but that you have chosen and equipped your people to work effectively in one environment that works well for you. We have chosen and are actively working to develop personal and collaborative mastery with Asana.

Let me just say, searching for the perfect solution is a wild goose chase. The solution you can make work for you is the solution.

Your Thoughts?

  • What have you discovered?
  • What works and what doesn’t?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *